Come to the Thereisenstadt Cabaret

"Sixty years later - please welcome Karel Schwenk - the king of the Terezin ghetto cabaret!" With this pronouncement, researcher and musician Kobi Luria concludes the liner notes of the new disk he has edited and produced.

"Sixty years later - please welcome Karel Schwenk - the king of the Terezin ghetto cabaret!" With this pronouncement, researcher and musician Kobi Luria concludes the liner notes of the new disk he has edited and produced. It features music that has been performed only a few times in history, that was never documented in music notes, and was never recorded. The music has until now been preserved only in memories: it is the bitter-comic cabaret music of the inmates of the Terezin ghetto.

The songs of the new disk - "Ghetto Terezin Cabaret Songs" - include the "Senorita" tango, a protest song in gospel style called "Black Jim," a biting satire of the ghetto called "There's a Hole in the Science," and the lyrical and multiple-entendre "Farewell Song." These and many other songs are sung on the disk by the survivors, members of the original cabaret troupe from the ghetto, whose leader Karel Schwenk dubbed them - "The Lost Talents Club of Terezin Ghetto."

The story of Terezin, a small city in northern Bohemia that is not far from Prague, seems to grow more astonishing with every retelling. After its occupation by the Nazis in World War II, its name was changed - a normal Nazi practice - to the distinctly German-sounding Thereisenstadt. There, in 1942, they established a large ghetto, integrating it into a network of ghettoes that served as collection points and transit stations for displaced Jews on their way to the death camps.

Essentially, the ghetto was no different from the others - subhuman living conditions that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of occupants through hunger, disease and murder. The majority of those who managed to survive its terrors - over 90,000 people - received only a brief respite, and were sent on to Auschwitz. Nevertheless, the Terezin ghetto was different in several ways from other ghettoes created by the Germans.

Swan song

"In the first months of the establishment of the Thereisenstadt ghetto, executions were held, in response to minor violations," says Luria, who probed the history of the ghetto for the purpose of writing a play about its cabaret theater. "But then, apparently after the head of the community announced that he did not wish to be present at any more hangings, and as far as he was concerned they could execute him as well - the practice was stopped. There was no abuse, and the inmates were able to handle the heavy labor. It was a ghetto, but with all of the trappings of a concentration camp - the good sides of a concentration camp, as absurd as that might sound. In other words - a regular supply of food and equipment.

"Gradually, and partly due to the well-developed Yiddish culture of the Czech Jews, an extensive artistic life began to blossom. There were also cabaret performances in the ghettos of Warsaw, Lodz and Krakow. The paradox is that the Germans did not object to it; it is well-known that the sadistic commander of the Vilna Ghetto, a young fellow who loved jazz, would arrange for jazz sessions with the Jewish prisoners while at the same time having their friends executed. In Terezin, on the other hand, the Germans had an interest in cultivating the artistic activity as a means of masking the true condition of the Jews in ghettos."

And so, behind the ghetto fences, a swan song such has never been heard before began to be heard. Alongside extreme human suffering, and under the shadow of death, operas and concerts were staged, orchestras and choruses were formed, authors and poets and playwrights wrote, and painters painted. Research into the art of Terezin is extremely popular now, and the music of the great classical composers who were active there, and were sent to Auschwitz, is now assuming a place of honor in concerts and recordings: Works of Terezin by Pavel Haas, the pupil of Leos Janecek; Hans Krasa, who was a student of the French composer Albert Roussel; Gideon Klein, a young composer and the forceful musical spirit in the camp; Victor Ullmann, composer of the opera "Der Kaiser von Atlantis," which combined jazz, paraphrases from the boycotted music of Mahler and Brecht, and grotesque versions of the standards of German music - Beethoven and Brahms, and even the anthem "Deutschland uber Alles."

The story of Karel Schwenk and the cabaret he established in Terezin, however, is almost unknown, and his cabaret songs remain forgotten. This music has been engaging the energies of Kobi Luria for nearly a decade.

Last refuge of the soul

Luria is a Middle East studies scholar by training, and by vocation a lyricist and composer. Among other works, he has written texts for Matti Caspi and Sasha Argov for the album "Mattityahu and Alexander" (among them, "Close of Day," and "I Would Have Waited for Summer"), translated plays for Habima and Bet Tzi, wrote satire in Al Hamishmar and Davar, and won the Gold Feather prize for his comedy, "The Dybbuk Strikes Again."

When Luria heard about the compositions of Karel Schwenk, the cabaret artist of Terezin, he was enchanted. One by one, he reconstructed Schwenk's songs from the narratives of the survivors, aided by research conducted in Czech museums, the Beit Terezin archive and Yad Vashem, both in Israel. "That is how the notes and words were accumulated together, and 13 complete songs written by Schwenk were collected," he says. "They were reconstructed in the spirit of the original, after gathering evidence and arduous comparative work."

Born in Prague in 1917, Schwenk was deported to Terezin at about the time of the ghetto's establishment, in November 1941. As a versatile theatrical and musical artist, he was then at the start of his artistic career, and the encounter with young gifted musicians like him, who arrived in transports to the camp, spurred him to establish a theater. His colleagues can now be heard singing on the disc: Miriam-Manka Alter, Ruth Eliaz; Michal Efrat; Peter Erben; Shmuel Bloch; Uri Bass; Eva Lukash; and Greta Klingsberg. Other performers on the disk, such as Eva Erben, who was then only a girl of 12, heard the songs from the audience seats, and helped in the reconstruction work.

"Culture in the shadow of death, as the last refuge of the soul - that is the subject that is so enthralling to me," says Luria. "When you research the Terezin ghetto, you find everything - from operas to a soccer league in which the goaltender of the national Czech team played." He pulls open a file containing dozens of items from plays staged by the ghetto theater - tickets, posters, invitations, virtuoso drawings, caricatures and clever texts, in breathtaking calligraphy.

"Here is Gogol's `The Marriage,' with scenery by the greatest Czech artist. And here is Puccini's `Tosca' and the `Esther" composed by the only classical composer to survive, Karel Reiner; and here is a poster for the children's opera `Brundibar' by Krasa, and `Carousel' with the `Ghetto Swingers,' to the music of Martin Roman. Before he was captured and sent there, Roman played in Amsterdam with Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Lionel Hampton. The play was directed by Kurt Gerron, a German superstar who sang `Mack the Knife' at the Weill and Brecht premiere, and acted with Marlene Deitrich in `Der Blau Angel.' All of Czech and German culture was active there."

Luria turns on his laptop, which contains numerous personal testimonies. "The weaker the Germans grew, the greater was their interest in publicizing what was happening in the ghetto, and integrating it in the saga of denial that they waged to conceal the true fate of the Jews," he says. "Therefore, the Nazis decided to film a propaganda film about the ghetto, called `The Fuehrer Gives Jews a City.' The film was never completed, and only excerpts of it remain."

Chaplin in the ghetto

Parts of the film, in which the ghetto can be seen, flash across Luria's computer screen: Karel Ancerl, later the conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, can be seen - his sharp-angled face and noble gestures, familiar from concerts in which he conducted the pianist Glenn Gould - conducting the ghetto orchestra, with the audience filled with people wearing yellow patches, their faces fallen; and a short excerpt of a play that suggests the famous haircut scene in the Chaplin film, "Modern Times." "That is Schwenk himself," says Luria, smiling, "one of the only photographs of him that remains. I'm certain that he had seen `Modern Times,' and the Nazis had no idea what lay behind the tribute he was making here to that anti-Hitler film."

Schwenk wrote and staged plays and revues in the ghetto, including "Long Live Life" and "Everything Goes" - a pungent satire, saturated with his humanist communist worldview. Three years after his arrival, Schwenk was dispatched to Auschwitz in the final transports. There he was placed in the family camp, and was then transferred to a labor camp.

Schwenk did not return from the death march in 1945, but the stories about him, filled with the enormous admiration of the survivors, have not faded. When he began research for his play, time after time Luria came up against Schwenk's name, nothing of which remains aside from memories, and decided to redeem his music from oblivion. In his study, he was aided by writer Ruth Bondi; the Terezin House museum at Kibbutz Givat Haim, which acted as coproducer; composer and pianist Moshe Zorman, who adapted most of the songs and performs in all of them - and the survivors of the ghetto themselves, who after 60 years once again voice the sounds of the Terezin cabaret.