In the Opera Halls of Terezin

Armed with only an abandoned piano and small suitcase of musical scores, Rafael Schachter defied the Nazis at Terezin in the only way he knew how: through his music. This week, his Defiant Requiem is revived in New York City.

When Rafael Schachter found a piano in an abandoned warehouse somewhere in Terezin, the very earth seemed to tremble with possibilities.

Schachter – pianist, composer, conductor, and a graduate of the Prague Conservatory – had arrived in the Terezin concentration camp in November 1941 on Transport H-128, with a suitcase that had held few possessions aside from his piano scores: "The Bartered Bride," "The Marriage of Figaro," "Die Fledermaus." And among these Czech and German romantic comedies, Schachter had packed one serious misfit: Giuseppe Verdi’s tempestuous "Requiem," an opera set to the Catholic funeral mass entirely in Latin.

Schachter’s discovery of a piano was transformative. Suddenly, he had a taste of normalcy and a home for his musical scores. Relying on both Nazi guards’ oversights and on Terezin’s centuries-old fortress walls thick enough to muffle sound, Schachter began playing in the evenings, inviting other inmates along and encouraging them to sing Czech popular songs in a secret choir.

“He realized that the way we live, closed behind gates, not moving outside of barracks – we would develop a prison mentality,” Schachter’s close friend Edgar Krasa, aTerezin survivor, tells me. We sit in New York’s sun-lit Avery Fisher Hall; inside the concert hall, conductor Murry Sidlin leads a final rehearsal of this week’s performance of Verdi’s "Requiem" in commemoration of Schachter’s Terezin performances, titled "The Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin." All proceeds from the performance, which was sponsored by the UJA-Federation of New York, along with The Defiant Requiem Foundation and Selfhelp Community Services, Inc., went to the UJA-Federation’s Community Initiative for Holocaust Survivors.

When I sit down with Sidlin, in the flurry of a backstage break during rehearsals, he corrects me when I call the performance a memorial.

“I wouldn’t call it a memorial. It’s a way of celebrating the courage of Terezin prisoners, that they chose hope and dignity as their way of fighting,” he says. “They had faith. People often ask, how could people in a concentration camp look around and claim that God was with them? The Terezin prisoners said, in singing: ‘God was with us, but where was man?’ Their song was the Jews’ way of saying to the Nazis: your time will come, God will punish you. Now, they can’t say that in a prison camp – but they can sing it.”

Strains of Mozart in the ash-filled air

Within a few months after discovering the piano in Terezin, Schachter’s choir grew – men and women, inmates who had never performed before, some who had never even seen an opera before, were clamoring to study with Schachter in the evenings after days of hard labor. And the studies were slow and painstaking. “For every opera we produced, he only had one vocal score, so everybody had to learn it by memory,” Krasa says, raising his right hand. “He took the singers into the old gymnasium and invited others to listen in the evenings. This singing, it brought us tremendous spiritual uplifting. It helped us forget where we were ... it was a reminder of something else.”

Fearing collective punishment if discovered, the Jewish elders approached the S.S. camp commandant, hoping to receive explicit permission to continue their performances. “They said to the commandant, ‘Why would you want to punish these people? Look how much talent is in this town. There were artists, scientists, why don’t you think of a plan to produce a program by which you can show the world how well you treat the Jews?’ And the commandant decided to allow it.”

Schachter managed to produce several operas with a single piano and a single vocal score, quickly becoming a celebrity in the camp, alongside the other extraordinary cultural activities for which Terezin is most famous for. Enter any Shoah museum, open any history book, and you’ll find poems about the butterflies that didn’t fly in Terezin, children’s drawings of the Prague homes they had left behind. A secret synagogue had been organized and painted with Torah verses yearning for Jerusalem, and every evening offered lectures by professors on the sciences, on history and philosophy, to hundreds of starving inmates. Schoolteachers had even gathered the children into a school system of sorts; paintings were painted, poetry was written, and songs were sung. Despite an earlier ban on all musical instruments in Jewish homes, inmates had still managed to smuggle musical instruments onto transports into Terezin. In the evenings, the basements and attics were full of Jewish musicians rehearsing their final performances – not far from the crematorium, one could walk through the camp and hear soft strains of Mozart.

Requiem for a dreamer

Schachter introduced his choir to the score of Verdi’s "Requiem" in July 1943.

“Nobody could convince him to give it up, he was obsessed,” Krasa says, sighing. “In his mind, Schachter thought he transformed the mass for the dead to a mass for dead Nazis. You know what it is about, yes, the Catholics’ funeral mass?” He points toward the ceiling and says, “It’s the Day of Wrath, when the Supreme Judge will sit in judgment, and no sinner will escape. Everybody tried to convince him not to do it – if the Germans found out why he was doing this opera, they might shoot him and deport the whole choir. And some of the elders thought he was wrong to do it – how could a Jewish choir sing a Catholic service?”

But Schachter had grown fixated on his choir singing a mass for the death of the Nazis. He trained his choir feverishly for months, night after night practicing with four soloists in addition to the hundreds of other choir members, having them memorize the Latin verses until it was up to his standard. “And his standard was very high,” Krasa smiles. “He had his choir perform the opera fifteen times, but each time he had fewer singers because the deportations to Auschwitz kept going.”

After 15 performances, Schachter retired the opera, with his choir of 200 now down to 60. But during the International Red Cross’ visit to Terezin in October 1944, the S.S. commandant asked Schachter if his choir could perform Verdi one more time, as the delegation’s evening entertainment. “Rafael never imagined he’d perform in Latin, that he’d get the chance to say ‘You will be punished’ to the enemy itself. He was in seventh heaven.”

And so Schachter gathered his choir for their final act, in what was probably the most ironic performance in the history of opera, material for a libretto plot itself: Jewish concentration camp inmates singing a Catholic funeral mass for their enemy audience. A few weeks later, Schachter and his remaining choir members were deported to Auschwitz on transport Er-943; Schachter was killed upon arrival. Edgar Krasa survived, spending time in Auschwitz and Gliwice, finally escaping a death march and hiding in a forest until the arrival of the Red Army in January 1945.

This week’s New York performance of Requiem brims with that same irony, that same desperate defiance of 1944. Krasa and I enter the concert hall just as the soloists turn to "Lacrimosa," one of the most famous melodies of the opera. The orchestra swells, Sidlin’s hand movements turn slow and espressivo, and the mezzo-soprano opens with “Lacrimosa dies illa”: “Tearful shall be that day, on which from ashes shall arise, the guilty man to be judged: Therefore, O God, have mercy on him.”

This is no melancholy Chopin etude, no soulful Itzhak Perlman violin that we’ve grown to associate with the Holocaust, but a strikingly passionate requiem, a chorus determined to be remembered – as if Terezin’s own voices have quietly joined in.

Chloe Apple Seldman/Michael Priest Photography