A Different Aria

Anniversary

By David Bartal

Published September 19, 2007, issue of September 21, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Anne Sofie von Otter, one of the world’s greatest mezzo-sopranos, has just unveiled an unexpected, and very personal, project: a record of music by Jewish composers confined in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

The record is in part a tribute to the mezzo-soprano\'s father, a diplomat who warned the Swedish government about the Nazi genocide.
The record is in part a tribute to the mezzo-soprano\'s father, a diplomat who warned the Swedish government about the Nazi genocide.

The Swedish opera singer first conceived of the unusual project when she sang at a forum on the Holocaust in Stockholm in the year 2000. For the event, The Terezin Chamber Music Foundation, which was established in Israel, had provided her with a selection of lullabies, art songs and songs in the Jewish folk tradition, all created by camp inmates. But as it turns out, for decades the mezzo-soprano has had a deep commitment to remembering the Holocaust — and a personal connection to it: Her father, Swedish diplomat Göran von Otter, warned the Swedish government about the ongoing Nazi genocide during the war, but his warning fell on deaf ears.

According to historians, Baron von Otter, secretary to the Swedish Legation in Berlin, had learned horrific details about the mass killing of Jews when he shared a compartment on a train in August 1942 with SS officer Kurt Gerstein. As head of the Technical Disinfection Department of the Waffen SS, Gerstein was charged with improving the efficiency of the gas chambers by using the toxic agent Zyklon-B.The Nazi officer unburdened his soul to von Otter during the night-long train ride to Berlin from Warsaw.

“This was news to my father. He didn’t know about the death camps, but at the (Swedish) Foreign Ministry they did, apparently,” Anne Sofie von Otter told Sveriges Radio, the national public radio channel. “Nothing came of it.”

“I know that my father was troubled for the rest of his life, because no action was taken,” she said. “One can do this project for its own sake, but I am also doing it a little bit in memory of my papa.”

The Theresienstadt concentration camp — or Terezin, in its Czech name — was used as a sort of propaganda showcase for the Nazi regime. Much of the Jewish cultural and intellectual elite of Central Europe was forced to live in the camp, located about 60 kilometers north of Prague. The first deportees to arrive were the Czechs, followed later by many German, Austrian and Dutch Jews. Although their cultural activities were first conducted underground, the artists’ activities were made legitimate at the start of 1944. Plays, operas, operettas and cabarets were performed for other camp inmates and visitors, including inspectors from the International Red Cross. Behind the false facade, the starving inmates were struggling to survive. Most of the Theresienstadt composers were eventually deported to Auschwitz and murdered.

The songs on the von Otter recording express a number of emotions, ranging from the melancholy and reflective to the romantic. The first track, by Ilse Weber, “Ich Wander Durch Theresienstadt” (“I Wander Through Theresienstadt”), sounds surprisingly upbeat, but the lyrics are heartbreaking: “I stand there on the bridge/and look down in the valley: I’d so much like to go farther, I’d so much like to go home.” The composer reportedly sang another of her songs, “Wiegala” (“Lullaby”), together with children she accompanied to the gas chamber at Auschwitz.

Deemed by their Nazi captors to be “subhumans,” the composers of Theresienstadt defended their humanity and adherence to a European cultural tradition. Several of their songs evoke a sense of longing and homesickness. One can also hear echoes of the desire to escape from the horrors of the present in “Wir Reiten auf Hölzernen Pferden” (“We’re Riding on Wooden Horses”), with music by Martin Roman. The lyrics are a reference to happy childhood memories of riding on carousels. Among the Theresienstadt artists featured on von Otter’s record, which was released by Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Music, are Karel Svenk, Adolf Strauss, Hans Krása, Carlo Sigmund Taube, Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas and Erwin Schulhoff.

In the notes accompanying the review copy of the new album, a statement by composer and conductor Ullmann (murdered 1944 in Auschwitz) sums up the spirit of the doomed musicians: “We did not simply sit down by the rivers of Babylon and weep but evinced a desire to produce art that was entirely commensurate with our will to live.”

David Bartal is an American journalist based in Stockholm, Sweden.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • 13 Israeli soldiers die in Gaza — the deadliest day for the IDF in decades. So much for 'precision' strikes and easy exit strategies.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.