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!
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • This 007 hates guns, drives a Prius, and oh yeah — goes to shul with Scarlett Johansson's dad.
  • Meet Alvin Wong. He's the happiest man in America — and an observant Jew. The key to happiness? "Humility."
  • "My first bra was a training bra, a sports bra that gave the illusion of a flat chest."
  • "If the people of Rwanda can heal their broken hearts and accept the Other as human, so can we."
  • Aribert Heim, the "Butcher of Mauthausen," died a free man. How did he escape justice?
  • This guy skipped out on seder at his mom's and won a $1 million in a poker tournament. Worth it?
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. http://jd.fo/a3BvD Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • 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.