Conductor Recreates Requiem of Musical Defiance

By Max Gross

Published August 22, 2003, issue of August 22, 2003.
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Conductor Murry Sidlin was browsing through a table of used, tattered books when he discovered a slender book about the Terezin concentration camp that told an unusual musical story. According to the book, Terezin held a disproportionate number of artists and intellectuals. One inmate — Rafael Schachter of Prague — organized a chorus of prisoners. This chorus performed Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem 16 times between 1943 and 1944 — a feat which, for Sidlin, struck a particularly poignant chord.

After three years of research, trips to Israel, Boston, the Czech Republic and New York, interviews with survivors and rehearsals with the Oregon Symphony and the chorus of the Portland Opera, Sidlin has produced “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin,” part-concert, part-documentary, that will be airing on 150 different public broadcasting stations across the country on August 27.

“It’s a concert drama,” Sidlin said in an interview with the Forward. “It tells the story of Schachter… as he taught [the requiem], produced it, conducted it.” In the 90-minute film, Sidlin recreates the chorus using members of the Portland Opera company and intersperses pieces of the history of Terezin in between the movements of the Verdi masterpiece.

Little had been written about the Terezin chorus when Sidlin began investigating, and he had a tough time finding survivors who remembered Schachter. He posted a message on a survivor’s Web site asking for anyone who remembered the Terezin chorus. His first breakthrough came when Schachter’s niece, who was living in Israel, contacted him. Her mother told Sidlin about a survivor, Edgar Krasa, who was living in the Boston area. Sidlin phoned Krasa and asked him if the name Rafael Schachter meant anything to him.

“Well,” came the reply from Krasa, “I named my first born child” after him.

Sidlin started to perspire.

Krasa then proceeded to open up an entire world to Sidlin. He told Sidlin about the shouting matches between Schachter and the Council of Jewish Elders, the nominal Jewish governing body at the concentration camp, whose members were convinced that Schachter’s chorus could only lead to trouble. After the council instructed Schachter to disband his group, Schachter assembled the chorus together. “He said, ‘My intentions are to go ahead with this,’” Sidlin said, recounting the story told to him by Krasa. But Schachter offered to let chorus members opt out of the chorus if they wished. All 150 stayed.

The chorus was disbanded twice when the Nazis deported inmates to death camps in the east, and twice the devoted Schachter rebuilt it.

Sidlin also spoke to Edith Steiner-Kraus, a well-known pianist who was interned in Terezin. She did not participate in the chorus but had listened to it. “I asked her when I sat with her, ‘Tell me about the quality of the chorus,’” Sidlin said. “Her response was: ‘You would have been proud of this chorus in any urban setting.’”

Sidlin would know. The 63-year-old dean of music at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., is also an accomplished conductor and musician. He was born in Baltimore to two Eastern European immigrants, who escaped Europe before the Holocaust — his father from Riga, and his mother from Minsk. Nevertheless, Sidlin’s paternal grandmother was killed in the Holocaust. “My three sisters and I learned as much as we could” about the Holocaust, he said.

At age 6, he began studying the piano, learned trumpet at age 8, and by the time he was 12, was convinced that he would be a conductor. After attending the Peabody Conservatory and Cornell University he began his career as a professional conductor. Last year, he was named to his position at Catholic University, and Catholic University Press is publishing the book by Sidlin about Schachter.

The irony of Schachter’s choice of a Catholic requiem in a Jewish ghetto was not lost on Sidlin, though he was puzzled by it at first. “Of all the things that they could be doing, why do a work so steeped in Catholic liturgy?” Sidlin asked. “I just tucked it away and wondered about this.” And then it dawned on him: “It really was one of those bolt-upright-at-4 a.m. revelations: What if [Schachter] was using the text of the mass to symbolize a strong message [to the Nazis]?”

Although Verdi’s lyrics were in Latin, they were the kinds of words prisoners couldn’t ever say to their captors. “What Schachter was saying was, ‘Sing to them what we cannot say to them,’” Sidlin said. “He said it out loud—that’s one of the few quotes we have of him.”

In gray turtleneck shirts, chorus members in “Defiant Requiem” echo the inmates when they sing — in Latin — “Grant them eternal rest, Lord” and “Hear my prayer.”

Schachter himself was finally deported from Terezin to Auschwitz in the fall of 1944. According to one account, Schachter could be seen heading toward the gas chambers with four other musicians who were all interned at Terezin: Gideon Klein, Victor Ullmann, Peter Haas and Hans Krasa (no relation to Edgar.)

Sidlin’s mission is, in many ways, to change the way people listen to Verdi. “I would like everyone — whenever they hear the Verdi requiem in the future — to know” about “the royal sons of bitches who tried to wreck [Jewish] lives and [how Jewish inmates] stayed above it. It’s a revelation about the requiem that Schachter provided.”

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