Notes from inset of CD set "Music in Terezín 1941-1944", by Alexander Goldscheider
"Terezín, a fortified garrison town sixty kilometres north of Prague, seemed to the Nazis to be in a perfect position to be turned into a Jewish ghetto. Its compact massive ramparts alone made the place impenetrable to the outside world. There was no escaping from it either. Towards the end of 1941 it began to turn into a tragic enclave. Its original inhabitants were gradually evacuated and replaced by Jews, initially from Czechoslovakia and later from all corners of Europe. Built to house 4,000 people, Terezín now had to accommodate in its houses and barracks up to 60,000 inmates! It was primarily a transit concentration camp - transports arrived here constantly, bringing in new victims of the Jewish genocide, as others left for the uncertain 'East' - in reality Auschwitz, to which the new Terezín population was destined for liquidation in the gas chambers.
Like any other Nazi camp, it could be described in one word - inhuman. And yet, unlike perhaps any other camp, there was something special here. People were starving, but they were allowed to congregate. There was a tough regime, but not hard labour. Most uniquely, amongst all the horror, we witness a phenomenon which leaves us all dumbfounded. Jailed, isolated, deprived, terrorised Jews, fighting to preserve their dignity, trying to remain human, find the will and determination to stage theatre shows, cabaret, to sing, form choirs, ensembles, orchestras, put on operas, give recitals, play jazz. These memorable events happen in lofts and cellars, in modestly decorated halls, courtyards, under the ramparts. It was unbelievable, surprising and incomprehensible for as many then, as it is now. What was actually happening here? Was this a heroic struggle or a cynical farce, a tragedy or a comedy? Were the Jews fighting the Nazis or being used by them for propaganda about the enviable life that Jews were fortunate enough to lead in this 'paradise spa' that Hitler so generously gave them?
Certainly as of January 1942, the Nazis, having made a decision on the 'final solution of the Jewish problem' (i.e. total extermination), were not unduly concerned about the cultural activities in this grossly overpopulated place. The fate of its inhabitants was clear; it was just a question of time. And if there was any concern for the disappearing millions of Jews, a heavily camouflaged Terezín served as an exemplary Jewish camp, mainly for its flourishing cultural activity. Paradoxically, the frequency of Terezín cultural events could match that of any major European city. There was a high proportion of artists here, as Nazis herded them into Terezín from all around Europe. On one hand, there was strict censorship - some inmates were crippled or battered to death for disobeying it. On the other hand, within the framework of the so-called Freizeitgestaltung, Terezín's artists were allowed to perform repertoire that would be elsewhere unheard of - namely Jewish works. Thus alongside of the legendary performances of standard classics such as Smetana's The Bartered Bride and The Kiss, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, or Verdi's Requiem, there was also Mendelssohn's Elijah, a biblical folk play Esther about the saving of the Jewish people, and, for Terezín perhaps the most important, Krása's original opera Brundibár.
Among those who so richly contributed within a short period of time, were conductors Karel Ancerl, Robert Brock, Karel Fiser, Franz Eugen Klein, Leo Pappenheim, Rafael Schächter, Carlo S. Taube, pianists Juliette Aranyi, Renée Gaertner-Geiringer, Alice Herz-Sommer, Bernard Kaff, Gideon Klein, Ella Polák, Karel Reiner, Edith Steiner-Kraus, violinists Karel Fröhlich, Pavel Kling, Egon Ledec, Oto Satler, singers Otto Ambroz, Hilda Aronson-Lindt, Karel Berman, Gertruda Borger, Bedrich Borges, Heda Grab-Kemmayer, Michael Gobec, David Grünfeld, Ada Hecht, Marion Podolier, Hanus Thein, Frantisek Weissenstein, Walter Windholz and dozens of others.
The definition of music in Terezín by one of the inmates, Greta Hoffmeister (Aninka in Brundibár) was strikingly simple: 'Music! Music was life!' We can perhaps imagine how the music helped in terms of bringing joy and hope, inspiring self-confidence, revolting against oppression, fighting the human inferiority complex, etc. But try imagining all that the Terezín's musicians were up against. Simple practicalities - a lack of sheet music, of manuscript paper or musical instruments, inadequate rehearsal and performing facilities - were coupled with general poverty, fear, terror, the dread of transports. Composing under these circumstances required a superhuman effort - no wonder that the preserved Terezín works reflect an extraordinary creative spirit.
Quite a few people wrote music in Terezín - Pavel Haas, Gideon Klein, Hans Krása, Viktor Ullmann, Karel Berman, Peter Deutsch, Robert Dauber, Frantisek Domazlicky, Viktor Kohn, Egon Ledec, Karel Reiner, Martin Roman, Zikmund Schul, Carlo Taube, Ilse Weber. One of the most experienced and musically active composers was Viktor Ullmann (born 1898 in Tesín). A pupil of Arnold Schönberg, he was closer to Alban Berg for his less orthodox approach to dodecaphony and atonality. He was also influenced by his later teacher, Alois Hába, and by Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophical movement. Besides being a prolific composer and his own publisher of some forty orchestral, chamber and piano works and two operas, Ullmann was also an able conductor. He assisted to A. Zemlinsky in Prague and then went on conducting in Ústí nad Labem, Zürich, and Vienna.
Terezín, by Ullmann's own account, 'has served to enhance, not to impede' his musical activities. 'Our endeavour with respect to Art was commensurate with our will to live,' he wrote.
One of the first instrumental works that Ullmann composed in Terezín was the 3rd String Quartet completed on 23 January 1943. Its quite monumental and diverse single movement is usually formally split into four parts and is, similarly to his 6th Piano Sonata, cyclical. A very modern sounding piece, thematically based on a 12-tone scale, it remains highly accessible throughout, is full of emotion and rich in expression. The Piano Sonata No. 6, a virtuoso piece, is quite traditional in its form, but very modern in its language. Like many others, Terezín made Ullmann aware of his Jewish identity - people did not get to Terezín because they were necessarily practising Jews, but simply because they were of Jewish descent (some did not even know they were). Ullmann thus for the first time wrote music to texts in Hebrew and Yiddish such as the beautiful Drei Jiddische Lieder opus 53. Little Cakewalk is also noteworthy for the language: an English title masks a French nursery rhyme in a rare and short humorous song. Most of Ullman's songs had German lyrics and Ullmann always strove to find the unity of words and music, both in the form and content. His Abendphantasie on F. Hölderlin and Immer Inmitten from a solo cantata on H.G. Adler are two of the finest examples here. Ullmann's final Terezín masterpiece, never to be performed, was an opera The Emperor of Atlantis on the libretto of Peter Kien.
Ullmann wrote 25 works in Terezín, played, conducted, wrote reviews, gave lectures, organised. Whereas most Terezín composers took their works with them when they went on to Auschwitz, (only to have them burned as well), Viktor Ullmann, fearing the worst, left all of them in Terezín along with instructions on how to pass them from one friend to another. Ullmann was gassed 17 October, 1944, shortly after coming to Auschwitz. A few of his friends survived, and thanks to their bravery, so did Ullmann's works.
Another composer who left an important mark on Terezín's musical life was Krása (born 1899 in Prague). A musical prodigy, he played the piano at an early age and started composing when he was ten. Alexander Zemlinsky; Krása's composition teacher at the Prague Music Academy, conducted his graduation work to instant acclaim. Krása had success both at home and abroad, mainly in France and Germany. In 1933 he won the prestigious Czechoslovak State Prize for his opera Betrothal in a Dream. Krása had German education, but his links were with the Czech avantgarde - Devetsil, Mánes and most prolifically with the 034 Theatre of E.F. Burian. Krása, though, was a Bohemian from a well-off family, an avid chess player, who was not taking composing too seriously. Ironically, Terezín made him more responsible towards his talent and Krása, the composer and pianist, soon became one of the Terezín's most active artists.
His children's opera Brundibár was quintessential for Terezín. It did not actually originate there - it was written in 1938 on a libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister and staged at the Prague Hagibor Jewish Orphanage. Whilst some of its original cast continued, after their arrests, in Terezín, the score went missing and Krása had to re-orchestrate. He did so for a typical Terezín orchestra of virtuosi - Gideon Klein, Karel Fröhlich, Köhn brothers, Fredy Mark, Fritz Weiss and others.
The two Brundibár heroes, Pepícek and Aninka, try to save their sick mother. Only milk can help her and the children try to earn money to buy it by singing in the streets. A wicked organ-grinder Brundibár steals their earnings and drives them away. Fortunately a few personified animals and friends from the neighbourhood come to their rescue; they overpower Brundibár and celebrate his defeat. The parallel with Hitler was striking - how very tragic then, that in real life all but a handful of Terezín children lost their fight - and their lives: of 15,000 children who went through Terezín to Auschwitz, only 100 survived...
Brundibár was ideally suited for Terezín. It was not just its symbolism, the fairy-tale victory of good over evil, that led to a record 55 performances. Brundibár had all the makings of a successful modern (children's) opera - the plot, wonderful set, design by architect Frantisek Zelenka, costumes, choreography, and most importantly, 'hit' music. Everyone in Terezín knew its melodies; you could hear them sung, whistled, hummed everywhere - even in the jazzed-up version of Weiss' "Ghetto-Swingers".
In spite of its quite obvious message, Brundibár was repeatedly chosen as a showpiece for various Nazi propaganda exercises. Most memorably, in June 1944, a committee of the International Red Cross came to inspect Terezín. In the true "Potemkin villages" style, Terezín was extensively "beautified". There was a huge clean-up operation, the sick and old were dispatched en bloc to Auschwitz (not just for the occasion, simply for good), the "menu" suddenly defied war-time shortages (and it bore no resemblance to the standard, or rather very substandard Terezín menu), everyone dressed up (many in especially imported clothes) - what an enviable place! Whole books have been written about this incomprehensible event. Clearly there was no chance of letting the Red Cross see through the whole charade. Thus, as a culmination of the visit, instead of trying to communicate their plight, the casts of Krása's Brundibár and Verdi's Requiem, proud, dignified, heroic, gave the performances of their lives. The Committee left enchanted, but there were no bonuses - the play was over, next came Auschwitz.
That too was Krása's fate. Most of his family escaped before Hitler. Krása's overwhelming love for Prague brought him on 17 October, 1944 to the gas chambers. Only fragments of his musical legacy remain, of which the string trio Tanec (Dance) echoes Krása's buoyant temperament and unique talent.