At New York’s IFC Center I recently watched the film “Defiant Requiem,” which is a new feature-length telling of a remarkable and moving story from the Holocaust. I am not going to try and provide the whole narrative here, as you can find that kind of thing elsewhere, but briefly it is the story of how a group of prisoners—almost all Jews—led by a talented young Czech conductor named Rafael Schächter, practiced and learned Verdi’s “Requiem,” a very stirring and enormously challenging choral work, eventually performing it sixteen times for their fellow prisoners (recruiting new singers as many were deported to Auschwitz in the meanwhile). This was in a concentration camp at Terezín, near Prague.
The idea of Jewish prisoners working so hard to perform something based on the text of a Roman Catholic funeral mass seems strange, and indeed some rabbis at the camp objected. However, Schächter would not be dissuaded, and found 150 singers who volunteered to descend to a cellar (where Schächter had a broken down piano he had found) and go through hours and ultimately months of exacting lessons and rehearsal.
Some years ago, the American conductor Murry Sidlin came across a mention of how Verdi’s Requiem was performed at this concentration camp, and, understanding what was involved, was flabbergasted at the thought of how it could have been done. He found out all he could about the story, and ultimately dedicated himself to bringing the Requiem back to the abandoned Terezín in a performance to honor those who had performed and heard it then, most of whom were murdered at Auschwitz or other camps. The new documentary, “Defiant Requiem,” portrays this (including a performance in the very basement where Schächter and his singers practiced) and tells the original story by means of reenactments and interviews with a few surviving members of the choir.
Schächter’s passion for putting on Verdi’s Requiem in the camp had everything to do with the Latin text, which, accompanied by the sublime music, he saw as being capable of making a defiant and inspiriting statement which the prisoners could not otherwise have publicly made. He made sure the singers knew the meaning of each word they sang, including these verses which speak of God’s judgment:
Death and Nature shall stand amazed,
when all Creation rises again
to answer to the Judge.
A written book will be brought forth,
which contains everything
for which the world will be judged.
Therefore when the Judge takes His seat,
whatever is hidden will be revealed:
nothing shall remain unavenged.
And the lines which pray to God for rescue:
Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death on that awful day.
Deliver me, O Lord, when the heavens and the earth shall be moved;
when you will come to judge the world by fire.
One of the surviving singers recalls on film how when the full group assembled for the public performance of the work, the music made her feel that they were inhabiting an entirely different world, one in which the Nazis had no power over them. She realized that though the Nazis could take their bodies, they could never take their souls.
Pursuing and enjoying this and other artistic endeavors in the camp helped the prisoners both retain and assert their sense of humanity in the face of physical misery, disease, fear, hunger and death.
The final performance of the Requiem in the camp was to the very faces of the S.S. in June of 1944; it was also ironically during a visit by officials of the Red Cross, who were being told by the Nazis that everything at Terezín was just fine, and that Jews were being treated well. The Red Cross officials were fooled by an elaborate “beautification” scheme at the camp (not that anything material would have changed had they not been fooled). Schächter was willing to gather a greatly depleted choir for the chance to deliver the Requiem’s otherworldly message to even the uncomprehending Nazi criminals, and he did so. Weeks later, almost everyone who had sung it, including Schächter, had been loaded onto cattle cars and sent to the extermination camps.
The film ends with one survivor, Marianka, now 89-years-old, stating to the effect (my recollection being imperfect) that due to her experience singing with Schächter at Terezin: “I am not a Holocaust survivor. I am a Requiem survivor … it is a gift I have taken with me through the rest of my life.”
Despite all the horrors she witnessed, she seems to be saying that her experience of the Requiem transcends her memories of that period.
Watching the film, I found myself reflecting on the mysteriousness of how and where we can be transported by the sublime. Even, apparently, away from a concentration camp, if only momentarily. And what’s in a moment? Music, when very profound, seems to be closer to what our souls tell us is the language of God than any plain words can be. Feelings are touched and expressed which cannot be told in speech. Time itself seems different in these moments; it feels more substantial, without apparent limit.
If we believe in God we know that he does not inhabit time as we do; it’s been said of old that for God ten thousand years is as a day and a day is as ten thousand years. Perhaps our experience with sublime music is a glimpse of a different kind of time-keeping. Just as in a moment of great transcendent love, we know that the scope of it cannot truly be measured by the sum of seconds and minutes on a clock-face. That a moment can be worth an entire lifetime: this seems to be written on our hearts somewhere.
The singers at Terezín, and those who heard the performances of Verdi’s Requiem, were not saved by the music from the cattle cars and the gas chambers. Yet, it meant something very great to them, and it is beyond any means of human calculation to weigh it against the tragedy of their fate. The survivors can only attest to what it has meant to them. It was right of Murry Sidlin to return the Requiem to Terezín and perform it again to the walls that heard it over 65 years ago. Something clearly told him deep inside that such a moment would be also be worth more than the hours and minutes it took to execute it.
Someone, we want to believe, is witnessing these moments and cherishing them for all our sakes.
You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your book?
The documentary “Defiant Requiem” is certainly well-worth seeing, if it should be playing at an art house near you, or ultimately at home on the small-screen.