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: Continue reading Defiant Requiem