Every now and then one stumbles across something so remarkable that it leaves one almost breathless. It can stop you in your tracks, and change the way you look at some aspect of society or even change your perspective on something, and a few days ago I read something that did just that. It was an account in the Huffington Post concerning the recent honouring of the memory of Rafael Schachter by the Czech Republic.
Who, you may ask, was Rafael Schachter? The answer is that he was a young Jewish composer and musician, and one of the 120,000 killed at the Terezin Concentration Camp for Jews set up by the Nazis. The why he was honoured is what stopped me in my tracks. This young man, driven by the lunacy around him, and probably by the knowledge of the fate awaiting him and everyone else in the Terezin Camp, trained and then led a choir of the inmates in a performance of Verdi's Requiem Mass.
It led Adolf Eichmann to exclaim, "These crazy Jews are singing their own Requiem!"
For those doing the singing it was many things. It was an act of defiant courage in that they knew what the Nazis intended their fate to be; it was an act of therapy as it took them out of this living death and into realms beyond, and it was an act of faith, even though it was the music and theology of Christianity and not Judaism.
Those who know Verdi's Requiem will also know that it is a monumental work. Complex, moving, magnificent and definitely not for the faint hearted to attempt to sing. Yet, as a survivor confirms, each line of the Mass conveyed a somewhat different meaning to the prisoners than it would mean to the ordinary listener. Hence its choice by Schachter who drove hundreds of his fellow prisoners to learn the parts by heart, working from a single score they had managed to smuggle into the camp. In all there were sixteen performances given, though, at first, the Nazis tried to suppress it, then used it as a propaganda tool. When the inmates were relocated, immediately after the last performance, to Auschwitz, Rafael Schachter was one of the first group sent directly to the gas chambers and killed. Of the 140,000 inmates, just 20,000 survived.
It is a fact that there were 350,000 Jews living in Czechoslovakia in 1939, today there are fewer than 10,000 in the Czech and Slovakian Republics.
An American conductor recently unearthed this incredible story, and, seventy years after the original, persuaded the Czech government, and the Roman Catholic Archbishopric, to stage a performance in the Dom of St Vitus. The audience included a handful of the survivors, now in the 90s, and the performance was supplemented by the screening of pieces of the propaganda films made by the Nazis to hide the genocide. By all reports, it was a moving experience for everyone, and I, for one, will never again hear the Verdi Requiem with quite the same understanding I had for the words of the tremendous prayers it launches in the music.
As the Requiem says so eloquently -
"O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant them eternal rest."
How fitting it should have been sung by the inmates of a Death Camp. By Jews destined for death to those who wished to exterminate them.