Verdi's Requiem Revived as WWII Tribute

Sources: United States Holocaust Museum, Bundesarchiv Filmarchiv

Murry Sidlin and photo of Rafael Schachter i i

hide captionMurry Sidlin, the dean of the school of music at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., stands in front of an image of Rafael Schachter, who taught Verdi's Requiem to hundreds of fellow prisoners at Terezin.

Catholic University
Murry Sidlin and photo of Rafael Schachter

Murry Sidlin, the dean of the school of music at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., stands in front of an image of Rafael Schachter, who taught Verdi's Requiem to hundreds of fellow prisoners at Terezin.

Catholic University

During WWII, hundreds of prisoners in the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia performed Verdi's Requiem as a way to passively defy their Nazi captors. On Sunday, American musicians performed the same requiem in the former Nazi camp as a tribute to Terezin's victims and survivors.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Also this morning, we're remembering another teacher: Raphael Schachter, who was a Jewish prisoner in a concentration camp. More than 60 years ago, he taught fellow prisoners a way to defy their captors in the Terezin camp, outside Prague. They performed Verdi's Requiem.

Yesterday, a chorus of American musicians performed the same requiem in the same camp. NPR's Rachel Martin reports.

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

During World War II, the old wooden barn in the center of Terezin was used by the Nazi's to exercise horses when this town was a Jewish concentration camp. But on this day, it is a makeshift concert hall. Birds fly through open windows, as the haunting opening prayer of Verdi's Requiem echoes through the rafters.

(Soundbite of Verdi's "Requiem")

MARTIN: Close to 200 musicians from Washington and New York City came together to perform what's called The Defiant Requiem. It's a tribute to Raphael Schachter, who taught hundreds of fellow prisoners the Requiem and performed it 16 times in 10 months, training new singers, as others were deported or sent to the death camp at Auschwitz.

Here, the narrator, speaking as Schachter, describes what the music means.

Unidentified Man: We must sing to them what we cannot say to them. In the Dies Irae, we will sing to them of the day of wrath that is prophesied. And let us not burn in eternal fire, we shall sing. When the damned are assigned to the searing flames, call us to the blessed, we shall sing. We, indeed, shall sing.

(Soundbite of Verdi's "Requiem")

MARTIN: It is powerful music, made more solemn within the context of Terezin. The project is the brainchild of Murry Sidlin, the Dean of the School of Music at Catholic University in Washington. Sidlin spent more than 10 years researching Raphael Schachter, and after talking with historians and tracking down original members of the Terezin chorus, Sidlin confirmed his theory that Schachter and his singers performed the Requiem before their German captors not as a death dirge, but as an impassioned, encoded form of defiance.

Mr. MURRY SIDLIN (Dean, Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, The Catholic University of America): They were confronted with the worst of mankind, and to answer that, they chose the best of mankind; they chose one of the greatest compositions ever.

MARTIN: Edgar Crossa(ph) was Raphael Schachter's roommate in Terezin and one of the few remaining original chorus members. Crossa is in his mid 80s, but he remembers clearly that, despite hunger and exhaustion, Requiem rehearsals were a kind of emotional anecdote to life in the camp.

Mr. EDGAR CROSSA (Survivor, Terezin Concentration Camp): This did for us for us, you know, for that hour-and-a-half or so that we were singing, you didn't have time to think about the misery that was imposed on us. We were able to retain our strengths and hopes, so this was a way of resisting passively.

(Soundbite of Verdi's "Requiem")

MARTIN: The audience was filled with locals and foreign visitors, national dignitaries and survivors of Terezin, including Anna Hanasova(ph). She was in the camp from the age of 11 to 14.

Ms. ANNA HANASOVA (Survivor, Terezin Concentration Camp): And now, after hearing this Requiem, everything, it was awake in me, and I started to remember to my (unintelligible) small children (unintelligible) children, who could be very nice human beings, but their destiny didn't wish it.

MARTIN: Hanasova says the recreation of Verdi's Requiem at Terezin is a fitting tribute to the performers who gave her and the rest of the inmates music, she said, was as crucial to their survival as bread or water.

Ms. HANASOVA: They were strong and they saved our soul.

MARTIN: Rachel Martin, NPR News, Prague.

(Soundbite of Verdi's "Requiem")

INSKEEP: You're listening to NPR News.

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