Rain, rain and more rain … here’s hoping we will still have a turnout for the inaugural rehearsal of Dos Pintele Syd tonight. For the rehearsal, I’ve just finished a 4-part arrangement of one of the most beautiful songs to come out of the Vilna Ghetto, Unter Dayne Vayse Shtern, written by the late great Abraham Sutzkever, with music by Abraham Brudno.
I think the poem encapsulates the antitheodical conundrum facing Jewish culture at its darkest moment. In a place of fear and entrapment, with an immanent threat of death, the song expresses the longing for some divine comfort, a place or being that the poet is not sure even exists.
Zachary Braiterman in his excellent book (God) After Auschwitz cites Sutzkever’s friend in the ghetto Zelig Kalmanovitsch commenting thus about the poet’s calling God to trial in the poem Kol Nidre:
“Ver es hot a din-toyre mit Got darft koydem kol gleybt in Got.”
(Whoever calls God to account must first of all believe in God)
Marc Chagall wrote of Sutskever that “Once upon a time we were dreaming of sweet and imaginary fires and of crumbling wedding canopies, but he, Sutzkever, beheld man in his utter ugliness, in his physical and spiritual degradation.”
It is not possible to know what exact poems Chagall was thinking of when he described Sutzkever’s work in such terms, but I don’t think that Unter Dayne Vayse Shtern fits this description. It is a work that exists between hope and doubt.
Here’s one of the most beautiful renditions of this song, performed by Chava Alberstein:
Oops. Have I bitten off more than I can chew? This Wednesday I am speaking at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s Music Colloquium Series (4pm, Room 3003 at the Con) on aspects of my doctoral work. The paper is entitled “Hidden Testimony: musical experience and memory in Jewish Holocaust survivors”. Here’s the abstract:
Considering music as a feature of testimony is not a new endeavour in the field of Holocaust studies. The collection ofmusical memories and songs of those times began as early as 1945, with individual zamlers (song collectors) such as Szmerke Kaczerginski, and ethnographers such as David Boder and Israel Adler. For the past fourteen years, I have also undertaken a similar project of sorts, collecting musical testimonies from over ninety survivors in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Israel. My interviewee subjects were asked to focus primarily (but not exclusively) on musical experience in theperiod 1939-1945, in camp, ghetto, hiding or partisan groups, as well as contextualising and reflecting their personal musical backgrounds before, during, and afterwards. Throughout this process, survivors spoke not only of extant melodies and experiences, but also added subtle and significant nuances to existing knowledge as well as adding to the general body of musical experience with new works and newly described musical experiences. Interviews were conducted in English, and songs collected in Yiddish, Czech, German, Polish, Hebrew, Hungarian, French and Russian.
Musical experience and its memory is a unique testimonial construct, arguably distinct from the more judicial process of historical testimony. From the earliest accounts arising out of the Holocaust, to recollections from survivors 65 years after the events, it speaks in a profoundly subjective manner about many difference life experiences during times of trauma. Whereas the musical form in testimony can complement and add nuance to historical readings of the Holocaust, musical testimony as a theoretical construct and practice can offer the possibility of new approaches to the Holocaust, treating survivors as living rather than dying witnesses, and preserving the Holocaust in perhaps the most durable form of testimony itself: narrative song.
So if you are interested, come to the Con on Wednesday at 4pm. The session lasts approximately an hour.
But wait … there’s more … later on in the evening on Wednesday, at Newtown Shul (Georgina St, Newtown) I am directing the inaugural rehearsal of a new choir in Sydney, dedicated completely to the performance of Yiddish song. Organised by the wonderful Clare Fester and Sean Sidky after their successful fellowship at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Pennsylvania, our choir is called “Dos Pintele Syd”. The name is a pun on the famous Yiddish musical by Thomashevsky, Dos Pintele Yid, translated somewhat inadequately as “the Jewish Spark”. If you want to know a bit more about this expression, here’s a fairly good explanation on the web:
Anyway, our new Yiddish choir is open to anyone who has a voice, regardless of age, gender, belief, background or hair colour. You don’t need to be able to read music, you don’t need to be able to read Yiddish, but you do need to be able to sing in tune.
I met Alice (Aliza) Herz-Sommer in her London flat in the summer of 2008. Through the generosity of an anonymous benefactor and funding from the University of Sydney (via the Kath O’Neil Scholarship, a special research scholarship for post-graduate Arts students), I travelled specifically to interview her, along with other Holocaust survivors living in the UK and Israel. Alice was a sprightly 103 years old at the time.
Alice is a gregarious and generous person, and receives visitors every day, offering coffee and cake at each sitting. After calling her from Australia to let her know I was coming specifically to interview her, I called again upon my arrival. She nominated a day and time, and I duly turned up that afternoon, digital recorder at the ready, and questions in hand and in mind.
At that time, Alice’s biography, A Garden of Eden in Hell (by Melissa Müller and Reinhard Piechocki) had been recently translated by Giles MacDonogh and published in English. I used this as the background for my various questions, but my primary focus was more upon her understanding and relationship with four most prominent composers in the Terezín ghetto (Theresienstadt): Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Hans Krása and Pavel Haas.
Some fine documentaries have been made of her life and her remarkably optimistic perspective. In my opinion, the biography by Müller and Piechocki is a little sentimental and awkward in its portrayal of an extraordinarily complex, rigorous intellect as Alice (especially with the clumsy metaphorical pairing of emotional aspects of the Chopin Études with personalities from the Ghetto). However, this biography does contain excellent detail of Alice’s early life, her relationship with her loved ones, her time in Terezín and afterwards. Time will tell if the new biography by Caroline Stoessinger provides any new material.
I doubt that my interview with Alice was in any way more revelatory than any other interview done. However, two things stood out in our discussions. The first was the emphasis she placed on protecting her young son Rafi during incarceration in the ghetto. She spoke at length about his musicality in utero and at even at the age of three, listening to Robert Schumann’s Mondnacht (Op. 39 No. 5) from the Liederkreis song cycle, and crying at the beauty of the music. Just in case you are curious, here is the incomparable Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing this, accompanied by Wolfgang Sawallisch.
The second remarkable account was the method by which she coped during perhaps her lowest point during the war: accompanying her 73 year old mother in 1942 to the place of deportation from Prague. On the way back, a revelation came to Alice, almost Paulian in character. This is what she said to me at the time:
” now, even after 70 years I believe, I remember the place where it happened, near our house. I had to stop, and like an inner voice spoke to me in my depression; I was so unhappy. An inner voice spoke – not the doctor. I went to the doctor – I couldn’t eat. Not the baby, not nothing can help yourself – only you can you help. And at the same moment … ‘ 24 Études by Chopin ‘. So I was running home, and from this moment, two years, hundreds and hundreds of times, I can’t tell you – I didn’t stop playing and playing and playing. What is interesting – nowadays, in the time of technology where everything goes so quickly, there is not a single composer which composed so difficult for piano as Chopin.”
I mentioned earlier that Alice regularly serves coffee and cake to all her afternoon visitors. She has an extraordinarily regimented routine. Mornings comprise of a walk around the block, followed by 2-3 hours of piano work, receiving visitors in the afternoon, and quiet time at night. The flat is modest but fulfills her needs. She does not eat cake, nor does she drink coffee, tea or alcohol. She eats one meal a day – a nourishing chicken stew. She is often interviewed about her longevity (asking me at one point whether I had ever met anyone as old as her), and is also approached by scholars interested in Franz Kafka (she knew the writer as a friend of the family). By the end of the interview she was asking me about my musical life and the encouragement that I received from my mother! It was one of the most memorable conversations I have had, and I continue to be grateful to those who made it possible.
Alice celebrated her 108th birthday last year, and is still going strong. Here’s one of her most recent interviews, made with the famous motivational speaker Anthony Robbins. Unfortunately, there are moments of inaccuracy and sensationalism, as always seems to happen in popular portrayal of Holocaust narratives. For example: Alice didn’t write her biography – she was, of course, intimately involved, but the work is by Müller and Piechocki. Another strange inclusion in this clip are images of death camps and emaciated survivors in the standard issue striped pyjamas. Terezín, although a hell-hole and a place of deprivation, misery and infection (33,000 people died of communicable diseases there between 1942 and 1945) was not a place of extermination. It was a ghetto, a place of concentration in the most literal sense, and for a time, a show camp and intended subject for future propaganda purposes. The third strange feature of the clip is the lack of credit of Alice’s friend who is interviewed, Zdenka Fantlová. But even with these inaccuracies (and I could probably mention more), it is still inspirational to listen to Alice’s words and ponder on the resilience of an optimistic spirit.
Recently I had the privilege and pleasure of interviewing Edgar and Hanka Krasa, two remarkable survivors from Terezín living in the Boston area.
Edgar sang in all the performances of the Verdi Requiem that Rafi Schächter staged in the ghetto, and he is a major contributor to the dialogue and presentation of Defiant Requiem, a work incorporating the Verdi Requiem and Terezín testimony written by Murry Sidlin, resident conductor of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra. [Disclaimer: I haven’t seen this production]. Edgar was asked to join the first group of the Aufbaukommando, 342 young men sent in late 1941 to set up Terezín as a ghetto for the Jewish population of Bohemia and Moravia. Because of his training, Edgar assisted in the setting up of the kitchens in Terezín. Hanka worked in the Landwirtschaft (agricultural labour force) and escaped deportation to the East because of this work. The initial meeting with Edgar and Hanka took place at the home of their friends, Ralf and Basia Gawlick. Ralf works at Boston College with my dear friend Michael Noone, hence the introduction. It was a very meaningful afternoon, but I felt we needed to talk in more detail one-on-one, so we arranged another meeting with Edgar and Hanka, this time at their home.
Together with Michael we sat around the Krasa’s dining room table and talked about features of musical life in the ghetto, both formal and informal. We discussed all different aspects of society in the ghetto. And of course, being a Jewish home, we were offered an abundance of food – all traditional Czech biscuits (cookies, known as vánocní cukrový) and a seriously delicious plum cake (švestkový kolác). Hopefully I will get some of the recipes from Hanka in coming months.