A musician’s project sheds new light on artistic life in the Terezín concentration camp

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JTA — Over the past few decades, the Terezín concentration camp has become synonymous with Holocaust music due to the number of performers who were imprisoned there.

Now, in the latest production associated with a foundation dedicated to preserving the camp’s legacy, a new book reveals how a prominent musician thought about camp music at the time, offering new insights into the complicated nature of life in Terezin.

Austrian composer Viktor Ullmann came from a Jewish family and studied with famous Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, who fled the Nazis in 1933. The Nazis deported him to Terezín, known as Theresienstadt during their reign, in 1942.

While incarcerated, Ullmann wrote a series of essays on musical life, painting a portrait of a vibrant arts scene deep in an oppressive ghetto and offering his perspective on works composed at the camp. In 1944, after producing a camp opera satirizing Hitler, Ullman was murdered in Auschwitz, where tens of thousands of his fellow prisoners from Terezín died.

Ullman’s perspective is preserved in “Our will to live” a new compilation of his reviews edited by Mark Ludwig, former Boston Symphony Orchestra violinist and professor of Holocaust music at Boston College. It was published by high-end German art book publisher Steidl on January 11.

“Ullmann is like our Virgil, bringing us back to Terezín by virtue of his criticism,” Ludwig told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Mark Ludwig, editor of “Our Will to Live”. (Screenshot)

Life in Terezín was as brutal as in any other concentration camp. Food was scarce, overcrowding was rampant, and disease was spreading rapidly. Of Terezín’s 141,000 prisoners, 90,000 were sent to Treblinka and Auschwitz where they were murdered.

But Terezín was also a major part of the Nazi propaganda machine and they went to great lengths to make the camp look luxurious. “Theresien-spa,” as the camp was informally called, appeared frequently in propaganda films and was the favorite spot when international delegations came to inspect the camps.

To help this propaganda effort, the Nazis ensured that the richest and most famous Jews of the Reich ended up in Terezín. At various times, its prisoners included Leo Baeck, the Berlin rabbi who would go on to lead the Reform movement; Dutch Jewish artist Joseph Spier; and Alfred Flatow, the Jewish gymnast who represented Germany at the first Olympic Games.

Among the prisoners of the camp were dozens of musicians and composers from all over Europe. Using instruments smuggled into the camp, they formed choirs, cabarets, and other musical groups, which then performed for their fellow inmates—and, at opportune times for their Nazi captors, for guests like the Red Cross.

A film crew takes film in the Theresienstadt ghetto during the filming of a Nazi propaganda film in 1944. A Jewish assistant wearing a Star of David is at right. (Public domain)

For Ullmann, the austere conditions at Terezín were not obstacles to production but an opportunity to focus on producing art. By imprisoning in the same camp some of the best artists and musicians in Europe, the Nazis had unknowingly created a kind of conservatory, a “real school of masters”, as Ullmann called it.

“I would only like to point out that my musical work has been encouraged and not inhibited by Theresienstadt,” he wrote.

“Our Will to Live” is the culmination of more than three decades of work by Ludwig’s Terezín Music Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of Terezín musicians. Since the 1990s, the Terezín Music Foundation has researched the works of these musicians and commissioned new performances of works by Ullmann and other Jewish prisoners at Terezín, including Pavel Haas and Hans Krása.

In 2013, the Terezín Music Foundation organized a concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall with George Horner, a Holocaust survivor who played the piano in Terezín’s caberets, and the famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma. A few years later, the foundation organized a performance of works by artists from Terezín during the Prague Spring Festival.

“For a number of these pieces we offer the first recorded performance of the work,” said Ludwig. “It’s exciting, but it comes with its own kind of responsibilities.”

One of those responsibilities, Ludwig said, is to make sure the public understands the production conditions of the work. For “Our Will to Live,” Ludwig worked with German artists living in the mid-twentieth century to understand the people and events that Ullmann refers to in his reviews. These ideas are documented in detailed footnotes at the end of each review.

Ludwig is not the only one interested in the artists of Terezín. A host of other classical musicians including the Japanese pianist Izumi Shimura and Italian pianist Francesco Lotoro found themselves drawn to the camp music. In 2013, conductor John Axelrod revived one of Ullmann’s operas with the Kammersymphonie Berlin.

The Terezín Music Foundation stands out for its interdisciplinary approach, which tries to evoke the atmosphere of the camps.

Austrian composer Viktor Ullmann. (Courtesy of “Our Will to Live”)

“In Terezín, art and music were really linked,” explains Jim Schantz, a painter who has worked with the foundation on several performances.

Having visual artists work with musicians on these performances brings out the original spirit of these works, Schantz added. A performance of a string quartet by composer Hans Krása featured Schantz in the background, painting in response to the music.

Similarly, for “Our Will to Live,” Ludwig paired Ullmann’s critiques with posters from the Heřman Collection, a collection of over 500 objects documenting cultural life in Terezín. A prisoner named Karel Heřman hid the documents in the walls of the camp barracks, retrieving them after his release from Auschwitz in 1945. Objects in the collection range from sketches of Ullmann and his friends to concert posters in the camp and at the scores. for original compositions.

In recent years, the foundation has also commissioned more than 40 new works that build on the work of Terezín artists or draw inspiration from the same principles that guided those artists. He has also helped provide resources for musicians in war-torn communities in Syria and Bosnia.

By working on contemporary projects that preserve the spirit of perseverance and dedication to creating music under the harshest conditions that drove musicians like Viktor Ullmann, Ludwig said he hopes to keep artists’ memories of Terezin.

“This is perhaps the ultimate tribute paid to them,” he said. “Helping elevate new voices today and tomorrow.”

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