How Verdi’s Requiem came to be the centerpiece of this year’s Yom Hashoah 2018 Holocaust Commemoration at Chizuk Amuno Congregation is an interesting story wrapped in a heart-breaking Shoah narrative.
On Sunday, April 15 at 4 p.m., “A Tribute to the Human Spirit: Verdi’s Requiem” will include a concert by Bach in Baltimore, conducted by T. Herbert Dimmock, with more than 200 musicians and vocalists, including the Bach in Baltimore orchestra and choir, Morgan State University Choir and soloists Natanya Washer, Jenni Bank, Dr. Min Jin, Jeffrey Williams and Chazzan Emanuel C. Perlman. The day will also feature a luncheon for Holocaust survivors and their families, awards to teachers for Holocaust education, and oral and visual presentations about the Holocaust, including on the art, culture and music that sometimes flourished behind concentration camp walls.
The event became a collaboration between Bach in Baltimore and the Baltimore Jewish Council purely by coincidence. The BJC holds an annual Yom Hashoah commemoration that last year included honoring Elie Wiesel, who died in 2016.
“This year it’s unusual the way we fell into this,” said Jeanette Parmigiani, director of Holocaust programs for the BJC. “We and Bach in Baltimore had the same dates for our events and rather than pull from each other’s groups, we decided to go with Verdi’s Requiem — in the context of the Holocaust.”
And what would an Italian, agnostic composer who wrote his requiem for a dead poet friend, and who died in 1901 decades before the Holocaust, have to do with honoring the six million? The surprise is, plenty.
In 1941, Rafael Schachter, an opera and choral conductor from Czechoslovakia was arrested and imprisoned at Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in the walled garrison town of Terezin. It was there that Schachter, in an effort to lift the lives of those imprisoned there and to resist the Nazi oppression, organized a choir using an old piano he found in a basement of one of the buildings and the “Verdi Requiem” score he had stuffed into his suitcase before he was sent to the camp.
The choir, made up of 150 prisoners, practiced at night, in secret, memorizing the entire libretto — in Latin — performing it ultimately 16 times, including for Nazi officers before most of the choir, including Schachter, were sent to other camps, many to their deaths.
“Of the approximately 140,000 Jews transferred to Theresienstadt, nearly 90,000 were deported to points further east and almost certain death. Roughly 33,000 died in Theresienstadt itself,” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Fifteen thousand children passed through Theresienstadt, 90 percent of whom died in death camps.
“Because this is such a big anniversary, we wanted to do something out of the ordinary and then all kinds of things came together,” said Dimmock, who founded Bach in Baltimore 30 years ago and has been choir director at Chizuk Amuno for 16 years. “I became aware of all the interconnections, with the concert being so close to Yom Hashoah and the fact that the ‘Verdi Requiem’ was sung as a kind of a protest piece, but also to assert the humanity of the prisoners in the Terezin concentration camp.”
Parmigiani said Verdi’s Requiem is rousing and emotional, but still needs to be placed in the context of the Holocaust for concertgoers.
“So what we do at every Shoah commemoration is we have a candlelighting ceremony, with survivors or descendants, in memory of their parents or their families,” she said. “Then Marjorie Simon and Rachel Glaser, who are co-chairs of the Baltimore Jewish Council’s Holocaust Remembrance Commission, have done extensive research about Theresienstadt and about Verdi’s Requiem and have a presentation on the background. While the concert is going on, during the music, there will be a slideshow showing scenes from Terezin and other camps. The cultural life is amazing, considering the condition of the people. They kept it up, the religious, cultural, educational lives of the people. That kept them alive. It gave them hope.”
Dimmock, whose late father helped liberate Dachau during World War II, hopes the concert, while commemorating the Holocaust, will also serve to bring together diverse communities that might not other- wise attend a Yom HaShoah event.
“This one is going to be terrific. It’s going to be so many different communities. My hope is that people get to know each other,” he said. “I do hope the music itself and the combined forces singing in a sacred place does reach people on a very deep level and for the better.”
More than 1,600 people are expected to attend. The event is supported by more than a dozen agencies and foundations. Free tickets are being distributed by Baltimore Jewish Council and Chizuk Amuno and tickets are going fast, so concert organizers urge people to go to baltjc.org/commemorations for information. The BJC posted on its Facebook page “No tickets remain for the program, however we will allow those without a ticket to begin claiming open seats at 3:50 PM on Sunday.”
Meanwhile, in conjunction with the concert, the documentary “Defiant Requiem,” about Rafael Schachter and the Terezin prisoners who performed Verdi’s Requiem and the conductor who brought the requiem back to the camp 60 years later, was screened April 11 at Chizuk Amuno Congregation. The film, produced in 2013 is available on DVD at the Baltimore County Public Library. For more information bit.ly/2He3Cfs.
Howard County’s Holocaust Remembrance Service was on April 11 at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center in Columbia. The service focused on the story of the late Jacques Fein, a Howard County resident rescued from the Holocaust as a child in France. The Holocaust Remembrance Committee and the Howard County Board of Rabbis hosted the service that included an exploration of Holocaust artifacts including photographs, clothing and other mementos from the Holocaust period, followed by the commemoration service.