A collaboration between several community organizations — including the Baltimore Jewish Council, the Jewish Museum of Maryland and Beth El Congregation — commemorated the 79th anniversary of the tragic events of Nov. 9, 1938, known to history as Kristallnacht or “the night of broken glass,” at Beth El on Nov. 5.
“Childhood Memories of the Holocaust: A Cantata” showcased the talents of a 23-member student choir and three actors, accompanied by violin. Originally written by Cantor Stephen Freedman, the cantata was adapted, produced and directed by Toby Orenstein of Toby’s Dinner Theatre and Cantor Jan Morrison, formerly of Columbia Jewish Congregation.
While introducing the cantata, Orenstein, 80, who has spent 40 years in the local artistic and theater community, told audience members the piece integrates important history and civics lessons into the music. Orenstein was one of six teachers hired to implement Eleanor Roosevelt’s arts integration plan in Harlem, N.Y. Throughout her long career, she told audience members that integrating art into education is the way “we can reach people.”
“Nothing is more important in my life,” she said, “than teaching your children and grandchildren” about the issues addressed in the cantata. Orenstein said she’s met “Jewish kids who don’t know about the Holocaust” and has “met people who think the Holocaust was a hoax.” Orenstein pointed out the strong anti-bullying message in the cantata. “We need to reinforce to our kids that Hitler was a bully.”
Actor Stan Weiman gave a succinct account of Kristallnacht before the cantata, calling it the Nazi regime’s first act of widespread, planned violence against the European Jewish community.
“One thousand synagogues were burned. Seven thousand Jewish businesses were damaged or destroyed. Thirty thousand Jews were arrested, and 236 were killed,” he said. This “systematic violence with impunity” was, Weiman said, “the beginning of the end of European Jewry.”
The cantata tells the story of a child who brings a book to her grandfather: It’s his brother’s Holocaust-era diary. The grandfather reads passages aloud, and the child asks questions about the Holocaust. A black-clad choir, comprised of children and adults, then joins the two on stage to dramatize the diary’s words. Each passage introduces the next song, allowing the choir to lead the audience down the dark path to genocide.
The songs describe the experience of living and dying through the pogrom, the forced labor, the separation of families and the camps. The mood vacillates between hopeful and hopeless, with lyrics such as “the streets are paved with black despair” counter-balanced with the mothers’ lament: “I believe people are good.” The grand father’s closing line punctuates the cantata’s directive of remembrance: “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
Herta Baitch, one of the eight or so people who identified themselves as Holocaust survivors when asked to do so before the program began, called the cantata “pretty heavy” but “beautiful.” In December 1940, Baitch, then 7, was forced to say goodbye to her mother and board a train filled with other Jewish children on a journey that would deliver them to new lives in American foster homes. Baitch would never see her mother again. The U.S Holocaust Memorial Museum recently helped Baitch learn the fate of her mother, who died four days after arriving at a German concentration camp. Research from the museum also helped her discover she was the only child from her classroom to escape death at the hands of the Nazis.
Baitch said she was impressed with the performers, particularly the children, who “sang beautifully” and appeared to make a real emotional connection with the subject matter as they performed.
Choir member Daniel Wise, a 15-year-old member of the Jewish choir HaZamir, said he felt the emotional weight of the words onstage as he sang them and called the experience of learning and performing the cantata impactful. He said the subject matter was so intense that one of the teenage choir members dropped out soon after tryouts, citing nightmares.
Daniel’s mother, Ilene Wise, said Daniel had been familiar with the subject matter before- hand, as he had attended Krieger Schechter Day School.
“This is one of those deep experiences,” she said. “He loves singing. This is something he really wanted to do.” Wise said she hopes the cantata will travel to other schools and synagogues in the area to ensure the Holocaust is an experience “owned” by the younger generation and “never gets forgotten.”
Eliezer Medina, father of 13-year-old choir member Ezra Medina, said the experience “wasn’t easy” for his son, who studies vocal music at Sudbrook Magnet Middle School.
“You could see him up on stage, he was very emotional,” Eliezer said. The production required more than 20 hours of rehearsal time for Ezra. “Every Saturday and Sunday for three hours. It was an emotional roller coaster for him. At one point I told him not to do it. He wanted to. He believed in the message.”
Eliezer then noticed his tearful son making his way through the crowd to his family after the performance. Ezra, red-eyed, thanked the well-wishers congratulating him for his performance. Eliezer walked up and wrapped his son in his arms. Ezra looked up appreciatively at his father and smiled through his tears.
Erica Rimlinger is a local freelance writer.