Mike Wagenheim | JNS
The day Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel died, composer and music producer Ira Antelis said something came over him. “I thought, who carries on the message of the Holocaust? Because in my life, he was the figure for me. And I started just researching some things about him,” said Antelis.
That endeavor led Antelis to a book Wiesel wrote the forward to called “We Are Here: Songs of the Holocaust,” a collection of songs written in the ghettos and concentration camps of Nazi-occupied Europe. After locating the songbook, Antelis decided to organize a concert in his hometown of Chicago, based on the music. It never came to fruition due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But following the lifting of restrictions and a decision by Antelis to relaunch his efforts, he searched online and stumbled upon an article by Bret Werb, staff musicologist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, called “Fourteen Shoah Songbooks.”
“I said to myself: There’s a concert. We’re going to do a concert on these 14 songbooks — one song from every book, and honor the writers and people who put the songbooks together,” said Antelis, who produced the concert at Temple Sholom Chicago in April in conjunction with Yom Hashoah, the annual Holocaust day of remembrance.
Determined to bring the concert to New York, Antelis revived the pandemic-era idea with an old Chicago friend, Rabbi Charles Savenor, who serves as director of congregational education at Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue. The two had a chance encounter in New York 15 years after their last meeting when Antelis presented Savenor with his vision.
“I’m not musical at all. I can’t carry a tune. I have no rhythm. I knew about the music of the Holocaust, but when Ira started telling me what his mission was and about the music, it completely aligned with something that I was passionate about, interested in and already been researching,” explained Savenor, who had recently taught a course on Holocaust memoirs. “This form of resistance is something that really spoke to me. And it felt like something really sacred that we needed to commemorate.”
That meant, for Antelis, that the concert was not to be held at Savenor’s synagogue — one of the largest in the United States — or at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Lower Manhattan. He was insistent that the event takes place at the famed Carnegie Hall in Midtown Manhattan, even if it meant a significant amount of money came out of his own pocket.
The 7:30 p.m. concert to be held in Carnegie’s Stern Auditorium on Jan. 26 will feature music and readings by more than 30 stars and cantors, including Tony and Grammy Award winners and nominees Harvey Fierstein, Chita Rivera, Shoshana Bean, Andrew Lippa and Brenda Russell; pop stars Wendy Moten and Justin Jesso; renowned Cantors Daniel Mutlu, Danny Mendelson, Rachel Brook and Yanky Lemmer; and His Eminence Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York.
‘A life of its own’
Antelis and Savenor say they have been blown away by the immense response, both in and outside the Jewish community.
“The concert has really taken on a life of its own,” said Savenor, who will host what he termed as more of a communal event. “It’s no longer a commemoration of the past. The diversity, and the music and the messaging, is really being elevated and transformed into a statement about confronting discrimination today.”
Maddie Burton, a co-producer for the concert, said that Dolan’s appearance, in particular, is “reflective of the fact that it’s not just Jewish people who are looking to take a stand against antisemitism, that it really is this larger cultural reaction to wanting to declare loud and proud but that the Jews are still here.”
With weeks left until the concert, Burton said “we are putting finishing touches on the melodic and harmonic choices that we’re making, and then we’ll really ramp up rehearsals, working with our full orchestra and getting all of our performers together in the room.”
There is also outreach to be done with the Jewish community and promotion to fill the 2,800-seat auditorium. But Burton said that the response so far from those agreeing to take part in the event is promising for its overall success.
“It wasn’t easy, per se,” he acknowledged. But every single person who signed on pretty emphatically said this is something that they not only want to, but need to, be part of.”