Defiant Requiem

Late in Sukkot, I find myself still haunted by Yom Kippur melodies. It’s that “song-in-your-head” phenomenon that psychologists say can only be treated by replacing it with another song—the disease itself, they say, is the only cure. But I don’t want to be cured.

The song in my head is just a line: Ani ma’amin, ani ma’amin, ani ma’a-amin . . . b’viat . . . ha’Moshiach . . . b’viat ha’Moshiach ani ma’amin. Utterly simple: I believe, I believe, I believe . . . in the coming . . . of the Messiah . . . in the coming of the Messiah I believe. “Ani Ma’amin” as a whole is longer, based on Maimonides’ Thirteen Articles of the Faith. It is indeed a haunting melody and a pivotal prayer for Jews. Of all thirteen, this is the one I believe in least, yet this one plays in my head continually.

Surely, the thought occurs to me, if Moshiach were real, he would have come during the Shoah. He would have led the children out of the ghettoes, taken them, like the Pied Piper of Hameln, off the lines going up to the gas chambers. As he did not see fit to show up then, I for one am no longer waiting. But there are other redemptions.

In a sermon on Yom Kippur, just before the Yizkor or Memorial Service, Rabbi Hillel Norry, as he often does, said something courageous. He referred to an upcoming performance by the Atlanta Symphony of what is called the “Defiant Requiem”—Verdi’s Requiem, performed sixteen times by Jewish inmates of Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp, beginning in late 1943, while they were being starved and worked to death.

Terezin was a showcase for foreign visitors of how well the Jews were treated in the camps. Jews there were starved and worked to death more gradually, and eventually shipped to death camps. But in the meantime they were allowed to give musical performances—everything from cabaret to Mozart. Defiant Requiem explicitly memorializes the Terezin chorus and its director, Raphael Schächter.

So why would mentioning this be courageous? Well, at the time the camp’s Council of Jewish Elders, including leading Reform Rabbi Leo Baeck, found it objectionable that Jews should be singing a Christian mass—Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison—Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy. The Council wanted them to sing Mendelssohn’s Elijah, or another Jewish-themed classic.

Schächter and his 150 or so singers thought this could get them immediately deported, while a Christian requiem would impress their Nazi captors. Mostly uncultivated, they would be clueless about the Latin. Schächter, in frequent arguments with the Council, said, “We can sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them.”

I took out and played the Defiant Requiem DVD (no longer available) given me years ago by my friend Jim Flannery, who has taught Irish literature for decades. It blends dramatic descriptions of how the Terezin Jews prepared, interviews with survivors who were chorus members, and a stunning performance by the Portland Opera Chorus.

Here is what the Terezin Jews sang to their tormentors:

A hymn to you is fitting, God of Zion,

And a vow to you shall be made in Jerusalem.

Day of wrath

That day shall dissolve the world in ashes…

What trembling there will be when the judge shall come

To examine all things thoroughly.

A trumpet spreading its wondrous sound

Across the graves of all regions

Will summon all before the throne…

A written book shall be brought forth

In which all shall be contained

From which the world shall be judged.

When the judge therefore takes his seat

Whatever is hidden shall be revealed.

Nothing shall remain unavenged…

They were singing the experience of Yom Kippur, which reminds us in another language of Dies irae—The day of wrath, and of judgment. Will it come? In a way it did. Some top Nazis at least were hanged, others imprisoned. Many Germans sufferred badly.

But after the war some of the starved, sick Jews of Europe saw uniformed members of His Majesty’s Jewish Brigade stride in victory into their places of confinement. Some touched the Star of David on their shoulders. One asked in all sincerity out of his daze of oppression, “You’re Jewish angels?” Angels they may not have been, but they took hundreds of thousands of Jews to the real Promised Land.

Adolf Eichmann, hearing about the Verdi, said, “Those crazy Jews—singing their own requiem.” But some of them lived to see Jewish justice meted out to Eichmann. And some believed the Requiem sustained them. Many years later Marianka May, a surviving member of that defiant Terezin chorus, said: “God sent us the Verdi—God sent us the music…God sent us the way to live.”

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