I wrote last time that I had a song in my head—Ani Ma’amin—that I didn’t want to be cured of. But I was cured, after the Atlanta performance of Defiant Requiem conducted by Murry Sidlin, who with Verdi’s (and Rafael Schächter’s) help created it—yet I was not cured by Verdi, much as I love him. I’ll explain, but first:
After my last posting, I heard from my friend Tosia Szechter Schneider, who wrote about her own Shoah experience in her moving memoir, Someone Must Survive to Tell the World. Like many Jews in Terezin, Tosia questioned the choice of music: “To tell you the truth I felt reluctant to go to hear the requiem, glorying a faith which contributed so much to the suffering of our people.” Still she did go, looking elegant as ever when I met her and her husband in the lobby. Next day she wrote again:
“You asked about my feelings and comments about the concert last night, a few thoughts come to mind: No, I have no right to criticize Schächter (by the way Schächter is my maiden name) for choosing to perform the Catholic Requiem. I would have voted though with Rabbi Baeck, I would have rather listened to Bloch’s “Sacred Service”, I think so would have most of the Jews as well. Would the Nazis have permitted it, is another question. [Verdi’s] music is magnificent, it lifted their spirits as those survivors attested. But after two groups of the chorus were shipped to Auschwitz, surely they must have understood that their lives will not be spared, as indeed they were not. It was to live another day, to feel human another day, no illusions any more were possible. To perform the Requiem now in their memory was appropriate, the music was glorious; all I could think of as I sat there and listened, those poor people who knew full well that their days are numbered, yet they sang…We honor that spirit, as we mourn their tragic death.”
The survivors Tosia mentions were from Rafael Schächter’s chorus, appearing in plain video interviews excerpted on screens above the stage. Edgar Krasa said of Schächter, “He was a musical godsend to everybody.” Of a performance staged for inspectors, Eva Rocek said, “We were hoping that the Red Cross would see that something is wrong, that this is not a group of people entertaining…I think they saw what the Nazis wanted them to see.” This confirms Tosia’s insight: no illusions.
But Tosia adds, “yet they sang.” In Atlanta an actor and an actress read quotations from other survivors: “I listened to the Requiem…as though I had never heard music before. What a rejuvenating and hopeful experience it was. I listened with the same focus and intensity and desperation with which I would have run to grab a piece of bread that someone had dropped. The music was more than nourishing, it was consuming. I achieved a relationship with music I never knew was possible. Listening was not an option, it was a necessity. If we could not fill our bellies, at least we could fill our souls.” Another: “We are now deeply, unusually, and strangely inside the music.”
That night, the music was inside me. Christian yes, but with Jewish roots throughout:
Let the angel Michael show them the holy light…
Grant them, God, that they may pass from death to life,
as you once promised Abraham and his seed.
In Latin as in Hebrew, Michael is “Mikh-a-el”—“Who is like God?” In Midrash, Mikhael is the angel God sends to help the Jews, beginning with Abraham— the prince who defends the Jewish people against Samael, angel of death, about as close as the Jews get to Satan. The Nazis were angels of death made flesh.
Yet the Requiem is not just about Judgment, but forgiveness. The singers beg for themselves and the worst sinners to be saved, if they repent. But in Jewish tradition God cannot absolve you of sins against others. And unlike Christians, Jews are not enjoined to forgive. Only the wronged person has that choice, and may decline. Tosia does not forgive those who murdered her family, and I would never ask her to. “I might add,” she said, “that no one has ever come to me and asked forgiveness for killing my father and brother and all other members of my family. I certainly have no mandate to forgive the murder of those untold millions of our people.”
But she agrees the Requiem comforted the Terezin Jews. In to me the most moving moment of the performance, the Sanctus begins, but the chorus abruptly stops and the survivors speak again: “The Sanctus is spiritually uplifting,” says Edgar Krasa. Then Marianka Zadikow-May, in a close-up of her unadorned lovely face: “I hear the chorus. I hear that they’ve started behind me. It happened yesterday.” You realize that she is gesturing with her right hand over her shoulder, into a momentary silence. Then, stunningly, she begins to sing: “Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus!”
The video darkens, light falls on the chorus: “Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus!” Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Hosts, heaven and earth are filled with your glory—a Latinized Hebrew prayer. Zadikow-May appears again: “Rafi was the one who actually put the word defiance in connection with music…that this particular music is our way of fighting them…When I felt I couldn’t go on any longer there was the entire Libera me.” The live chorus resumes, “Liberate me O God on that tremendous day, liberate me from eternal death.” The last words: a plaintive Libera me.
But that was not the end. Softly, very slowly, music played as the chorus left, singers’ footfalls striking wooden stairs. Above, a different video: Jews loaded into cattle cars, the doors locked shut. Finally, there remained one sole violinist, still playing the last line of the Kaddish. Oseh shalom bim’romov, hu ya’aseh shalom alenu, v’al kol Yisroel, v’imru, imru Omeyn. This “cured” me of Ani Ma’amin, although I would happily have either in my head. Onscreen, an inexact but fine translation: “May the source of peace send peace to all who mourn, and comfort to all who are bereaved. Amen.”
Other than the Requiem itself, much of the quoted text comes from the exquisite performance of Murray Sidlin’s Defiant Requiem by the Oregon Symphony and Portland Opera Chorus, under Sidlin’s direction, in April 2002. I can’t find a recording for sale. If anyone can, please let me know. Meanwhile, find out about past performances here.