Monday, November 05, 2007


Terezin, as I had to explain to the shop assistant at Dussmann's in Berlin, is better known to the Germans as 'Theresienstadt', a concentration camp near Prague. (Usually Dussmann's shop assistant's are pretty well informed). Theresienstadt gained notoriety, apart from the usual reason, by being used by the Germans in a propaganda film along the lines of 'we have built a city for the Jews', showing people partaking of a cup of coffee outside a cafe and so on. The truth was of course different, and if you want, you can go and look at the place next time you are in Prague.

In Terezin many artists and musicians found themselves, amongst them Erwin Schulhoff, Gideon Klein and many others, all of whom composed and all of whom perished. This CD by Anne Sophie von Otter and others is not the first with Terezin music; I have another one somewhere. It has a series of songs, as well as Daniel Hope playing Schulhoffs solo violin sonata (did they not have enough songs to fill the disc?). It has been highly praised by Jessica in her blog, as well as in the German media (who under the circumstances will never be able to do anything else).

It is indeed very beautifully sung and performed, and heartbreaking at the same time, eg the lullaby for the Terezin children going to....sleep...., or 'farewell my friend, ...I'm going on the Poland transport' [to Auschwitz, presumably].

And yet, and yet, I have a small problem with it. I find it too beautiful. My gold standard for Jewish music singing is Judita Leitaite's singing on the soundtrack for the film 'Ghetto' about the Vilnius ghetto theatre. You can listen to bits of it here. It's the sheer rawness and hunger for life that I find so impressive. Liora Grodnikaite, a stunning young Lithuanian singer, has also been heard to perform these songs (mostly transcribed/composed/orchestrated by Anatolijus Senderovas) incredibly movingly. But then again, am I being fair?

Much of the Terezin was written by very high class composers, cultured and maybe assimilated very much into the Austro-Hungarian ways. The German songs in the collection are in high German (like BBC Standard English if it still exists), whereas the songs I hear in Lithuania are generally in Yiddish. Maybe that makes the world of Terezin totally different to the world of the (further) East European shtetl, and maybe I should not compare these two worlds. But then again, the people singing these songs/performing the pieces at Terezin will not have been in the best of health, unlike the present-day performers with their well-cared for voices and fine instruments. I don't know.

It's certainly a CD well worth getting if you want to get a feel of life in a camp (omitting the dirt, disease, death, hunger, cold, ill treatment, overcrowding etc), particularly if you study the texts of the songs where some raise themselves above life in the camps, and others very clearly describe the reality of life (the meat you can only see with a magnifying glass). It's interesting that now there are young Germans who do not wish to get information about this period - apart from the neo-nazis maybe other people cannot deal with it emotionally. It's nice to have that choice -in the 1930s many people in Germany had no such choice.


Anonymous said...

As fa as I know Erwin Schulhoff was never interned in Terezin.

Claude Torres

violainvilnius said...

Wow, quite right, Claude. According to your own entry in Wikipedia and some other sources, he in fact died in Wuelzburg concentration camp in Bavaria, Germany.

(I must have assumed all Czech Jews went to Terezin). My apologies.