Music from Theresienstadt
"...our will to create culture was as strong as our will to live."
from the Program Notes
by Christopher Hailey
The German annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 and occupation of the remaining portions of Czechoslovakia in 1939 brought to an end the short history of a vibrant Republic that had emerged from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I. In addition to its Czech- and Slovak-speaking majorities, Czechoslovakia had sizable German, Polish, and Hungarian communities, and in and among all of these communities were citizens of Jewish ancestry, some still living apart in historically segregated enclaves and ghettos, others fully assimilated into the larger civic fabric.
Czechoslovakia's Jews were among the first to suffer the oppressive weight of Nazi occupation. Racial decrees put severe restrictions upon employment, educational, and housing opportunities, as well as limiting physical and financial mobility. At the end of 1941 the small eighteenth-century garrison town of Terezin, also known as Theresienstadt, was transformed into a re-settlement camp to sequester the country's Jewish population. By 1942 the town's original population of 7,000 had been forced out to make way for an influx of Jewish residents that would eventually number nearly 60,000. Under such overcrowded circumstances living conditions were dire. Privacy was non-existent, food was in short supply, and, disease - Jews were forbidden any medication - was rampant.
Despite all this Theresienstadt was hailed by Czechoslovakia's Nazi occupiers as a "city for the Jews," a "self-governing ghetto" with all the embellishments of "normal" civic, educational, and cultural life. This was the image presented to the world in a very public and questionable inspection by a committee of the International Red Cross in June 1944. What these inspectors saw was little more than a thinly veiled Potemkin village, a façade for the Nazi's brutal system of extermination.
The bitter irony remains that in Theresienstadt there was indeed a remarkable flowering of cultural life between 1942 and 1944, involving concerts, opera performances, theater and cabaret, lecture series, art exhibitions, and literary soirees - in short, a range of activity that reflected the enormous diversity and creativity of the camp's population. In the end, the Jewish residents of Theresienstadt were drawn from all corners of Europe. Some were devoutly religious, some militantly secular; Protestant and Catholic converts shared quarters with committed communists and fervent anarchists; they came from all walks of life, and from the most varied cultural, educational and linguistic backgrounds. It is little surprise, then, that the camp's musical life represented a similarly broad spectrum of talents and interests.
Two generations of composers are represented on this recital. Pavel Haas, Hans Krása, Viktor Ullmann, and Ilse Weber, all born just before or after 1900, had come of age during the First World War and established their careers and creative identities during the first years of Czechoslovakian independence. Zikmund Schul, Gideon Klein, and Karl Bermann, from a still younger generation, were just finishing their studies when the German army invaded their homeland. This is a cross-section of composers that includes both Czech and German speakers, zealous nationalists and confirmed internationalists. Both generations built upon a rich national inheritance that was the legacy of Bedrich Smetana and Antonin Dvorak as transmitted through such revered figures as Josef Suk (1874-1935) and Vitezslav Novak (1870-1949). More immediate influences were such post-war luminaries as Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) and Alois Hába (1893-1973), and Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), whose international fame rested on an enticing mix of everything from French-influenced neo-classicism to jazz and quarter-tone atonality. And then there was Leos Janácek (1854-1928), the distinguished master of a much older generation who set an extraordinary example of Czech individuality with a musical language largely independent of inherited German models.