Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

The fact that good works will come out of the one-time Chicago performance of “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin” is a given.

One-hundred percent of the proceeds of the 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 23, event at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., will benefit the Jewish Federation of Chicago’s Holocaust Community Fund, which supports needy Holocaust survivors.

The Holocaust Community Fund delivers food, medical and dental care, in-home care and financial aid to needy survivors, while also offering socialization opportunities and weekly support groups.

But another important benefit accrues from “Defiant Requiem,” reaching across the many decades from the program’s setting in 1944, in which Jews sang in an act of both defiance and hope, well into the 21st century. The show may cover concentration camp inmates’ inspiring concerts, but their performed message rings as true now as then. “Defiant Requiem” has become timely due to the bubbling up of anti-Semitic acts across the United States.

“It’s always amazing when a piece of art finds its time again,” said Emmy Award nominee Peter Riegert, who will portray lead character Maestro Raphael Schächter. “This was performed in front of Nazis in 1944. It’s absolutely timely again.

“Sometimes historical things make the art come around again. It’s extraordinary. This is not a historical relic. It’s a living, breathing piece that speaks to our time. Jew-hating will (historically) recede, but it’s coming around again. It’s a perverse relevance. We’re not living in Terezin, but we will feel a connection to this story in ways we wouldn’t have without the historical times we’re living in.”

Maestro Murry Sidlin conceived “Defiant Requiem” and has conducted every one of the nearly 40 performances around the word to date. He admitted he is “very frightened of some of the signals and signs” of an ugly resurgent past he is seeing today.

“Thank G-d we are living in America, where there are laws and people to enforce them,” Sidlin said. “That doesn’t mean there are not signs out there and events out there taking place we should be extremely concerned about.  I don’t find fault with any specific person or organization or collection of people. But if it’s not responded to properly, that’s the signal to the next group of people lying in wait that it’s OK to do this. That’s what worries me.

“People in positions of authority who have the voice and have the capability to use that voice have got to be emphatic. I don’t think the by-the-by approach to saying this is not acceptable is as good as ‘We will absolutely not tolerate it.’”

Audiences increasingly skittish about bomb threats to schools and JCCs, and desecrated cemeteries can now find real emotional kinship to the survivors their ticket purchase will benefit.

“I think the phrase (today) is ‘to observe,’” event co-chair Bill Silverstein, a Chicago real-estate executive, said of the new wariness required of modern Jews. “What we’re living through is what survivors lived through. We have undertones that somewhat mirror what happened in the Thirties in Europe. It gives us a very small glimpse into what many of our ancestors in Europe dealt with.”

Words and actions can now powerfully say what the Terezin concentration camp inmates could only sing, via their musical code. Their message has literally been a show-stopper worldwide, drawing some 65,000 since its first performance in 2002. Three performances at Terezin itself have been staged. For Sidlin, the most impactful memories were not applause, but stunned silence at key moments in the performances in Berlin and Jerusalem.

“Defiant Requiem” re-creates the heroic performances of Schachter, one of a number of Jewish composers and conductors interred in the Theresienstadt ghetto, more commonly known as Terezin, in Czechoslovakia. Schachter, a Czech conductor and pianist, assembled a choir of fellow inmates that numbered 200 at its peak. Using a smuggled score, they learned and performed Verdi’s “Requiem Mass” 16 times. The final performance was staged for senior SS officers and Red Cross officials.

“My feeling is I don’t know if (Schachter) was bringing culture, as much as bringing survival,” Riegert said. “He gave people the courage to keep breathing at the end of the 14-hour day. What’s amazing wasn’t the concert, it was rehearsals for months under those horrible conditions.”

Sidlin’s show features the Chicago Philharmonic orchestra. Riegert will be joined by fellow Jewish performer Tovah Feldshuh, an Emmy and Tony Award nominee, playing “The Lecturer.”

Rounding out the cast are the Chicago Vocal Artists Ensemble, soprano Jennifer Check, mezzo-soprano Ann McMahan Quintero, tenor Zach Borichevsky and bass Nathan Stark.

Integrated into the show are films of the Terezin chorus survivors and a 1944 Nazi propaganda film on Terezin.

Silverstein and wife Karyn join Virginia and Norman Bobins as chairs of “Defiant Requiem.” Contributions from the Pritzker and Crown families cover all production costs.

Sidlin believes his original production did not have to be tweaked to reflect current events.

“I have (been tempted),” he said. “But I always come down on the side of re-reading the script and re-reading the nature of what we do. I think it speaks for itself. I think it’s very clear. I think it’s powerful. I think it says what has to be said. I think that everybody in the audience will understand these are the signs then, and the relationship with now. We are clearly speaking against intolerance.”

“Defiant Requiem” is his work of a lifetime. He has ranged around the world as a conductor. In the U.S. he has conducted the Boston Pops; the Atlanta, New Mexico, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Seattle and St. Louis Symphony Orchestras; the Colorado, Honolulu, Houston, San Antonio, San Francisco and Utah Symphonies, and the Florida and Minnesota Orchestras.

Sidlin first learned of Schacter’s story in an old book he picked up at a sidewalk sale. The Terezin concerts certainly were not in the forefront of Holocaust knowledge.

“I knew of Terezin, but it had a history I did not totally know about,” Riegert said.

His curiosity whetted, Sidlin discovered several survivors from the camp chorus and Schachter’s niece in Jerusalem.

The question about the “why” of Schachter was answered by the chorus members. Their conductor told them, “Through music, we can sing to the Nazis what we can’t say.”

Schachter initially got more resistance from fellow inmates, not their Nazi oppressors. Terezin’s Jewish governing council feared the consequences of a performance steeped in Catholic liturgy. But Schachter won out as “Requiem’s” lyrics included “nothing will remain unchanged” and “liberate me,” perfect to comprise a protest/hope anthem instead of a religious opera.

Sidlin crafted his program, and took it on the road. But support reached a new level in June 2009, when “Defiant Requiem” served as the conclusion to an International Holocaust Conference attended by nearly 800 delegates from 47 nations at Terezin.

One of the U.S. attendees was Stuart Eizenstat, the former top domestic advisor in the Carter Administration, and U.S. ambassador to the European Union and Under Secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton Administration. After witnessing the program and pledging his support, Sidlin formed a Defiant Requiem foundation with Eizenstat as chairman.

“When he saw the performance, he became quite taken by it, and asked if we could bring it to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.,” said Sidlin. “I said to him we need a permanent organization to serve this story and other like stories to serve the memories of the prisoners who were lost, and the survivors.”

Sidlin linked up with the right guy. Eizenstat had many more decades than he did in dealing with the Holocaust story.

“He has dedicated virtually his entire adult life to working with survivors,” Sidlin said. “In the Carter administration, he led the fight against anti-Semitism and help draft legislation for the (U.S.) Holocaust museum. He was asked as a prominent international attorney to negotiate on behalf of survivors with the governments of Germany and France. He has raised several billion dollars on behalf of survivors.

“There are a lot of survivors in this country that are below the poverty line. That has been Stu’s obsession.”

Meanwhile, through “forensic musicology,” Sidlin discovered the stories of 15 other composers at Terezin. He thus developed the concert-drama “Hours of Freedom: the Terezin Composer.” Like Schachter’s story, it is full of triumph and tragedy. Sidlin told of composers being shipped out of Terezin to their doom shoving their printed works into the hands of remaining inmates. They adhered to the creative code that music must outlive them.

Schachter’s maestro-under-fire tale is enough to consume as a start. Through all its travels, “Defiant Requiem” had never passed through Chicago – but not through lack of trying.

Donna Milanovich, executive director and chief operating officer of the Chicago Philharmonic, spoke to Sidlin about the project. She had her own vested interest in a Holocaust-themed performance. Her in-laws were survivors. Mother-in-law Lea Srajer, still living, survived Auschwitz. Father-in-law Martin Srajer, now deceased, came out of the Mauthausen camp.

“My mother-in-law’s character is the most positive and forward-thinking of anyone that I have met,” Milanovich said.  Maybe that’s why young Lea so impressed a guard that he’d leave her an apple a day – the fruits of survival.”

Other Chicago Philharmonic musicians also had Holocaust lineage in their families.

“It’s a meaningful program, with an eternal message against hate,” Milanovich said. “We tried to do it different ways and approached people.”

The Jewish Federation eventually gave its enthusiastic endorsement to “Defiant Requiem.”

“All of our people will perform, a 65-piece orchestra, a full Verdi orchestra,” Milanovich said.

A member of West Suburban Temple Har Zion in River Forest, she approached synagogue management about bringing Sidlin in as a speaker. Sidlin will provide a preview of “Defiant Requiem” at 4 p.m. Sunday, March 19, at Har Zion, 1040 N. Harlem Ave. He will share a documentary about the making of the performance.  An RSVP is required to wsthz.org or (708) 366-9000.

Sidlin will then get busy with final rehearsals. Riegert, 69, and Feldshuh, 64, provide the star power.  

Among other roles, New Yorker Riegert was the narrator for “The First Basket,” a documentary on early pro basketball’s influence on Jewish culture. He has played roles ranging from Donald “Boon” Schoenstein in ‘Animal House’ to corrupt New Jersey state legislator Ronald Zellman in ‘The Sopranos’ to David Sachs in ‘Dads.’ He starred opposite former girlfriend Bette Midler in the TV adaptation of ‘Gypsy.’ Riegert earned an Emmy nomination for best supporting actor in HBO’s ‘Barbarians at the Gate.’  

“It is the music,” Riegert said of “Defiant Requiem’s” top attraction. “It is a multi-layered program. It’s an awesome portrait to see people fighting to keep going.  It takes courage to be a human being, and here under the most extreme conditions.

“The audience will take something away from this. That’s why it has so much power. It’s an active thing, a question-and-answer thing.”

Feldshuh first came to fame as Helena Slomova in the NBC mini-series ‘Holocaust.’ Feldshuh had a recurring role as defense attorney Danielle Melnick on ‘Law & Order.’ Most recently, Feldshuh played a former politician doomed to be “turned” into a zombie on the popular ‘The Walking Dead’ series on AMC.

Theirs’ and others’ artistic talents will advance the mission to benefit survivors.

“What attracted me was a series of things,” co-chair Silverstein said. “Four to five years ago in Israel, I learned one-third of survivors were living below the poverty level. I was stunned. I learned the same applied to the survivor population in Chicago. What a travesty.

“When I was approached about this concert and the idea that it would help survivors, I thought what better way to mobilize support.”
“Defiant Requiem” tickets can be purchased in ranges between $30 and $500.  Sponsorships also are available. Contact www.juf.org/DefiantRequiemTickets or (312) 294-3000.

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