January 4, 2001
A member of L.A. Zimriyah Chorale recounts the group's November trip.
On Nov. 15, the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale, along with other Los Angeles choral groups, left for a European trip that included performances in Prague and, most notably, Nuremberg, where the chorale participated, on Nov. 25 and 26, in performances of Leonard Bernstein's "Symphony No. 3, Kaddish," in a concert hall built on the site of the famous Nazi Nuremberg rallies of the 1930s.
During the Czech leg of the trip, many of the choristers visited Terezin (Theresienstadt), the "model camp" at which the Nazis attempted to fool observers into believing that the Jews and others interned under the Hitler regime were well cared-for but which was really, as chorale member Sherri Lipman notes in this memoir of the trip, an "anteroom to Auschwitz."
Our visit to Terezin was difficult. It was my first exposure to the physical reality of a Nazi concentration camp. The contrast of the trip through the lovely Czech countryside to the ancient fortress town of Terezin was heavy upon me.
Once we arrived, we had the sense of a movie set or a Disney reproduction. Terezin was, in reality, an anteroom to Auschwitz. Most of Terezin's population was eventually shipped to that infamous place, and only a few remaining prisoners were well-fed and clothed to provide the International Red Cross and other observers with the fiction of good treatment.
I shall always remember a sense that I was being accompanied by the souls of those who had once lived there. They were there as we were shown the barracks for boys with the inscription "Yizkor" above the doorway. They shared my view of the cemeteries.
As we filed through the prison cells, the spooky showers, the dorms; as we saw the pictures drawn by the children trapped there; as we came upon the archway spelling out "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work Will Make You Free"), all of these images were shared in a metaphysical way with those who had gone before us. As we sang two compositions composed at Terezin by Viktor Ullmann, who died there, I felt a sadness, yet a joy that was heightened by the sight of 2-year-old Gabriel Ellias, son of two of the chorale's members. The music survived its composer, but we were there to keep it alive. So many people perished, yet Gabriel was there. He was our victory.
Many of us, when passing the Jewish cemetery, placed a stone on a headstone and said a private prayer for the soul it memorialized. Each of us, for our own reasons, needed to leave something there.
Our tour finally took us to the railroad siding, off the main track, where the trains disgorged their doomed passengers. The sky was very blue, the grass around the tracks deep green, and the sun had come out. Together, we chanted "El Male Rachamim" and recited "Kaddish" and then, as if the song sprang from one collective mind, we began to sing "Ani Ma-amin" ("I Believe"). Among our tears and comforting embraces, I think I found a spark of peace.
There are those who suggest that the concentration camps should be torn down and monuments placed on the sites as a memorial. I disagree. The physical reality of the camps is not a tourist magnet. The camps are testimony to what human beings are capable of doing when no one speaks out against evil. I shall carry the image of Terezin all the days of my life.
I started with rage, a blackness in my heart as we entered Nuremberg. No amount of beautiful countryside or picture-postcard houses could dilute it. No pleasant lunch with friends, crammed into a tiny restaurant room, trying to make our wishes known to a nice waitress, helped. I felt the same anger that had kept me from ever visiting Germany before or from buying a German car or studying German or appreciating the music of Wagner.
But the rage began to break up after I entered the hall with my husband and friends and began rehearsing. As we sang together, Jews and non-Jews, children and adults, a little chink appeared in my emotions. Music can do that.
In this place, which was built for Nazis, there were no Nazis.
What a joy to work with the brilliance of the Nuremberg musicians and their director, Jac van Steen. During the days before the first performance, we perfected and tuned countless sections of the difficult work, while stage business was honed and lighting effects finalized.
Finally, it was Saturday night. Meistersinger Hall, this magnificent place set on the site of Hitler's monstrous rallies, in the city where the infamous Nuremberg Laws shackled thousands of Jews, was glittering. The auditorium was packed. We were elegant in our gowns and tuxedoes.
Never had we performed this work so well! We picked up our audience in our musical hands, the "speaker" of the piece grabbed them, and something magical occurred. There was a sense of communion, each of us linked in our own individual emotions, capturing the past and exposing it to the light. My rage eased ever so slightly and a new feeling began to take its place: hope!
When we finished, after the final "Amen" echoed through the hall, there was silence. The audience had stopped breathing and was afraid to do anything. Then, some tentative clapping, more hands, a collective roar, rhythmic applause, countless bows, flowers, our smiles.
In this place of immeasurable pain and madness, we arrived.
In this place, where once echoed the throbbing shrieks of hate, the forests of swastikas and the brutality of goose-stepping multitudes, we brought beauty.
In this place, we could never erase the past, but we could try to go forward.
In this place, I wanted to help change the future for my children and grandchildren. I wanted to show them that each of us must make a difference, by exposing blind hatred to the light of day.
My rage will never completely leave me, nor should it. I must use the power of that emotion for change. I am now a part of the future, and I refuse to let the past repeat itself. As long as I have the strength to do so, I shall try to be a voice that says we can be better.
I shall commit myself to the process of healing, so that unthinking hatreds cannot find currency in our world. It would be foolish to think that one person might make that much of a difference, but I know I'm not alone. Each of us was a part of it, and it all began ... in this place.