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The Concentration Camp Choir

Entrance Gate to Courtyard "Arbeit macht frei" is a German phrase meaning "work sets you free," found at the entrance gate to the Terezin camp courtyard (Photo: Jack Hazut)

Writing at The Wall Street Journal, Bryony Clarke takes us back to 1944 when an inmate choir at Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia performed Giuseppe Verdi’s “Requiem,” for a gathering hosted by Nazi officials.

Clarke explains why the group of Jewish inmates would sing a Christian prayer to the Nazi delegation, and the hope – and voice – this performance gave to them:

Verdi’s nearly 90-minute masterpiece features a fearsome evocation of fire and fury, promises of posthumous punishment, and dire warnings of God’s wrath. While other settings of the Latin text omit the unsettling sequences and emphasize only eternal rest and serenity, Verdi accentuates the themes of judgment, justice and vengeance. The apocalyptic hymn “Dies Irae” is repeated throughout. “Therefore when the Judge takes his seat, whatever is hidden will be revealed: Nothing shall remain unavenged.”

“Rafael said we would sing to the Nazis what we couldn’t say to them,” says Marianka May, 95, a Terezin survivor who sang in Schächter’s choir. “The Latin words remind them that there is a judge, and one day they will answer to that judge.”

“Being in the choir gave us the wonderful ability to think about the next rehearsal, the next performance—it reminded us we come from a normal world. It was soul-saving. I survived the war and I still have a soul.”

Tags: Facts and Findings

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