During the Second World War, the Nazi concentration camp of Terezin became the site of an improbably rich cultural life, fueled by leading Czech-Jewish creative figures who were interned there for months, sometimes years, before being transported to death camps in the East. There were plays, concerts, operas, even academic lectures. “By no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon,” wrote the composer Viktor Ullmann of his time at Terezin. “Our endeavor with respect to art was commensurate with our will to live.”
One of the most active figures in the camp’s fabled musical life was the conductor and pianist Rafael Schaechter, who persuaded his beleaguered fellow inmates, their minds dulled by hunger and forced labor, to gather at night in a dank barracks cellar to rehearse, of all scores, Verdi’s monumental Requiem. Beginning in 1943, Schaechter led over a dozen performances of this epic work, the ranks of his choir often depleted by transports to Auschwitz. Schaechter himself was placed on one of the trains in October of 1944, and he perished on a death march the following year.