Susie Davidson’s new book shows the power of music
The Boston-based filmmaker, poet, and author has written four books, all about some aspect of the Holocaust. Her newest is “The Music Man of Terezin: The Story of Rafael Schaechter as Remembered by Edgar Krasa.”
Q. The Holocaust and its many impacts is a constant theme in your writing, but for the lay person who doesn’t know them, could you briefly describe who Schaechter was and Krasa is?
A. Rafael Schaechter, as you know, was a renowned Jewish composer and conductor in Europe, who was taken into custody by the Nazis and housed at the Terezin concentration camp near Prague, where he famously continued to make music — much of it in secret, even though the Nazis forbade most of it. And Krasa is a Holocaust survivor who lives here in the Boston area, who was a young man during World War II and was also housed at Terezin. He was a cook at the camp and got to know Schaechter very well and remains in awe of him to this day. He even named his son Rafael.
Q. So for all the people with amazing stories tied to the Holocaust, why Schaechter and why now?
A. I’d have to say it was new revelations about the “Verdi Requiem,” a story I’ve thought for a very long time should be a Hollywood movie. It’s so moving. For those who don’t know, the “Verdi Requiem” was a composition that addressed judgment day at the end of one’s life. Schaechter wrote a version for his Terezin chorus of other Jewish prisoners to sing to the Nazis. But what was special about the piece is that they were telling their captors that one day they would be judged for their sins, their actions.
Q. That was pretty nervy of Schaechter and his chorus. How did they expect to get away with it?
A. Well, the “Verdi Requiem” was written in Latin. And even though the Jewish Council of Elders at Terezin warned him not to do it and cautioned him he was risking his life, Schaechter decided to take a chance that the Nazis there would not understand the language or the meaning. It was an extreme gamble, given that Latin was not an unknown language in Europe at the time, especially to people who were fans of classical music.
Q. Was Schaechter’s “stunt” ever discovered by the Nazis?
A. No, but he knew the risks. And ultimately the risks caught up with him in a more general sense. He lost his life at Auschwitz. For Schaechter and for his chorus who followed his leadership, getting away with the “Verdi Requiem” was a small victory. And at the time, small victories were treasured, considering the circumstances they lived in.
Q. You mentioned new revelations about Schaechter moving you to share his story now. What were they?
A. Well, they were that he was a prolific writer while at Terezin. I was shocked to learn how many major projects he composed and performed while there — more than 100, including versions of the “Bartered Bride” and “The Marriage of Figaro.”
Q. A constant and perhaps clichéd criticism of younger people — let’s say under 30, for the sake of discussion — is that history this serious never quite moves them as deeply as it should. What makes you think your new book on Schaechter’s “Verdi Requiem” will be received differently?
A. One of Edgar’s favorite adages is that music is a form of resistance. Performing the “Verdi Requiem” at Terezin is the ultimate resistance story. And I’ve always felt that young people respond well to “rebellion” themes, especially expressed through music. I mean I’ve always been attracted to that. I’m aging myself, but I grew up on punk rock. To this day, Johnny Rotten is my favorite musician. I’m a big Clash fan. Music with a conscience gets young people’s attention. And so Rafael’s story will hopefully appeal to them.
James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@globe
.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.