Terezin and the power of art against evil
On a late winter’s day, when chilling fog draped the leafless trees and few birds sang, I retraced the steps of one Edgar Krasa, 93, a Bostonian, a concentration camp survivor, a humble man and cook and partaker, or more precisely, a voice, in one of the ennobling moments amid the Holocaust.
Krasa didn’t take up arms in a ghetto insurrection, or fight in the Jewish underground. Instead, he and several hundred fellow prisoners defied the Nazis through music, rising above abysmal conditions, their captors’ brutality, and almost inevitable execution by unlocking the finest in the human spirit.
The road for Krasa, and for me, began at the old Masaryk Railway Station in the Czech capital Prague. It was Nov. 24, 1941, and the Nazi machine was crushing one of the great and oldest Jewish communities of Europe. Over the next four years, thousands of its artists, writers, musicians, and professionals would be transported to the surreal and singular place for which Krasa was heading that day — Terezin.
The handsome 21-year-old, along with 340 “construction commandos’’ and one other cook, got off that first Terezin-bound train, then trudged across a bleak countryside shouldering the 110 pounds of possessions each was permitted to bring and uncertain about what to expect at their destination. The Germans were billing Terezin, 38 miles northwest of Prague, as a “spa town’’ generously offered by Hitler to shelter Jews from the escalating war in Europe.
As the group passed through the gates of the town, ringed by 9-foot thick walls, any hopes they may have harbored vanished.
“They made us feel right away as prisoners,’’ Krasa remembers.
Terezin was not to become an extermination camp, although some 35,000 of the 140,000 prisoners perished there. Built as a fortress in the 18th century, it served as a collection center for the cream of Jewish intelligentsia, not only from what was then Czechoslovakia but a half dozen other European countries. From there, 87,000 were shipped on to death camps like Auschwitz, and almost none survived. Terezin also proved a propaganda coup for the Nazis.
Krasa remembers how conditions deteriorated as military barracks were converted to stack arriving prisoners like cordwood. A town built to accommodate 5,000, Terezin’s inmate population would reach 55,000. Typhus epidemics, overwork, executions, and malnutrition scythed through its ranks.
Two things probably saved Krasa — cooking and music, plus, of course, luck. He had volunteered to set up Terezin’s kitchens and train cooks in exchange for a promise that his parents would not be deported. An aunt, he remembered, once told him: “Become a cook and you’ll never go hungry.’’ And he also did his best for fellow prisoners, concocting dumplings, a Czech favorite, out of water, flour, and slivers of margarine, dumplings that were reportedly so tasty that some prisoners after liberation asked for his recipe.
A week after his arrival, a rising young musician, Rafael Schachter, was deported from Prague, and the two shared an attic room.
“He was my hero. His vision was to make the lives of every prisoner more bearable,’’ says Krasa. Schachter gathered inmates to sing popular Czech songs, then several operas, and finally rehearsed Verdi’s Requiem Mass, a towering work also known as “Mass for the Dead” that challenges the world’s finest musicians. They learned it by rote from a single smuggled score.
Survivors of Schachter’s chorus recall emerging from a dark, cold cellar where they relentlessly practiced after hours of grueling forced labor to step over the skeletal corpses of those who had meanwhile succumbed. Their own chorus of some 150 had to be replenished twice as members were deported to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
“Well, it kept our spirits lifted. We felt we wanted to go on. We were hungry, we were tired, we were sick. But we had something to live for,’’ Krasa said in a book called “The Music Man of Terezin: The Story of Rafael Schaechter as Remembered by Edgar Krasa,” by Susie Davidson.
Initially carried out in secret, camp commanders were persuaded by Jewish elders to allow such activities to demonstrate to the world the Nazi’s goodwill toward the Jews. Intellectual and artistic life exploded. The Terezin Orchestra and a jazz group called the Ghetto Swingers were formed. Cabarets, operas, and piano recitals, complete with handbills, were staged. Inmates gave more than 2,400 lectures on subjects ranging from physics to philosophy.
Krasa, who once crooned in a barber shop quartet, sang in all 16 performances of the Requiem at Terezin. The final one, on June 23, 1944, was given before senior Nazis, including the principal architect of the genocide, Adolf Eichmann, and an International Red Cross delegation. It was part of an elaborate and successful hoax to present Terezin, greatly prettified for the occasion, as a benign place of refuge.
Schachter had told his singers, now down to 60, to study the Requiem’s message — a heartbreaking plea for salvation but also a terrifying evocation of the day “when the damned are silenced and given to the fierce flames,’’ the day when their captors would be punished. Singing the Requiem to the faces of the Nazis, he said, would be an act of defiance, and an affirmation of their own dignity.
“If the Nazis realized what the lyrics were about, they could be deported. But nobody left. Nobody. We sang those verses,’’ Krasa is quoted as saying in ““The Music Man of Terezin.” “It was the only way we were able to achieve victory.”
Silence greeted the final words of the mass: “Libera me (Deliver me).”
Another survivor of the chorus, Marianka May, has said that they “proved beyond the shadow of any doubt that yes, they have our bodies, yes, we don’t have any names but numbers, but they don’t have our souls, our minds, our beings, what we are.’’ And these, she said, wouldn’t be taken away even at the moment of execution.
Five days before my visit to Terezin earlier this year, the lights dimmed in the elegant, 19th-century Konzerthaus in Berlin, the city where the blueprint for the liquidation of Europe’s Jews was finalized.
Sitting in the front row, holding his wife’s hand, was Krasa, gray-haired, mentally alert, always ready with a joke. And 70 years after he first sang it at Terezin, the somber opening measures of Verdi’s masterwork sounded in a performance paying tribute to Schachter, his fellow musicians, and the power of art over evil.
Above the orchestra, among a 150-strong chorus clad in black, Krasa’s 18-year-old grandson, Alexander, and sons, Daniel and Rafael, named after his friend and mentor, were singing the bass parts, just as Krasa once had.
Conducting was Murry Sidlin, US creator of the Defiant Requiem Foundation, which seeks to preserve the legacy of Terezin — its “artistic defiance” as he calls it — through education and stagings of Verdi’s Requiem across the globe. Krasa, too, promotes this legacy, speaking to students, religious groups, and musicians, and funding young Czech, Israeli, and US composers.
Terezin had only been the beginning of his trials. Krasa survived Auschwitz, a labor camp, and escape from a death march with a bullet lodged in his ribs. The promise was kept and his parents also survived, but 11 family members did not.
Krasa left his homeland, now the Czech Republic, in 1950 and eventually settled outside Boston, where he held executive positions in a nursing home and later opened his own restaurant, retiring in 1991.
A charming town today
By late morning the fog had lifted in Terezin, a quiet, charming town right out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Under blue skies and among the well-restored buildings painted in the Habsburg’s signature mellow yellow, it was at first difficult to imagine Terezin as a doomed ghetto-prison.
This only emerged among the thousands of cemetery gravestones, at the crematorium and execution ground, and in two museums, with rooms dedicated to a lost generation of great creative talent, paintings by prisoner artists of gaunt, haunted figures, and untutored drawings of fairy tale princes and queens.
The cellar where they rehearsed the Requiem is now in a private home on the picturesque town square, and where it was often presented now houses the town council, police, and information center. The SS tortured prisoners in a building where residents do their banking.
Krasa and a dwindling number of survivors returned here in 2006 for a performance of the Requiem and to remember the man they call Rafi.
Deported four months after his last performance, Schachter survived Auschwitz but died on a death march at 39. The liberation of Czechoslovakia was only one month away.
“You see, music can be so much more than playing a tune,’’ Krasa said in the Terezin book. “In my case, it helped me live and it kept me going through the worst part of my life. And for that, I will never forget Rafael Schachter.’’
Clarification: An earlier version of this story did not name the source of several Edgar Krasa quotes. The quotes are from the book “The Music Man of Terezin: The Story of Rafael Schaechter as Remembered by Edgar Krasa,” by Susie Davidson.