A Day in Terezin

A Day in Terezin

On May 24, a small group of Pittsburgh Symphony musicians, staff and board members traveled to the small town of Terezin in the Czech Republic for a special purpose on a scheduled day off.

From the Orel Foundation website:

Terezin is a small town about an hour’s drive northwest of Prague, close to the convergence of the Elbe and Eger rivers; it was originally called Theresienstadt. The complex was built by Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II in 1780 (and named for his mother, the Empress Maria Theresa) to protect Prague from the potential threat of Frederick the Great of Prussia.

Consisting of a small fortress on one side of the river and a garrison town on the other, the town contained three large military barracks (Sudeten, Brandenburg and Magdeburg) and was partially walled; altogether it could easily accommodate about 6,000 people. By the beginning of the 20th century Theresienstadt was obsolete as a military bastion. After the Nazi invasion of Western Europe in May 1940, Jews in the occupied countries began to be persecuted. During 1941 the outside world became increasingly alarmed by the Nazis’ wholesale arrests and transport of the occupied western countries’ Jewish populations to unknown destinations of “resettlement” in the East. To counter this all too correct impression, the Nazis decided to create a propaganda façade: a town in a picturesque area where Jews could be observed living “normal” lives within their own close-knit community – a community that just happened to include the intellectual and artistic cream of European Jewry. Terezín was chosen because it could accommodate a large population and was ideally situated to become a secondary transit camp for those being shipped to extermination in the east. In 1941 the Nazis changed the town’s name back to Theresienstadt, evacuated its inhabitants and, in late November, began transporting Czech Jews there.

Among the first inhabitants were the prominent choral conductor and pianist Raphael Schaechter and the pioneering theatrical director Karel Švenk. Informal evenings of music making began in the barracks virtually immediately, with the inmates singing folk songs together. The first documented concert occurred in December. Thereafter, evening musical activities increased as more and more of Czechoslovakia’s finest musicians arrived. In late December, the Nazis officially recognized these previously secret concerts as Kameradschaftsabende (evenings of fellowship). After all, what could be more normal in a “normal” town than to have evening concerts?

Read more about the choral music tradition of Terezin on the Orel Foundation’s website. More about concentration camp music can be found on this Fullerton College page.

The group toured the former transit camp, including the museum, cemetery, crematorium, secret prayer room and reproductions of dormitory rooms (many were shocked to learn that Terezin also still had inhabitants who call it home). The highlight of the trip was a performance by the Clarion Quartet — composed of Pittsburgh Symphony members Jennifer Orchard Marta Kechkovsky, Bronwyn Banerdt and Tatjana Mead Chamis — of “entarte” or “degenerate” music, as it was dubbed by the Nazis. (You can read more about the background of this performance and the music in this Tribune-Review article.)

The quartet performed beautifully before the small crowd, with Tatjana explaining the history and background of the project and the pieces, choking up with emotion at more than one point. One piece was written at Terezin and it was truly a moving experience to listen to it in the place were it was born.

Look for another blog post from Tatjana, who was the driving force between the quartet and the trip to Terezin, soon!

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