We Shall Sing to the Nazis What We Cannot Say to Them: Verdi at Terezin

Kingman, AZ:  Old Mohave County Jail, 4/23/15
Kingman, AZ: Old Mohave County Jail, 4/23/15

A ‘defiant requiem’ seems a contradiction.  But not when a chorus of 100 Jews interned at Terezin in 1944 sang Giuseppi Verdi’s ‘Messa da Requiem’ to their Nazi captors and to Red Cross representatives visiting this Potemkin labor camp.[1]

Murray Sidlin has created an astonishing concert program, ‘Defiant Requiem:  Verdi at Terezin’.  It received a performance at Boston’s Symphony Hall on April 27 that I will never forget.  [N.B.: My cousin, Marc Heller, was the tenor soloist, and a fine job he did.]

If you are in range of San Diego, May 7, its next performance, don’t miss it.


           ‘Requiem Aeternum…’ begins the Latin mass for the dead:

Eternal rest grant them, O Lord;
and may light perpetual shine upon them.[2]

 That beautiful, comforting prayer contains a sting, one marvels the SS did not feel, when it was sung by slave laborers whom all knew were shortly to die.  And sing it they did 16 times, though the chorus was reduced by transports to Auschwitz.

Their captors cared little what the Jews of Terezin did in their spare time, so long as it didn’t include rebellion.  It was the inspiration of Rafael Schächter, a Czech then about 38, to create a chorus to ‘sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them’ in the words of a Christian service.

Conductor Murray Sidlin happened on this story and found surviving members of the chorus.  (Two graced the performance in Boston.)  From interviews with them, he constructed three narrative voices which interrupted the music of the Requiem, as the priestly celebrant would in a church.


           In these interjections, the story of Schächter and Verdi in Terezin unfold aided by film of three choristers in great age and of the ghetto – as the camp was called – in early summer 1944.  Of course, the tale is moving, compelling.  But it’s how Maestro Sidlin tells it that gives the performance its unique force.

In a mass sung in church, when the choir ends a section, there is a pause – a space for the worshipers to gather their thoughts, to relax – before the priest begins to speak or chant.  To see what I mean, take a listen to the 1964 Solemn Pontifical Requiem Mass in memory of John F. Kennedy which is both historically significant and movingly celebrated.[3]

But Sidlin offers not a second’s respite.


           I’d never much cared for Verdi’s Requiem.

I can’t say why, but for the first time I really heard it in this performance.  Hearing it segmented as it may – or may not – have been intended gave it a life I hadn’t recognised in the continuous recordings I’d heard so many times.

And placed in a dual political context – the one Verdi intended in 1874, the memorial to the poet of Italian nationalism, Alessandro Manzoni and the one in 1944 in which Rafael Schächter found himself trapped – gave it a meaning far beyond its timeless words.

What struck Schächter was the Requiem’s anticipation of God’s judgment particularly in the long section of the mass called the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath).  They were words the Catholics amongst the Nazis and, later, the Red Cross would have heard several times before.

It was to the Dies Irae Schächter referred when he told his choristers, ‘We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them.’  In part, the 13th century hymn says:

Death and nature shall stand amazed
when creation rises again
to answer to the Judge.

A written book will be brought forth
which contains everything
for which the world shall be judged.
And so when the Judge takes his seat
whatever is hidden shall be made manifest,
Nothing shall remain unavenged.[4]


           As brilliant as the music was, I cannot praise highly enough the stagecraft of Monday evening’s performance.

Twice, the sound of European steam engine whistles – shreiks from Shoah I will always associate with transports – punctuated the end of a choral segment.  That just shouldn’t work.  But it did.

At perfectly chosen moments, the orchestra silenced yielding to a piano, an instrument not in Verdi’s scoring.  At Terezin, it was the only instrument Schächter had.  Its solitary sound from an invisible source reminded me I was in no sense experiencing a re-enactment.

Dressed in black, all on stage made a somber presence.  At the performanc’s end, a message flashed on the screen asking for no applause but a moment of silent reflection.

We had just watched clips from the film of healthy inmates working, eating, playing, that the SS had staged.  Immediately after its completion, the film maker and everyone recognisable in it had been packed in freight cars and sent to their deaths.  The obscenity!

Sitting in the twilight eyes drawn to the screen, I didn’t realise for some seconds that the concertmaster, Herbert Greenberg, had begun an eery, yet catchy, violin solo, the tune I learnt afterwards to a setting of the Kaddish, the mourners’ prayer.[5]

As this haunting melody absorbed the motionless audience, the orchestra left by the stage doors while the chorus walked through the floor and out the Hall’s back doors softly humming the tune of the solo.[6]

The screen’s instruction was just right, albeit superfluous.  I couldn’t have clapped.  I couldn’t move.



  1. ‘Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin’ program for April 27, 2015, Symphony Hall, Boston, Mass., unpaginated.  I have relied on the program for this review.  Only where there is a hyperlink or a footnote have I used other sources.  I wish the Defiant Requiem Foundation had included the program’s text on its website.
  2. Id.  The uncredited translation of the Mass’s text here is more faithful, more lovely, than this one on the University of California at Davis website.
  3. I can’t resist plugging this remarkable recording.  Richard Cardinal Cushing, a distinctive voice of Boston’s Irish past, celebrated the mass which took place two months after the assassination.  A man I admired greatly, Erich Leinsdorf, led the Boston Symphony Orchestra and three choruses in the Mozart Requiem.  He had fled Austria just ahead of the Nazis.  I still find his recordings interesting.  I miss his occasional columns and reviews for the Boston Globe.
  4. Program, op. cit.  The Wikipedia entry for ‘Dies Irae’ offers two subtly different translations, different from the one quoted as well.  It’s a model entry.
  5. Annoyingly, the Program did not list or credit the incidental music.
  6. In his fine review for the Boston Globe on April 30, Jeffrey Gantz says the audience eventually applauded.  There was a smattering, quickly dissipating.