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A Harmonium Remembrance: Terezin, the full version of the story

September 2, 2020

The Community of the Remembered

“…remembering is an act of generosity, aimed at saving men and women from apathy to evil, if not from evil itself.” 

Elie Wiesel

A few years after our Eastern European Tour in 2002, I grabbed the CD and randomly played it in my car. Suddenly I found myself in tears, as I listened to a performance, a live outdoor recording of three songs sung at the Jewish/Christian cemetery at Terezin. As I found myself trying to explain the Holocaust to a child, and why we were singing to an audience of only ourselves, I realized that this was the story I really needed to share.

When my choral society, Harmonium, planned a tour to Eastern Europe for summer 2002, we spent the year preparing by learning Polish, Hungarian, Czech and Slovakian repertoire, and music of Holocaust remembrance, including music on texts from Terezin.  Much of this music was first performed in a March 2002 concert entitled “Lamentations and Songs of Hope.” Ironically this concert was planned over the summer of 2001, but it took on a life of its own after 9/11. A local Holocaust survivor, Ursula Pawel, author of My Child is Back! spoke to the audience of her experience as a 16-year-old teacher of younger children at Terezin during this unforgettable concert.

My Child is Back by Ursula Pawel

The music in this concert included movements from Donald McCullough’s Holocaust Cantata, and a movement, Terezin from Robert Convery’s cantata, Songs of Children (1991). The three pieces that also went on tour with us were a setting of Birdsong, a specially commissioned work,  and Sid Robinivitch’s Prayer Before Sleep, from Talmud Suite.  Although Birdsong has many beautiful settings, the one we took was a capella, with a melody by Raymond Smolover, cantor emeritus at congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, New York, as arranged for SAB chorus by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, then a composition student at the Juilliard School.

The commissioned work was Before Too Long, by our composer-in-residence, Mark Andrew Miller, a wonderfully talented organist, composer and teacher of multicultural sacred music. The poem, by 14 year old Alena Synkova, is found in I Never Saw Another Butterfly.  It was preserved in manuscript in pencil on a scrap of yellowed paper.  Alena Synkova was born in Prague on September 24, 1926, and deported to Terezin on Dec. 22, 1942.  She survived and returned home after the liberation.

Terezin, a small town outside of Prague, was used during the war by the Nazis as a facade: it was made to look like a spa town for inspectors from the International Red Cross. Artwork, poetry and composition were “encouraged.” Talented teachers of art and poetry helped the children to express themselves which they did with amazing richness and hope. Children’s Drawings and Poems 1942-1944 from Terezin are collected in the book I Never Saw Another Butterfly and provide a rich and poignant source of these primary texts. The Nazi’s ruse worked and the Red Cross backed off, allowing the death camps to continue their horrific work. Terezin wasn’t an “extermination” camp like Auschwitz, though it served as a way station to the camps and ghettos in occupied Eastern Europe. However, of the nearly 140,000 men, women and children deported to Terezin from the Czech lands, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Slovakia and Hungary, 34,000 died there. From 1942 to 1944, transports carried 87,000 people from Terezin eastward; of those, 83,000 were murdered, tortured to death, or perished on forced marches.

Singing at Terezin Cemetery,Photo by Andrew Moody

Our Austrian tour guide Adreas, who was well-meaning yet biased, had an impossible time trying to convince our determined group of 42 that Terezin wasn’t worth seeing…just the fortress…there was nothing in the town…it wasn’t worth going into the town…Terezin was not a concentration camp, just a ghetto, blah, blah. We just dug in our heels and fought back!

Looking for Ursula’s old address

So before we headed into the town (now restored to the Czechs), maps in hand, looking for Ursula’s former address and visiting the Jewish museum, we visited the small fortress museum.  We prepared to sing by the large Star of David Memorial overlooking the cemetery to the Christian cross on the other side. We knew this was just for us, we didn’t expect tourists or audience except for our friends and family on the tour. First, one of our basses, Murray Speigel, led us, singers of all faiths, in the Mourner’s Kaddish, as he had at Auschwitz. We began with the Robinovitch, Baruch atah, Adonai…  It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, with just a few clouds in the sky.

I forgot until I heard the recording again, how emotionally invested we all were in the singing; you can hear it in our voices even in the nonprofessional outdoor recording.  I forgot also, how loud the birds were. You can hear a little sob from someone nearby as the music builds. I remember as I got to the last page I looked down and saw wet splotches and thought I was crying. Actually, it was raining. The music blurred. The sun continued to shine. We all looked around in amazement as the gentle rain continued through the end of the song, and we began Birdsong, an anonymous text from Terezin, sorrowful yet still hopeful.  Maybe this was written right where we were standing, we couldn’t help but think.

He doesn’t know the world at all,

Who stays in his nest and won’t come out.

He doesn’t know what birds know best,

Nor what I want to sing about.

What I want to sing about is that the world is full of loveliness.

When dewdrops sparkle in the grass,

And earth’s a-flood with morning light,

A blackbird sings upon a bush

To greet the dawning after night.

Then I know how good it is to be alive.

Open up your heart to beauty,

And go to the woods some day.

And weave a wreath of memories there,

And if the tears obscure your way;

If the tears obscure your way, you will know how good it is to be alive.

As we finished, the rain stopped and the birds continued to sing. Before Too Long begins with an a capella solo, and our soloist was actually a fourteen-year-old girl. Like Birdsong, the text is sad yet hopeful.

I’d like to go away alone

Where there are other, nicer people,

Somewhere into the far unknown,

There, where no-one kills another.

                Maybe more of us,

                A thousand strong,

                Will reach this goal

                Before too long.

In the middle section “Maybe more of us…” The music again drops to the soloist, and then we added back our voices one by one, lifting our heads while we did so. The rain stopped and the sun shone.

“Many of us felt we had experienced something rather mystical,” said baritone Ken Hess. “It was a powerful combination of nature, the spiritual world, and music creating a spine-tingling moment that I will never forget.” No one could speak when we reached the end. Several of us had our teenaged children with us.  They hugged us. And no one heard but us. And the birds. And the rain. And everyone who ever remembers.

Soloist and Mom after Before Too Long in Terezin. Photo by Jabez Van Cleef


This was based on an article I originally wrote for the ACDA Eastern Division Newsletter, The Troubador, in October 2006

My Child Is Back! by Ursula Pawelis published by Vallentine Mitchell (London, England)

Here is Ursula on vimeo We were privileged to have her talk at our concert in March 2002. Jabez and I were honored and delighted to call her friend and visit with her.

Ursula’s Obituary 2015

Before Too Long, c.1999 is by Mark Andrew Miller

A Prayer Before Sleep from Talmud Suite by Sid Robinovitch, Elmer Eisler Choral Series, Gordon V. Thompson Music, c/0 Warner Bros. VE.I 1091

Birdsong arr. Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, melody by Raymond Smolover, Transcontinental Music Publications 993147

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