Our Will to Live: Art and Music In Terezín - with Mark Ludwig

Knosh & Knowledge welcomes BSO violist emeritus and music scholar Mark Ludwig to talk about his new book, Our Will to Live, on August 19

GREAT BARRINGTON – On Friday, August 19, at 10:45 a.m., join Terezín Music Foundation (TMF) director and Fulbright music scholar Mark Ludwig in an artistic and musical journey into the astonishing cultural community that persevered in this Nazi camp.

Newly translated writings, rarely seen art, and vintage and new music tracks — from Ludwig’s new book, Our Will to Live — amplify voices silenced in the Holocaust and bring the fullest picture yet of this unique time in Jewish history. Books will be available for purchase.

Knosh & Knowledge programs take place at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire, 270 State Road in Great Barrington. For more on this free program and other Federation events, visit our calendar of events at jewishberkshires.org.

Mark Ludwig is a Fulbright scholar of Terezín music, a member of the Pamatník Terezín Advisory Board, and founding director of the Terezín Music Foundation. He produces recordings, concerts, and Holocaust and genocide education programs worldwide. Ludwig is a violist emeritus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, adjunct professor of Holocaust music at Boston College, and editor of the poetry anthology Liberation (2015).

The BJV asked Sonia Beker, author of Symphony on Fire: A Story of Music and Spiritual Resistance During the Holocaust, to share her experience reading Ludwig’s new book.

The Quick of Life: An Appreciation of Mark Ludwig’s Our Will to Live

By Sonia Beker / Special to the Berkshire Jewish Voice

The Hamburg Barracks is a small, claustrophobic theater space. Dirty light filters dimly through a side window. Music stands and chairs support the spectral forms of violinists, singers, and pianists. The stage also showcases a chorus of thin, hungry children assembled to perform lighthearted songs and a youth opera.

This setting is a poignant, ironic backdrop of life and death, creativity and its deliberate demise, and humanity and its degradation. It presents a dignified but defiant display of how the human spirit triumphs over unspeakable evil. The time is 1942-44, the place is the Theresienstadt (Terezín) ghetto and concentration camp, and the focus is a group of gifted, accomplished, highly acclaimed Jewish musicians incarcerated there by the Nazis. The annihilation of almost all of these vaunted talents was inevitable. But in those two years, these extraordinary musicians defied the logic of psychological surrender and breakdown. They pooled their collective and individual musical abilities to compose, perform, produce, rehearse, and present a full range of original and established musical compositions in a variety of genres — operas, sonatas, concertos in the classical mode, jazz, tango, and modern atonal “new music” — against the most banal and horrific odds.

Most of these talented young people, many in their early twenties to thirties, met terrible deaths in Auschwitz in 1944, but they remain a living example of true spiritual victory. Although all were aware of their probable fate, their response was to engage in the quick of life, to fully exercise their musical gifts, and share them with their audience of downtrodden, sick, and starving fellow prisoners. In doing so, they lifted their listeners beyond the misery their Nazi captors had forced on them.

The bittersweet story of these musicians’ accomplishments eloquently emerges from Mark Ludwig’s Our Will to Live. Beautifully rendered and meticulously researched, the book collects the elegantly-written music critiques of the Terezín musicians’ performances by Viktor Ullmann, a well-known composer and musician. It is an awe-inspiring testament to their commitment to music and life. Ludwig first learned about Terezín when he read Rabbi Leo Baeck’s Days of Sorrow and Pain, an account of his incarceration in the concentration camp. Baeck mentioned Viktor Ullmann, who had, under dire conditions, composed an opera in Terezín. Upon learning about Ullmann and the high level of musical achievement, Ludwig delved into Terezín’s history, connecting with musician survivors and discovering a treasure trove of perilously saved documents (500 of them). They included Ullmann’s critiques, pieces of music, and stunning handwrought illustrations and posters of the performances that took place in Terezín’s cramped theater from 1942, when the musicians arrived there from Czechoslovakia, Austria, Holland, and Denmark, through 1944, when most of these prisoners were transported to Auschwitz.

Ludwig organized Ullmann’s 26 concert and performance critiques, adding copious notes providing vital information about the career and fate of each musician. Ludwig’s interviews with survivors and his document discoveries inspired him to found The Terezín Foundation, a tribute to the fallen musicians and a beacon of inspiration to aspiring musicians today.

Throughout its existence, Terezín functioned as a ghetto-concentration camp: “In addition to serving as a labor-transit camp, Terezín became a powerful propaganda vehicle for the Nazis, who labeled it the ‘Preference Camp,’ ‘Theresien-spa,’ and even ‘Paradeis-ghetto.’ While the Nazis sought to create the illusion of luxury, especially for high-profile German and Austrian Jewish prisoners and the public at large, the daily reality was starvation, disease, lack of adequate medical care, and over-crowding.” (p. 19).

As part of the Final Solution, Jewish musician inmates were not permitted to bring their instruments into the camps. The Nazis looted pianos, violins, mandolins, guitars, and other instruments from Jewish homes and warehoused them. Some musicians smuggled their instruments into the camps by taking them apart and gluing them back together. Writes Ludwig: “This was a perilous act, as the Nuremberg Racial Laws forbade the ownership of instruments by Jews throughout the Reich and occupied lands. Thousands of musical instruments, or Contrabande, were confiscated…Those caught were sent East (to death camps).”

In Terezín, “prisoners secretly held informal evenings of song in the attics and basements of the barracks, the first documented in early December 1941. The number of performances increased with the growing number of amateur and professional artists arriving on the continuing transports.” The Nazis quickly became aware of these clandestine musical activities. Ultimately, they allowed the establishment of a cultural command center formed by the Jewish Council of Elders. The command center in Terezín produced almost daily high levels of diverse music programs, as well as theater, lectures, and sports events. “They scheduled rehearsals and concerts; selection and preparation of venues; the distribution and maintenance of musical instruments; and the circulation of tickets. The scale and scope of (their) responsibilities would be extraordinary for any comparably sized community in stable and prosperous times, let alone in a concentration camp. The collection of talent and diversity of offerings would rival that for any major city.”

In her book, The Sound of Hope: Music as Solace, Resistance and Salvation During the Holocaust and World War II, Kellie Dubel Brown writes that Terezín was “a cauldron of creativity…that, more than mere entertainment, represented resistance through art, with an insider knowledge and commentary lost on their persecutors. The ultimate paradox of Terezín rested in the fact that its wretched conditions generated fertile soil for creativity, which, in turn cultivated a sense of hope and distraction.”

Writes Ludwig: “In Terezín, Ullmann was active as a pianist, conductor, music critic, and lecturer. As a prisoner, he was free of financial burdens and, ironically, could focus solely on music. It is no surprise that Ullmann emerged among the most active members of the…cultural command center.”

Ullmann’s 26 critiques are a lens to the panoply of Terezín ’s gifted musicians and their musical prowess. The critiques are sensitively and eruditely written, revealing Ullmann’s poignant personal connection to the performers while remaining faithful to accurate criticism. They also showcase the depth and breadth of Ullmann’s impressive musical knowledge. Juxtaposed in Our Will to Live with breathtaking artwork and posters depicting the performers and performances, the critiques are brought to life with vivid color and depth.

In 1944, Terezín’s musicians confronted a twisted irony when their cultural efforts became fodder for Nazi propaganda. To minimize and deter reports of the horrible truth behind the Final Solution, the Nazis staged an elaborate sham. They invited the International Red Cross Committee (ICRC) to visit Terezín, which the Nazis presented as a “paradise ghetto” for the Jews. They even built a false street of shops and cafes, a children’s playground and school, a false dentist’s and post office, a bank, a drugstore, and a music pavilion. They sent away to Prague for looted musical instruments for distribution to Terezín ’s musicians. To allay the impression of over-crowding, they sent 7,500 elderly inmates to Auschwitz. A tightly controlled group of ICRC members and SS officers from Prague and Berlin took an 8 to 10-hour Terezín tour in which no personal contact with inmates was permitted.

Rabbi Leo Baeck, then a prisoner, wrote in response to the ICRC visit: “They appeared to be completely taken in by the false front put up for their benefit… Perhaps they knew the real conditions — but it looked as if they did not want to know the truth. The effect on our morale was devastating. We felt forgotten and forsaken.”

Following this official visit, adult and children prisoners were forced to produce a propaganda film that included performances by Terezín ’s most prominent prisoner composers and musicians. Less than 3 weeks after the film’s completion, the Nazis began sending new transports from Terezín to Auschwitz. Most of the adults and children who participated in the film were on them, including Ullmann. The last transport was on October 28, 1944, completely wiping out this remarkable cultural community.

The painful, ironic story of the Terezín musicians Mark Ludwig presents to us resonates deeply for me. The experiences of both my parents and their families, my mother, Fania Durmashkin-Beker, a pianist, her sister, Henia Durmashkin-Gurko, a singer, and my father, Max Beker, a violinist, echo the events that occurred in Terezín. My family members were well-known musicians in Vilna, Lithuania. In 1941, they were forced by the Nazis to abandon their homes and enter the Vilna ghetto. Under the most horrific conditions, my uncle, Wolf Durmashkin, formed a symphony orchestra and a 100-voice Hebrew choir. In his quest to obtain a piano, he asked inmates on work detail outside of the ghetto to keep an eye out for one. They found a piano in an abandoned house, probably once lived in by Jews, and brought it into the ghetto piece by piece concealed in their clothing, a life-threatening act. It was reconstructed in the small ghetto theater and became part of the ghetto’s orchestra.

Wolf, too, composed music and conducted and performed concerts. During its 15 months of existence, the ghetto orchestra performed 35 chamber and symphonic concerts. The last one took place on August 29, 1943, three-and-a-half weeks before the ghetto was liquidated. At this point, my family members were sent to concentration camps, my mother and her sister ultimately to Dachau-Kaufering, and my uncle to Lagedi, in Klooga, Estonia. He was killed in September 1944, hours before the Russians liberated the camp.

In our contemporary landscape, what place do these Jewish musicians occupy? What does their experience as Jews, artists, and hate targets teach us? What particular lessons do we learn from them that might enhance life for all of us?

For the Terezín musicians, for my uncle and family members, and for their audiences, music and art opened a portal of transcendence that took them far beyond the degradation and dehumanization they were forced to suffer. They created a higher, spiritual reality through their involvement with music. Mark Mast, the conductor of the Bavarian Philharmonic Orchestra, said this about my Uncle Wolf: “In the time that he was composing music, he was not a prisoner. He was…in Heaven.”

By sharing music with others, even with their oppressors and killers, the Terezín prisoner musicians elevated themselves and their audiences to levels of soulful nobility, to human and godly connection. In Russia, when Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad Symphony, was being performed for the first time during the siege, the imperiled audience responded with tears as bombs fell throughout their beloved city. In the words of Kellie Dubel Brown: “This music… imbued the people of Leningrad with a renewed sense of pride and with the undying belief that they would prevail and that their ideas, stories, music and works of art would not only survive, but stand triumphant in the face of time and their enemies.” In the reality they created, the Terezín musicians were victorious, triumphant over their diabolical destroyers, who presented themselves to the world, hypocritically and ironically, as a master race.

The answer for us does not lie in claiming superiority over others, as the Nazis did to the Jews. We cannot all be Viktor Ullmanns, but we can at the very least be appreciative audiences borne heavenward on the wings of creativity, music, and art. Mark Ludwig’s Our Will to Live is a vital guide on this journey.

Image from Our Will to Live.