Music in Terezín 1941-1945. Joža Karas. 2nd ed. Hillsdale, NY:  Pendragon Press, 2009.  ISBN 978-1-5764-7030-5

The Wonder and the Grace of Alice Sommer Herz:  Everything is a Present. Dir. Christopher Nupen. DVD and Liner Notes. Allegro Films, 2009.

Reviewed by Shirli GilbertMusic in Terezin

Shortly before his death in December 2008 Joža Karas completed the second edition of his book Music in Terezín 1941-1945, the culmination of a life’s work. When the book was originally published in 1985 it was path-breaking, documenting a largely unknown chapter in the history of the Holocaust: the lively and wide-ranging musical life in the “model ghetto” Terezín (in Czech, Theresienstadt in German). When Karas began his work as a “modest summer project” in 1970 (ix), very little music from the ghetto had been uncovered, and even less had been written about it. Karas, a Czech researcher and musician based in Connecticut, devoted the rest of his life to passionately researching the subject, conducting interviews across Europe, Israel, and the United States, undertaking archival research, and transcribing scores. In addition to publishing his book, he lectured widely on the subject, produced performing editions, and tirelessly promoted Terezín compositions in performances with his own string quartet, established expressly for that purpose. Karas himself conducted the American premiere of Brundibár in 1975 and the world premiere of the English version (in his own translation) in 1977. In short, the subject of music in Terezín has become well known among Western audiences thanks in large part to Karas’s pioneering efforts.

Music in Terezín is first and foremost a work of documentation, and much remains unchanged in the second edition. The book’s nineteen chapters detail various aspects of musical life in Terezín, beginning with the initiation of cultural activities shortly after the ghetto’s establishment in November 1941. Some of the earliest arrivals to the ghetto were able to smuggle in smaller instruments, and their musical activities represented the first stage of the highly organized Freizeitgestaltung (Administration of Free Time Activities), which became an officially-sanctioned organization in 1942. The Freizeitgestaltung was perhaps the most important differentiating feature of musical life in Terezín, making it unique among the many Nazi internment centers where music was created during the pre-war and war years. Under its auspices, cultural activities could be conducted with Nazi approval (albeit subject to some censorship), and artists could continue, in a manner, to pursue their careers exempt from the demands of manual labour. Music was not the only aspect of the Freizeitgestaltung’s operations, but it formed an important part. A sizeable number of accomplished musicians and composers were interned in Terezín during the three-and-a-half years of its existence, and many continued to pursue their creative work during their imprisonment.

Musical performance and creation in the ghetto spanned many genres, and the book devotes chapters to choral music, opera, chamber music, orchestras, and the role of music in children’s education, offering detailed descriptions of programs, performances, and repertoire. One chapter recounts the now-famed story of the performance of Verdi’s Requiem for the Committee of the International Red Cross hosted by Adolf Eichmann; another considers “light music” such as cabarets and variety shows, including the popular work of Karel Švenk and Kurt Gerron. Separate chapters are devoted to the composers Gideon Klein and Pavel Haas; to Hans Krása, composer of the children’s opera Brundibár, which was performed 55 times in the ghetto; and to Viktor Ullmann, perhaps the most influential and prolific of the musicians interned in Terezín. In addition to writing substantial critical reviews of performances in the ghetto (which remain an important historical source), Ullmann produced a substantial number of compositions in Terezín; he also founded and directed the Studio für neue Musik (Studio for new music), which endeavored among other things to promote the work of young composers from the ghetto. Other important musicians are also discussed, including the pianist and conductor Rafael Schächter, the bass Karel Berman, the pianists Alice Herz Sommer and Edith Steiner-Kraus, and composers including Zikmund Schul, Carlo Taube, Egon Ledeč, Ilse Weber, and others. A penultimate chapter, expanded in the second edition, briefly details the lives and achievements of those musicians who survived Terezín. The book also includes a list of existing compositions written in Terezín, brief biographical sketches of musicians and composers, a bibliography (updated in parts, but largely referring to works published before 1985), and an index of names. It is illustrated throughout with original drawings and posters produced in the camp itself.

The context of the Holocaust features very little in Karas’s narrative. The conditions within which these artists were working intrude only occasionally into his descriptions, and we do not hear much about the lives of “ordinary” inmates in Terezín; indeed, it is often easy to forget that we are reading about a concentration camp. While the extraordinary scope of musical life is precisely what is so remarkable about Terezín, Karas’s account is perhaps a little misleading because the surrounding context is so sparsely sketched. Moreover, scant analysis is offered regarding why cultural life flourished to the extent it did. There is some discussion of the use of music for propaganda purposes, and a final evaluative chapter maintains that cultural life also helped “to keep some semblance of normality, prevent stagnation, educate, and, yes, even entertain and let the inmates forget their grievous lot” (167). Karas argues that artists who obtained a position in the Freizeitgestaltung could avoid hard labour and devote their energies to creative work, “so much so that some of them really enjoyed their sojourn in Terezín” (167).

While Karas’s interpretation is perhaps attributable to the context of its original publication, when little work had been done on this subject and the redemptive framework of “spiritual resistance” was becoming prominent in Holocaust discourse, nowadays it appears perhaps a little narrow. The book’s final section might usefully have been expanded to address the increasingly sophisticated literature that has been produced on the subject of music under Nazi internment in the intervening years. The second edition offers little analysis of this kind, however, and most of the newer literature does not even appear in the bibliography. (It should be noted that while Karas provides a bibliography he does not for the most part use academic references.) Nonetheless, the primary significance of Karas’s dedicated work in this field remains: he has provided the invaluable foundation upon which new generations of scholars, performers, and teachers have been able to build.

Like Karas’s book, Christopher Nupen’s film The Wonder and the Grace of Alice Sommer Herz is a labour of love devoted to the power of music, in Terezín and beyond. Nupen aptly calls his film “A Tribute” to its protagonist, a remarkable woman who will be 107 this year and still lives in her own apartment in London. Nupen has known Sommer for over 30 years, and while producing his award-winning documentary We Want the Light deliberately took more interview footage with her than he could use, with the intention of later devoting an entire film to her. The Wonder and the Grace is made up entirely of that interview interspersed with clips of Sommer playing excerpts from works by Schubert, Smetana, and Beethoven (she was still a sensitive and able pianist at age 98, when it was filmed). She recounts parts of her life story, from her early life in Prague and experiences of food shortages during World War I to her incarceration in Terezín, emphasizing throughout the succour and sustenance provided by music. At the heart of the film is Sommer’s remarkable character. She does not harbor any resentment towards Germans, believing “that we are all a mixture of good and bad.” She is a relentless optimist, and unequivocally attributes her longevity to this trait (by contrast to her twin sister “who died at seventy because she was a pessimist.”) With remarkable equanimity, though not without emotion, she talks in the interview about the suffering she endured, including the loss of her mother and her husband, and her struggles as mother to a young son in Terezín, though she stresses that her experiences were incomparable to those of inmates in Auschwitz. Moreover, she suggests that thanks to their access to music, musicians in Terezín were spared the ghetto’s worst horrors: “Theresienstadt was proof of the magic of music.” Throughout the film she affirms, over and over again, that life is beautiful, and declares that the most important lesson she has learned in her long life is “to be thankful for everything.” The film unsurprisingly does not attempt a critical analysis of musical life in Terezín, or indeed any contextualization beyond Sommer’s individual story. It is, simply, an act of homage to adignified, wise, inspiring, and altogether extraordinary human being.

While both book and film focus on Terezín, neither is, at base, about the Holocaust. Both are valuable for their own reasons, and both tell us more about the power of music—as well as, perhaps more tellingly, our own desire for inspiring narratives about that power—than they can about music’s impact on masses of “ordinary” people during times of turmoil, persecution, and war.

Shirli Gilbert, Department of History, University of Southampton