VALDOSTA — José Camacho painted a parallelism.
He said he’s not very good at painting so he imbued his piece with symbolism inspired by Psalm 137. In it, the Babylonians force their Jewish captives to perform the songs of their Lord for them.
And the Jews did so but they hung their harps in sorrow on the withering willows of the Euphrates because they were performing in a foreign land.
Camacho’s painting depicts the willow, the lyre, the Euphrates but also a sinister red sky and a factory billowing smoke.
The painting is an assignment for his Arts in the Holocaust class at Valdosta State University. In the class, he was inspired by an eerily similar story he was taught of a Jewish choir that performed Verdi’s Requiem while imprisoned in the concentration camp known as the Theresienstadt Ghetto.
A requiem means “a mass for the dead” and that irony was not lost to the Jewish choir. The requiem was one of the few comforts the prisoners enjoyed and it was their last act of defiance against the Nazis.
It would become known as “The Defiant Requiem.”
It will be performed in Valdosta, March 28, by the Valdosta Symphony Orchestra in association with The Defiant Requiem Foundation. Camacho is singing bass with more than 150 other community members.
For Camacho, "The Defiant Requiem," the Jews held by Babylonians and this performance all share one thing in common: the power of human expression.
Defying the Nazis
Verdi’s Requiem was first performed in May 1874.
It’s named for the composer Giuseppe Verdi, who made the requiem to honor Italian poet, novelist and friend to Verdi, Alessandro Manzoni.
The piece discovered new meaning after Rafael Schächter was sent to the then newly operational Theresienstadt Ghetto in November 1941. Schächter smuggled in with him a copy of the Requiem and eventually a piano as well.
In the basement of the men’s housing barracks, a choir was formed. That choir would go on to perform Verdi’s Requiem 16 times at Theresienstadt.
Initially, they rehearsed in secret but as the concentration camp grew so did the culture of the camp. Nazi propaganda spun it as Adolf Hitler granting the Jews a city rather than a concentration camp. Domestic celebrities and others who were too well-known to be thrown into obscurity were sent to Theresienstadt.
Many bright and creative minds were sent there and formed things such as an orchestra, a jazz group and hosted lectures as well as operas. The Nazis allowed this and used the Jews art for propaganda purposes. It became known as an “academy of prisoners.”
But despite being one of the more “luxurious” camps, it was still a camp. About 33,000 people died of malnutrition and disease there and more than 88,000 people were sent to extermination camps after a brief stay in Theresienstadt.
After working 10 to 12 hours of slave labor every day, the hungry and often sick 150-person choir would meet each evening to rehearse and learn the one-hour-and-30-minute piece by rote. Only Schächter had a copy of the score.
Not all of the Jewish community at the ghetto were happy with these performances. The Jewish council served as an intermediary leadership between the prisoners and the Nazis. The council warned Schächter many times the Requiem would stir trouble in the camp and the Nazis would crack down on the Jews’ activities in Theresienstadt.
Schächter ignored their warning and continued to rehearse and perform the Requiem. To him, the Requiem and its movement “Dies irae” represented the holy judgment the Nazis would face for their crimes. Reportedly, Schächter told the choir, “We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them.”
As the camp grew between 1941 and 1943, the Nazis entered their third stage of the Holocaust plan. "The Final Solution” was the Nazis’ plan to execute the Jews in mass in shootings or at killing facilities such as Auschwitz.
Throughout these years, the choir lost members after they were deported to their kill camps and gained new ones as other ghettos shipped their prisoners to the camp. New singers would have to learn the piece all over again in the same way the previous singers did — by rote.
In 1944, the Nazis began a “beautification” campaign that spelled the end for many prisoners as the camp was culled of the sick and elderly. Barracks and buildings were remodeled to look like well-stocked businesses. This was all in preparation for an International Red Cross inspection in June 1944.
The 16th and final performance of "The Defiant Requiem" would come with the Red Cross visit. Schächter and his choir were forced to perform for the delegation. The inspectors didn’t see through the ruse and the majority of the choir was sent to Auschwitz in the next four months. Schächter was among those sent to Auschwitz but he survived until spring 1945.
As the Soviets advanced, evacuations began and the Jewish prisoners were sent on “death marches.” Schächter died at 39 on the march roughly a month before the liberation of Czechoslovakia in May 1945.
Jan. 27, 2020 marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
From Theresienstadt to Valdosta
Clell Wright likes to put a face to a name.
He is the director of "The Defiant Requiem" rehearsals at VSU and as new members of the choir come in to rehearse, he meets them at the door. He shakes their hands firmly with eye contact and says their name like he remembers it.
About 80 people are present at the start of the rehearsal. For a concert such as "The Defiant Requiem" to happen in Valdosta, it requires a volunteer choir made up of students from VSU and surrounding high schools as well as community members.
Every Monday at 7 p.m., the choir meets to rehearse at VSU for two hours. Colquitt County High School holds its rehearsal with its high school choir. The two will join forces at the concert to make up a 150-plus choir.
Wright raises both of his hands in the air and the choir goes silent.
“Sit well, please,” he says as they shuffle in their seats. Altos sit on the left and basses to the right.
A piano is rolled into the middle of the room. A pianist begins playing scales for the choir to warm up. Wright uses his baton as a bookmark in Verdi’s Requiem score and sets it on the piano as he writes the pieces the choir will practice tonight on a chalkboard.
Unlike Schächter’s choir, everyone has a score they can follow and take notes in for the performance. No one has to learn the piece by rote. But like the imprisoned choir, members come to be a part of something greater than themselves.
“There is something about joining your voice with other voices,” Wright said. “To come together in a unifying moment where you are working together from different angles different perspectives different talent levels and different experiences to create a single unified piece of art.”
That love for choral music blends into his rehearsals. His conducting energizes the room and pushes people till they get it right.
“Basses. Please don’t carry your luggage up the stairs,” he says to the choir. “Straighten it out. Let’s not be so dark.”
They go back and sing the part over again.
Wright stomps his feet and shouts, “Do you hear the difference? Do you hear the difference?”
Someone talks back, “Yeah. One made you aggressive.”
Wright was born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., during the 1960s. He witnessed racial tensions there even though his parents tried to shelter him from it all.
“I have memories of the Klu Klux Klan burning a cross in the yard of my neighbor that lived two doors down,” he said.
His neighbor, a Jewish city council member, was targeted for voting in favor of desegregating public schools.
“I can still see the flames. I can still see the white hoods even though our parents were trying to keep us from the windows," he said. "I can still smell the charred wood.”
Wright’s family taught him to value equality and how to stand in solidarity. They welcomed all people into their homes but Wright’s neighbors and church shunned them for it.
He said he believes all people are children of God and that’s why he loves heavenly music.
At the end of the rehearsal, he leaves the choir with a few words.
“Despite the efforts of those who may try to subvert it, music ultimately unites rather than divides. It heals rather than hurts. Music ultimately loves rather than hates,” Wright says.
“So when those in this world shout hatred, and demean, and belittle, and build walls to keep out those that don’t look like them — when those people shout ignorance like that ... I will sing. And I hope you will too. So, go home and sing.”
Discovering Art in the Holocaust
Dr. Susan Eischeid has been studying music and the arts from the Holocaust for 30 years.
She began her research with her Ph.D. dissertation from the University of Cincinnati.
She studied oboe at the school of music, but she didn’t want a narrow oboe topic and decided to combine her interests instead. While researching the Holocaust, she discovered an explosion of music written about the Holocaust during and after it was over.
Her professor challenged her to arrange some of the music written during the Holocaust for an oboe adaptation.
And with that, Eischeid played her first Remembrance Day concert. She had been nervous.
“These people suffered and died and here I am, just this person,” she said.
But once she began performing, she heard gasps from the audience. At first, she thought she had offended the audience but when she looked up, people were emotional and crying.
“I think that’s when I first became aware of the power of this music,” Eischeid said. “In my own way, I could give a voice to these musicians who had been killed or died prematurely — help their legacy continue.”
In the years since that performance, she’s organized more Remembrance Day performances, has been featured in a “Music of the Holocaust” lecture/recital tour of the Czech Republic, has worked on Holocaust books, CDs and documentaries and has interviewed more than 65 Holocaust survivors, some of whom she’s become close friends and pen pals.
Now, she teaches an Arts in the Holocaust class and the oboe to students at VSU.
“It’s an overview of arts under the Third Reich and Hitler’s policies towards the arts and how, down the road, that impacted things that happened during the Holocaust,” Eischeid said. “Almost all of the concentration camps, death camps and ghettos had an artistic component so there were performing groups, theatrical performances, dancing.
"Some were undercover, the Nazis didn’t know about it. Some of it was sanctioned by the Nazis or abused by the Nazis for propaganda purposes. But there was a very extensive foundation of artistic activity.”
The class is offered as part of the “perspectives” portion of the curriculum. These courses are meant to expose students to interdisciplinary learning and global awareness. All students are required to take two.
Eischeid said she felt VSU needed a Holocaust education course and saw the perspectives courses as a unique opportunity to inspire students of different backgrounds to become involved in the arts and social action.
José Camacho painted a parallelism as part of his assignment for the class.
He stumbled onto the class by chance while looking through the register. He didn’t expect how in-depth the class would be especially on specific people, families and camp specialties.
Camacho wondered how art would come into the class at first because it was so history driven. Then came the assignment: students would have to make art inspired by the historical context they were learning.
“We forget that these Jews were regular people working their regular lives before all this happened to them,” Camacho said.
It was a personal lesson of resilience for Camacho.
“There were some days I did not want to come to class because I didn’t want to hear any more of it," he said. "It’s like I couldn’t. It got so brutally grim sometimes.”
The semester before, Camacho had taken a perspectives course in shape-note singing which made him passionate about choral music. The class also introduced him to “Woodstreet” by Judy Hauff which is a shape-note hymn inspired by Psalm 137.
He saw the correlation between the Psalm and the story of "The Defiant Requiem" and thought his painting would be a powerful way to depict the “dead willow” that is Jewish persecution.
“These people did what they did best. They danced. They sang. They played their violin," Camacho said. "They played their flute. In the middle of their tribulation. In the middle of their subjugation. In the middle of their slavery.”
One story he recalls from the class was when a Jewish musician picked up a piece of paper on the ground that had blown into the camp thinking it was just garbage. But he had found a piece of sheet music that was an original composition. Someone was writing music in secret at the camp.
“Art is a form of human expression. And nowadays people just look down on it. So, by default they are looking down upon human expression,” Camacho said. “If you are saying that art is meaningless, are you saying that their cries of help are meaningless? In the way they danced? In the way they sang? In the way they played? In the compositions they made? So you are saying that’s all worthless?”
Eischeid will present “Silenced Voices — Music of the Holocaust,” 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 23, in Whitehead Auditorium, VSU Fine Arts Building, corner of Oak and Brookwood.
A Story That Must Be Told
Dr. Murry Sidlin, composer and founder of The Defiant Requiem Foundation, discovered the story of Schächter and his choir in the mid-1990s after stumbling on a sidewalk sale of used books in Minneapolis, Minn. There he bought a copy of “Music in Terezín, 1941-1945” by Joža Karas and his obsession began.
Sidlin was full of unanswered questions.
Why would the prisoners do it?
How did they find the strength and energy to do it?
Why would the Nazis allow them to do it?
Why would Jewish people turn to a composition from the Catholic Liturgy?
Why would they tackle an extremely difficult choral piece like Verdi’s Requiem?
His curiosity and ever-growing list of questions led him to some of the few survivors left from the choir.
“I thought this is a story that had to be told,” Sidlin said. “Then the question came about, how do you tell it? Do you write a magazine article which you know some people might read and it’s gone after a month? Do you try and make a film? You try to make a statement somehow.”
That statement evolved into the establishment of The Defiant Requiem Foundation in 2002.
Through the foundation, regular live performances are performed around the world. The foundation created an Emmy-nominated documentary film and many educational programs for schools have been implemented. The foundation has raised about $12 million for Holocaust survivors.
"'The Defiant Requiem' serves as a kind of warning to what took place in 1933 in Germany,” Sidlin said.
"The Defiant Requiem" performance is a concert and drama in that it combines other story-telling devices into the concert such as actors, video testimony from survivors and historic footage.
“They fought against the Nazis as well as they could,” Sidlin said. “They responded to the worst of mankind with the best of mankind.”
The Anti-Defamation League, an international Jewish organization, reported that “assault, harassment and vandalism against Jews remain at near-historic levels in the U.S.” with the deadliest shooting on a synagogue in U.S. history happening in 2018, killing 11 people and wounding six.
Sidlin said he believes the projects and performances the foundation has developed help stamp out antisemitism and Holocaust denial.
“We are more important now than even when we started back in 2002,” Sidlin said. “The eyewitnesses are leaving us and now it’s up to us who are their advocates. It’s up to us to illuminate the story and to inspire people who are the next generation.”
The story will be told in Valdosta, 7:30 p.m., March 28, by the Valdosta Symphony Orchestra at Whitehead Auditorium. Reservations are required and tickets are $28 each. Available at www.valdostasymphony.org or call (229) 333-2150.