Murry Sidlin, conductor, lecturer, and Dean of Catholic University's Rome School of Music, is the force behind “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin.” The remarkable concert-drama is based on the true story of 16 performances of the Catholic Mass for the Dead at the Nazi concentration camp between 1943 and 1944. The first presentation of the program in this country is at the Kennedy Center, but others are planned here and abroad, as well as on PBS-TV
While teaching at the University of Minnesota, Sidlin wandered into a second-hand book store and picked up a small book on the top of the pile. He was astounded to learn that many prominent Jewish musicians, composers, performers and scholars from Czechoslovakia were rounded up and sent to a single camp. Haunted by the story that conductor Raphael Schachter led the choir of Jewish prisoners in Catholic liturgy, he searched for more details.
In the middle of the night, he woke up wondering if the text meant something different to the prisoners. Hurrying downstairs, he read the text as if he were a prisoner and every line had a different meaning. It quickly became clear to him that was the case. For instance, the words 'deliver me' in the last section mean 'liberate me' to the prisoners. Others told him that was a great theory, but he had to prove it by finding primary sources. That meant locating people who had been there and experienced the performances.
Soon after Sidlin posted a message on the Holocaust website asking for details about the Holocaust “Requiem,” a cryptic response came back from Israel wondering why he wanted to know about it. Having no specific plans at that stage, he responded with his belief that Maestro Schachter was a great hero who fortified hope and brave courage to the prisoners.
That response led him to Holocaust survivor Edgar Krasa staying in Newton, Massachusetts. Upon connecting with Krasa by telephone, Sidlin asked if the name Rafael Schachter meant anything to him The elderly gentleman replied that he and the conductor had roomed together at the camp for three years and he had named one of his sons after his friend.
Sidlin was astounded. Although he was resident conductor of the Oregon Symphony and living in Portland at the time, he flew to meet Krasa three days later and spent a day with him and his wife, Hannah, who also had been a prisoner. He learned that Krasa sang the “Requiem” all sixty times in the concentration camp and that the work came to mean something substantial to the prisoners.
He realized that this was a major story because this was an act of defiance or resistance that wave the prisoners hope, dignity and courage. Krasa said that Schahter told the prisoners, “We can sing to them what we can not say.”
Drasa's own story is remarkable. During a death march the winter of 1945, Krasa and a friend decided to escape. When a Nazi soldier spotted him, he tried to hide in a pile of dead bodies, but he was shot in the side and lay there until the soldiers left. Then he took off his shirt in the bitter cold to cover his wound and walked until he reached a Russian camp and was taken in.
Sidlin's concert-drama, told partially by actors and partly by video presentations of interviewees, unfolds between the sections of the Requiem. To honor their father, Krasa's sons Rafi and Dani will be members of the choir.
“I hope that those experiencing this program will listen to the Verdi Requiem differently the next time and remember what Schachter taught the prisoners and what it meant to them,” Sidlin said.