Thanksgiving inspires us to pause and count our blessings of family and friends. Defiant Requiem, a new film showing Jewish life in the Nazi concentration camp Terezin, filled me with similar thoughts of gratitude and admiration.
Many of the inmates of Terezin were musicians and artists. Despite living in wretched conditions of hunger, disease, and forced labor, the inmates relied on their art to give them hope and foster community. They staged plays, composed operas, and created drawings with paper and ink.
An imprisoned conductor, Rafael Schacter, assembled a choir of 150 voices and taught them Verdi’s Requiem. The choir rehearsed in the basement after long days of forced labor and little food. The singers memorized the difficult music because they had no scores.
Verdi’s Requiem is a musical setting of the Roman Catholic funeral mass. You might consider this an odd choice for Jewish inmates to devote themselves to learning, but Schacter had a plan.
Part of the requiem contains the Dies Irae, which translated from Latin means “day of wrath.” In this part, the choir sings in Latin, “When the Judge takes His seat/ whatever is hidden will be revealed/ nothing shall remain unavenged.”
Schacter hoped to have his choir sing this condemnation to the Nazis, without them even knowing it.
The film runs on a dual track. As the story of Schacter and his choir is told, conductor Murry Sidlin assembles a modern-day choir to go back to Terezin and perform Verdi’s Requiem, in memorial to those who suffered at Terezin.
Mr. and Mrs. Krasa were interned at the camp, and they and their two sons accompany Sidlin back to Terezin. Mr. Krasa had been Schacter’s roommate and sang in Schacter’s choir. He sings again, with his sons, and as a free man.
On the entranceway to Terezin, the Nazis inscribed, “Work will make you free.”
It is hard to imagine circumstances worse than those experienced by the Jewish people in World War II. After watching Defiant Requiem, I once again realized that music truly can set one’s spirit free, despite the subjugating efforts of evil men. I am grateful for that.