There’s a particularly chilling scene during Roman Polanski’s The Pianist when the film’s protagonist knows he’s about to be shot. It captures the moment when a man’s freedom is measured by the time it takes for the bullet to reach his body. That instant feels like a million years. It’s a clear example of how there’s something worse than death: the hope of salvation even when the end is in sight.
That same glimmer of hope became a form of experimental torture on the Jewish prisoners of the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Musical instruments were provided to those who knew how to play, in order to prove Europe just how magnanimous Hitler could be, despite all the rumors of the horrors that were occurring. It was under this premise that this space became the most terrible devourer of Jewish artists in record.
The remains of this death camp, located less than forty three miles from Prague, in the Czech Republic, was divided into two fortresses which still stand today. The first was a Jewish ghetto where over 1500 prisoners were crammed together. The second place was where thousands of men, women, and children were murdered.
However, Theresienstadt became a cultural center of sorts for the Jewish community, even after the German military erased any possibility of artistic expression. This concentration camp had one clear mission: to gather the greatest, most acclaimed Jewish artists, and force them to compose and play music as a proof of the Hitler’s generosity. It was all a big publicity stunt.
The barracks, the cells, the courtyards, the rooms, the tunnel connecting the prisoner’s dormitories, and the crematorium are witnesses to the despair, tears, and music. All these elements had a part to play in the horrific environment of a place that still keeps echoes of the melodies performed by those who knew death would be their only escape.
One of these artists was internationally famous composer, Hans Krása. He knew that music would the one thing that would save his life after losing most of his family, close friends, and acquaintances. His talent was reduced to performing his children’s opera, Brundibár, fifty five times. His composition had been written for a government competition that was then cancelled. Instead, its first presentation was made at the camp.
Theresienstadt was a place full of contradictions. Several of the German guards, tasked with committing these crimes against humanity, considered music to be one of the greatest expressions of beauty and sensibility. In fact, several of them were musicians themselves. One of them, Otto Adolf Eichmann, aside from being a member of the SS, was also a well regarded violinist.
Among the names of the many artists who were forced to endure torture within these walls were musician Elkan Bauer, composer Rudolf Karel, pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, composer Pavel Hass, among countless others. They were all remembered in 2007 during a memorial led by mezzosoprano Anne Sofie Von Ottter, for an album containing only works written by Jewish composers during their stay at Theresienstadt.
Some of these compositions, such as The Emperor of Atlantis or Brundibár, became a success after reaching different corners of the world and becoming a symbol of the music and culture persecuted by a ruthless regime.
While the story of Theresienstadt revolves around how the artists found solace in music, there are other Holocaust moments where the music became a form of torture. There’s also a photographer who demystifies the Hollywood portrayal of these death camps through his images of this horrific places.
Translated by María Suárez