When my husband and I visited the Terezin [also known as Theresienstadt] concentration camp outside of Prague in 1990, we could only begin to imagine the horrors the Nazis visited upon the political prisoners and Jews housed there. The barracks where human beings were packed in, disease rampant, prisoners starved, worked to death or killed, hundreds of thousands kept for months or years only to be shipped off to mass extermination camps in Auschwitz or Treblinka. The crematorium. The gallows. The cemetery. About 100,000 were killed there, 15,000 of them children.
Only 132 children were known to have survived. The poignant drawings done by the children of Terezin can still be seen in an exhibit hall near the old synagogue in Prague, by the ghetto cemetery where coffins were stacked one on top of another because the Czechs wouldn’t allow the Jews to have any more land for the purpose.
Terezin paled in comparison to the mass extermination death camps. So much so that the Germans successfully used Terezin as a model community, to persuade the gullible Red Cross that prisoners were well treated and that culture was thriving there.
And, in fact, included in the prison population were musicians, poets and composers; they organized choruses and chamber orchestras. It is speculated that, if permitted, two full symphony orchestra could have performed daily.
Twenty-three years after visiting Prague and Terezin, friends invited us to a concert and dinner to benefit the Terezin Music Foundation, dedicated to honoring the memory and musical legacy of the composers who died in Terezin. Imagine the emotional impact of Yo-Yo Ma, the most accomplished cellist in the world today, playing with pianist Dr. George Horner, one of the few remaining survivors of Terezin, cabaret music composed in Terezin. What a tribute to the human spirit! His 90-year old diminutive body, twisted by the frailties of age and, one assumes, deprivation, Horner was helped to the piano by Yo-Yo Ma and joyfully played music written to challenge Nazi oppression and brutality.
Boston Symphony violist Mark Ludwig directs the foundation, which commissions chamber music inspired by the Terezin experience, expressing musically the lessons of the Holocaust and honoring individuals committed to “diversity, tolerance and dialogue through acts of civil service, philanthropy, scholarship, or artistry.” Governor Deval Patrick was this year’s honoree.
Yo-Yo Ma never fails to inspire, not only for his unparalleled musicianship but for his
humanity and grace. And George Horner’s testament to the triumph of the human
spirit challenges my limited descriptive powers. The impressions, however, will be imprinted in my brain for a long time.
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