March 9, 2023
In 1999 our old friends John Shattuck, then the U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic, and his wife Ellen Hume, invited me, my wife Dorothea, and my brother Victor to spend a week with them at their Prague residence. The days there were filled with many rich and memorable experiences. My pianist brother Victor and I joined the distinguished Czech violinist Joseph Suk and a violist colleague of his for a concert in the ambassador’s residence. We visited the ancient Jewish cemetery with its cluster of graves mournfully hugging one another, and stood on the street where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte lived across from one another and exchanged notes and words as the opera Don Giovanni took shape. And then we heard a marvelous performance of Don Giovanni in the theatre where the opera had received its first performance.
If Dorothea, Victor, and I had returned home at that moment, our recollection of the week’s activities would have been a happy one. But Ellen and John, our wonderful guides for that time in Prague, must have felt that our stay would not be complete without at least offering us the possibility of a much darker but meaningful experience. They asked whether we wanted to visit the nearby Terezin concentration camp.
Dorothea, Victor, and I accepted the offer, but we could easily have refused. To contemplate the death and brutality that took place in Terezin and other concentration camps during World War II would be too much for many people. The three of us, however, had personal histories that connected us with the evil perpetrated by the Nazis. Victor and I both remembered hearing our father occasionally crying to himself as he recalled the fate of most of his beloved brothers and sisters, their husbands and wives, and their children, who were put to death in the Auschwitz gas chambers. As for Dorothea, who was born and raised in Germany, her story was very different. Her father, Hans Bernd von Haeften, was hanged by the Nazis in July 1944 for his role in the resistance against Adolph Hitler and the Nazi terror machine.
As Dorothea, Victor, and I were being driven to Terezin by a survivor of the camp who regularly took visitors there, she related a heart-stopping story. Our guide’s entire Jewish family—she at fifteen, her parents, and her siblings—were imprisoned in the camp during the war. Shortly after their arrival, it was announced that a group of young people over the age of sixteen would be shipped to a distant labor camp. Erroneously, her name had been put on the list. Horrified to be torn from her family, she explained to the officer who had made the announcement that a mistake had been made, that she was only fifteen, and pleaded with him not to be taken away. Unmoved, he refused. Our guide was sent to the labor camp, and, because of an inexplicable twist of fate, survived the war, while the rest of her family were murdered by the Nazis. One of us asked our guide why she continued to visit the scene of her family’s personal tragedy. “I feel it my duty to tell as many people as possible what took place in Terezin,” she answered.
The “camp-ghetto” of Terezin was in part a transit camp for Jews who were to be deported by the Germans to killing centers and forced-labor camps in the East. A great many of the prisoners who remained in the camp and were spared that fate nonetheless died of disease and starvation.
At one point our guide led us into a room unlike anything else in the camp. There, in spotless white, a dozen or so washing sinks were lined up against the wall. This was part of an elaborate hoax played on the visiting International Red Cross in 1944. Barracks were renovated and social and cultural events were performed by the prisoners but staged by the Nazis for the Red Cross delegation. The unsuspecting dignitaries left thinking they had seen a “spa town”where aged Jews could live in safety. The deportations and killing resumed with their departure.
The horror of Terezin was momentarily forgotten as we viewed an exhibition of children’s paintings and poetry. Such breathtaking invention, humor, and imagination! Yet it was hard to grasp the unavoidable reality that approximately ninety percent of those children would eventually perish in the killing centers. The young people were only a part of the concentration camp’s highly developed cultural life created by writers, musicians, artists, and actors under constant threat of deportation and death.
The story of Terezin has gradually seeped into our musical world over the years, in no small part due to the inspirational work of my friend and colleague Mark Ludwig, Executive Director of the Terezin Music Foundation, violist emeritus of the Boston Symphony, and promoter of Holocaust music. Through his ongoing commitment to champion the memory and legacy of Terezin, performances of music by Jewish composers who did not survive the war are no longer a rarity. Our Guarneri String Quartet toured for an entire season with Victor Ullmann’s Third String Quartet, a work of haunting beauty.
Mark Ludwig’s book Our Will to Live came out in 2021. Ludwig writes that at its core the book consists of “twenty-six concert programs given in Terezin, described in richly literary and learned critiques by composer Viktor Ullmann, along with stunning art work created to promote and document these musical events and their artists.”
As for Ullmann himself, despite his Jewish parents converting to Christianity, despite serving with honor in the German army during World War I, and despite becoming one of the most respected and gifted pianists and composers of his generation, the Nazis considered him no more than a worthless Jew. He was shipped with his wife Elisabeth Frank-Meisel to Terezin in September 1942.
Even with the ever-present menace of cold, hunger, and disease, Ullmann nonetheless managed to be astonishingly prolific in Terezin, composing vocal works, choral arrangements, three piano sonatas, a third string quartet, and the chamber opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis. All of Ulmann’s music was secreted away by the camp’s Jewish leadership, and miraculously survived the war.
Ulmann wrote, perhaps addressing all of us who cannot begin to comprehend the act of creation under such devastating circumstances, “We in no way sat around lamenting. . . .
Our desire for culture was equal to our will to live.”
Viktor Ullmann perished in the Auschwitz gas chambers in October 1944.
Sign up to receive new stories straight to your inbox!