“A remarkable and terrible place.”
That’s how visiting speaker Robert Elias described Ghetto Theresienstadt during his March 7 talk in Roth Hall. 141,000 European Jews—including artists, World War I heroes and other luminaries—were interned at Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic during the Holocaust. This “model ghetto” allowed its prisoners to engage in artistic pursuits, unheard of in other camps, for Nazi propaganda purposes. Yet despite its branding as a “resort” and a “gift to Germany’s Jews,” only 13 percent of those interned there would survive the war.
Robert’s talk was part of a series presented at Crossroads by the Ziering-Conlon Initiative for Recovered Voices at the Colburn School, for which Robert serves as director. His presentation began with Elizabeth Mandell Music Institute students performing “Study for Strings,” an alternatingly energetic and melancholy piece written at Theresienstadt by composer Pavel Haas. The 1944 Nazi propaganda film “Theresiendstadt” featured interned musicians performing the piece; Robert showed a clip of that film during his presentation.
Robert described the ghetto’s surreal duality: It was a brutal camp where 33,000 Jews died and nearly three times as many were deported to death camps around Europe, yet it was also a place where music, poetry, painting and other visual and performing arts flourished.
Robert noted that while some of the art created at Theresienstadt expressed defiance and resistance, other pieces had no such subtext, acknowledging, “Artists make art.”
To emphasize this point, Robert waited until the end of his talk to reveal the fate of composer Pavel Haas, whose music had opened the presentation. In 1944, he was deported to Auschwitz and murdered. Robert explained why he chose not to provide that context before the performance.
“I didn’t want you thinking of the tragedy of the composer’s murder while listening to the music,” he said. “I wanted you to think, ‘This is a fantastic piece played beautifully by these young musicians.’”
Robert added, “That’s the way the composer would want it to be.”
The final two Recovered Voices lectures will be held in April, at 7:30 p.m. in Roth Hall. On April 10, Stephanie Barron, the senior curator of modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will discuss “Degenerate Art” in Nazi Germany followed by a talk by Robert Elias on “Degenerate Music”; the presentation will conclude with a Q&A.
On April 25, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross will discuss the influence of émigré composers on Hollywood film music, a contemporary chapter of the Recovered Voices stories.