The Jewish Ghetto And Its Phantom Opera

Nazis used a Czech military fortress to hold Jewish prisoners during World War II. Yet somehow  art and music flourished, including one notable opera that had gone tragically unperformed.

Terezin ghetto's entrance
Terezin ghetto's entrance
Marie-Aude Roux

TEREZIN When entering Terezin, in the Czech Republic, the emptiness and vastness almost makes your blood run cold. The sun and wind seem to be pushing the clouds away, between the rectilinear buildings of the former military fortress here. This was originally an 18th century garrison town called Theresienstadt, but during World War II it was used by the Nazis as a “model ghetto.”

Today, Terezin is a small provincial town, an hour north of Prague. We went there with Louise Motay, a young stage director who was asked by the French troupe and opera workshop “Atelier de recherche et de création pour l’art lyrique” (Arcal) to produce an opera here written by Viktor Ullmann in 1943. Though Ullmann was never heard from again after a convoy left the ghetto for Auschwitz on Oct. 16, 1944, his music — an opera called Der Kaiser von Atlantis — miraculously survived.

The canopy of tall autumnal plane trees witnessed what precedeed and what followed Ullmann’s fate: the building of the railroads that brought in convoys of Jews from central Europe, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands; the trains that brought them “to the east,” to the extermination camps in Riga, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen. Of the 139,654 Jews imprisoned in Terezin (including 11,000 children), 33,430 died on site and 86,934 were deported, among which more than 83,500 died.

In this place, where small cafés and groceries now peacefully exist, terror and deprivation were once part of daily life. All the while, musicians, painters, playwrights, poets and intellectuals were still managing to create their work. Many of these artists were part of the “Prominenten,” figures whose disappearance stirred up concern and anxiety.

That’s because Terezin was first a regroupment and transit camp. Most importantly, it was one of the most cynical decoys the Nazis imagined: a place of propaganda (“Propagandalager”) run by a Jewish council. The ghetto’s last council elder was Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein, who survived World War II. In fact, filmmaker Claude Lanzmannis features the rabbi in his latest film Le Dernier des injustes (The last of the unjust), which was released in Nov. 2013.

It is hard to imagine, in the surrounding silence and open air, that this ghetto became so overcrowded — the town went from 7,000 civilians and soldiers to 58,500 prisoners — that a 1942 decree ordered the evacuation of all non-Jewish inhabitants so their homes could be requisitioned.

Despite the vile reality, art thrived

Our guide’s name is Lukas Krakora. He is Terezin’s mayoral assistant in charge of culture. On the central square, to the right of the church, is the L 410 building — or 52 Hauptstrasse, as the street was renamed during the ghetto’s embellishment operation for the official visit of the International Committee of the Red Cross on June 23, 1944. The subterfuge worked, by the way. Dr. Maurice Rossel, one of the Red Cross delegates who had been ordered by the Nazis to give the ghetto a positive review, claimed surprise to see a “lively city of almost normal life.”

This old officers’ building, dating from the end of the 18th century, was reserved for the ghetto’s young girls. Behind the mesh door of a staircase, a new bike and a scooter stand against the wall. It is down in the vaulted cellars, flanked with wooden doors, basement windows and sewer systems, that prisoners here rehearsed Verdi’s Requiem that Rafael Shächter, a Czech composer, conductor and pianist held at Terezin, used to conduct in front of Nazi dignitaries and others.

The choir of about 150 people was reconfigured three times, as members were sent to the gas chambers. On the top floor of the building, there is a vast attic where hundreds of prisoners were squeezed in. The huge framework’s beams bear what is left of cob plywood — the partitions dividing the common space. The vile reality of life here can be found in the secret drawings hidden in the ghetto by artists Leo Haas, Bedrich Fritta, Frantisek Petr Kien, Karel Fleischmann and Otto Ungar, among others.

In the street, the wind is blowing, the sun is shining, and there is no sign of the rail tracks that used to connect the Bauschowitz station to the ghetto. Near Terezin’s national museum, there is the empty paved courtyard of what used to be the Hamburg barracks, where the deported were called to be sent east.

A few buildings further, at 17 Dlouha Street, a small yard of loose stones leads to a former warehouse that prisoners covered with red Stars of David on an ochre background. Typical apartments here were spare and uncomfortable, featuring wooden bunk beds covered with straw and built-in cupboards with dresses and coats carrying the yellow star.

Though fear and despair were rampant here, the history of Terezin also includes an insatiable lust for life represented by art. At the Terezin Memorial’s library, huge folders are filled with concert and opera posters, piano and chamber music recitals (not to mention discussions, lectures, plays, cabaret shows, etc.). Meticulous and ambitious programs of Bach, Beethoven and Mahler co-existed with works created in Terezin, and others from “degenerate” composers that were forbidden by the Reich.

Alongside Jewish composer Viktor Ullman’s work, there was a series of Baroque music performances. Although it was denigrated by some, opera was becoming more popular at the time. In addition to the famous Brundibar, a children’s opera written in 1938 by Hans Krasa (played 55 times over nine months in the ghetto), musicians played Smetana’s The Bartered Bride (35 performances), Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Verdi’s Aida, Johann Strauss’s The Bat, Bizet’s Carmen, and Pergolesi’s The Servant Turned Mistress. The set models for the latter and costumes, designed by the architect Franz Zelenka, are displayed in the museum.

After leaving the fortress, we reach the spacious gymnasium where numerous shows were performed. Today, a worker is repairing damage caused by flooding from June 2013. The premier of Der Kaiser von Atlantis was supposed to be performed here in the fall of 1944. But it never was.

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