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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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January 22-23

  • Navalny saga & Putin’s intentions
  • COVID’s toll on teenage girls
  • A 50-year-old book fee finally gets paid
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

2. What started to mysteriously appear on signs, statues and monuments across Adelaide, Australia?

3. What cult movie did U.S. rocker Meat Loaf, who died Friday at age 74, star in?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? 🇬🇧 👱 💬 💼 ❌ 🥳 🦠

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli

🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.

🇷🇺  NAVALNY SAGA & PUTIN’S INTENTIONS


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine

🇨🇴  FROM HOSTAGE TO POTENTIAL HEAD OF STATE


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President

♀️ 😔  YOUNG WOMEN FACE THE BRUNT OF THE COVID-19 MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest

💡  BRIGHT IDEA


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.

#️⃣ TRENDING

“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.

😄📚 SMILE OF THE WEEK

Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA


London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Dottoré! is a weekly column on Worldcrunch.com by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days


Keep reading... Show less
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