[This was an article I wrote about an unusual concert I directed for Yom ha-Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) on April 14, 1988. This essay was originally published in the June 1988 issue of K’fari magazine.]
In preparation for our concert for Yom ha-Shoah, I came to view the program as not so much a concert but a musical observance. Still later, my perception evolved again into a desire to create an evening of spiritual passage which would first immerse the "audience" into the Holocaust, and then lead them back out with a spirit of hope and determination.
The goal was therefore not merely one of historical remembrance, although that is undeniably a worthy aim and was naturally a major element of what we did. My aspiration was a bit more complex: this idea of immersion and resurfacing, to utilize the enormously vivid music and poetry of the Jewish people of the Holocaust to reduce the distance between post-Holocaust generations and the events of the Holocaust, and then to emerge with a renewed dedication to resist the still-present Fascism that haunts our world today.
To these ends the form and content of the evening were fitted. In terms of form, several steps were taken to undermine the expectations of standard concert fare. Applause was forbidden; there was no intermission; an opening prelude was performed by myself alone on the piano in absolute darkness, followed by a recitation of Kaddish by all present, also in darkness. Minimal lighting was used for the music and two brief poetry interludes, with the lights being raised at the end, creating a progression from darkness to light matching the hopeful, reconciliatory finale of our last piece.
Throughout we tried to maintain a sober, concentrated approach to the music, which helped to heighten the sense of immersion.
In terms of content, there were three main musical offerings: Cantor Charles Davidson's song cycle "I Never Saw Another Butterfly," based on poetry discovered at the Terezin concentration camp, for women's choir and piano; a set of eight Yiddish songs sung in the camps and ghettos during the Holocaust, compiled by survivor Shoshana Kalisch with artful piano accompaniments by Mordecai Sheinkman; and "Din-Torah," an excerpt from Leonard Bernstein's "Kaddish," reduced for piano, speaker, four percussionists, soprano soloist, and women's chorus.
There was a conscious effort to avoid obscuring the contradictions of the Holocaust. Rather, I felt that an exploration of the contradictions of the era needed to be central to the musical observance. The Leonard Bernstein excerpt, for example, was an expressive, dramatic rendering of the contradiction between our faith in the covenant and our feelings of loneliness and betrayal in contemporary, post-Holocaust Jewish society.
Bernstein adopts an unusual reversal and has the speaker berating God for having reneged on the covenant. In the end, though, the speaker asks for forgiveness, lamenting: "Dear God, how You must suffer, so far away, ruefully eyeing your two-footed handiwork - frail, foolish, mortal."
At various other points, songs touched upon other puzzles, such as: does justice exist; free will versus determinism; the continued flourishing of art during the Holocaust; and the juxtaposition of beauty and evil.
The last contradiction was surely most movingly brought out by the "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" songs, no doubt because of the unique and powerful vantage point offered by the children's poetry. In closing, let us look at the first song of that cycle in more detail.
The song begins, "Terezin is full of beauty," and in our interpretation we opted to sing it in an innocent way, evoking the pleasant Czech town and parks that could have been the children's playgrounds had they not been imprisoned and later sent to Auschwitz. Meanwhile, the piano plays a musical portrayal of forced marching, but for the time being, we intentionally keep this in the background, heard by most listeners only at a sub-conscious level.
In the second section of the song, the marching becomes dominant and permeates not just the piano but also the chorus, to the text "And through the street the tramp of many marching feet I hear." We tried to make this passage contrast as much as possible with the lyricism of the beginning, to illustrate the simultaneity of beauty and evil.
The third section uses the melody of the beginning, but the mood has irrevocably changed, casting a whole new light on the same notes. We no longer have any illusions about Terezin. At one time, perhaps it was a place of beauty. Now, it is a camp, a "square kilometer of earth cut off from the world that's free." The music and the marching become twisted, bitter.
In the final section, there is a change: bitterness is suppressed beneath a tone of reconciliation, even sweetness. The opening mood is nostalgically recalled, but questions remain as the song ends on an unresolved chord.
[Pianist Michael Arnowitt lives in Montpelier, Vermont.]