When Czech conductor Rafael Schächter was imprisoned in the Terezin concentration camp during World War II, one of the musical scores he brought with him was Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem.
Unbeknownst to the Nazis, Schächter began assembling a choir and organizing clandestine rehearsals of the piece, as both a creative distraction for the captive Jews and an act of defiance against the Germans.
Schächter reimagined the Catholic mass as a message for his captors, as a reminder to them that one day their crimes against the Jews will be uncovered and they will face consequences. But with lines like, “How great will be the terror when the judge comes who will smash everything completely,” and “Whatever is hidden shall be revealed and nothing shall remain unavenged,” there was no way he could have his choir sing the lyrics in German and get away with it. So he translated the words into Latin, and, without sheet music or written lyrics, Schächter taught his makeshift choir the music and Latin phrases in person, verbally, until they had memorized it.
Despite the fact that on several occasions the ranks of his choir were decimated when members were hauled off to their death at Auschwitz, Schächter and the chorus performed the challenging piece 16 times.
And in 1944, they delivered their final performance right in the face of Nazi leaders during a site visit from the International Red Cross in which the Germans tried to create the impression that the concentration camp was an idyllic town set aside for the Jews with all of the comforts of home. Schächter and the remaining choir members were shipped off to Auschwitz soon afterwards.
One of the only survivors from that chorus, a man who was Schächter’s roommate and who sang in all 16 performances, will be in town this week for the Boulder International Film Festival (BIFF), which will screen Defiant Requiem, a documentary that tells the story of Schächter and his choir.
Edgar Krasa, who survived Auschwitz by gaining a work detail as a welder at a railroad repair shop, and his wife Hana, another Terezin survivor, went on to see two of their sons sing the piece in 2009 as part of a reenactment performance organized by conductor Murry Sidlin. (Sidlin learned about the story of Schächter by chance after picking up a book called Music at Terezin and dedicated himself to honoring the Jewish performers and Holocaust victims by conducting the piece at Terezin and other locations around the world.)
Edgar and Hana Krasa will attend the BIFF screening, along with Director/Writer/Producer Doug Shultz and Executive Producer Whitney Johnson. In a phone interview with BW, Edgar Krasa described what Schächter did as “transform a mass for the dead into a mass for the dead Nazis,” and in so doing, make life better for the imprisoned Jews through the power of music. At one point just before the final performance in front of the Germans, Schächter told his performers they were free to bow out if they didn’t want to take the risk.
“Nobody left,” Krasa recalls, adding that the depleted choir did not meet Schächter’s high standards for that final performance. “He was not satisfied with the composition of the choir, but he had the opportunity to have the Germans in front of them and sing this to their faces.”
When asked about what it was like to return to Terezin and watch the piece performed again, this time with two sons in the choir, Krasa says, “It was really nice. … If I still had a good voice I would have sung too.”
Shultz, the writer and director, told BW that the project initially started as a straightforward filming of Sidlin’s concert at Terezin, but it grew into a documentary that features interviews with survivors of Terezin and animations developed from surviving drawings depicting life at Terezin by artists imprisoned there.
“The last thing anybody wants is to watch another Holocaust film, really,” Shultz says. “But then when you hear this story, it taps into some different place, in terms of the power of the human spirit. To create under those circumstances is pretty incredible.”
He adds that the reaction to the film has been overwhelming.
“There have been screenings where people have given me a hug afterwards,” Shultz says.
Defiant Requiem plays at 2:30 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Boulder Theater. See www.biff1.com for more information.