The 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp Theresienstadt, also known as Terezin, situated 40 miles outside of Prague, was commemorated on May 14, 2015, at Zankel Hall in New York City. The program featured the World Premiere of Ittai Shapira’s “The Ethics” for Violin, Chorus, Percussion, and Piano and was sponsored by Humanity in Action and Molloy College.
Before composing The Ethics, Shapira schooled himself in the music that was composed and performed at the concentration camp and learned about the lives of the children imprisoned there. Theresienstadt was unique in that the Germans deported many artists and musicians to it in hopes of fooling the world about life in a concentration camp, hence the musicians confined there composed and played whatever crude instruments they could put their hands on.
They also revived a children’s opera, “Brundibar,” which had been composed in 1938 by Hans Krasa, who was deported to Terezin in 1942, followed by many of the adults and children with whom he had worked. Though the cast of “Brundibar” kept changing because of death and deportations, the inmates managed to stage about 55 performances – around one a week – until autumn 1944, when the last transports left Terezín. The performances were a testament to the power of music and art to be life-affirming.
Ittai Shapira not only listened to “Brundibar” (The Nazis had filmed a performance so footage was available) but read what inmates wrote and spoke to a few people who had survived the camp. “These experiences triggered a persistent musical fragment for Shapira—what he describes as a ‘musical cell’—that then inspired him to compose The Ethics.”
“The Ethics has three main movements: (1)The Fortress, portraying daily life in the camp; (II) A Waltz with Fate (The Arrival of the Train to Auschwitz); and (III) Defiance/Liberation.” Shapira assigned different roles to each instrument and the choir, with the violin “representing a new generation learning about and empathizing with the children at the camp.” It is a transcendent piece of music, so expressive of the power of art to support life in the most brutal of conditions and to convey to the listener both that brutality and a haunting beauty.
Also on the program at Zankel Hall was a video entitled “The Ethics: Building the Next Generation of Holocaust Memory through Identity and Empathy (Part I): A Conversation with Daniel Libeskind and Ittai Shapira,” moderated by Natasha Zaretsky, PhD, an anthropologist who has written about the politics of memory in the Jewish diaspora and the Americas. Eric Kandel, the Nobel Laureate, whose life’s work has been devoted to understanding memory, spoke of his childhood in Vienna shortly before the outbreak of World War II.