Skip to content

Log Out


Good Letters

I go to lots of classical music concerts, but I’ve never been so moved as I was by this one. It wasn’t just the profundity of the music; it was also, and especially, the context in which it was composed.

The concert was called Music from Terezín Concentration Camp. I’m ashamed to admit that I hadn’t heard of the Terezín Camp. But from the program notes, I quickly learned the basics: that the Nazis established this camp in 1941, in the Czech town of Terezín, to house European Jews mostly from prominent families. Among the prisoners were gifted musicians, composers, visual artists, and writers. They were permitted to practice their arts — and later even encouraged to do so, when the Nazis realized that Terezín could become a propaganda show-place. (See what a rich cultural life these people have, the Nazis could boast, when visitors like the Red Cross came to inspect.) Actually, the inmates’ lives were miserable: they suffered from hunger, disease, and of course the despair of being imprisoned. Many died from these conditions, and many more from frequent deportations to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Of the 140,000 people who passed through or remained at Terezín until the war’s end, only about 20,000 survived.

The concert I attended was performed by the chamber music orchestra Cordancia, co-founded by my neighbor, violinist Pia Liptak. Cordancia’s programming is always unusual and eye-opening — but this was heart-opening as well.

Four of Terezín’s major composers were represented — by a string trio, a string quartet, a quintet for winds, and songs — all musically outstanding, characteristic of the best of mid-twentieth century music. There were also excerpts from perhaps the most famous piece to have come from Terezín: Hans Krasa’s opera for children called Brundibár. (Actually, Krasa wrote Brundibár before Terezín, but adapted it there for the available instruments.) And yes, alas, there were children held at Terezín, thousands of them. Adults were permitted to educate them, and some of the children’s poems have been set to music; we heard a contemporary setting of three of them.

So here were music and poetry. I suspected that arts of other genres must have been created at Terezín as well. When I got home, I put ‘Terezín arts” into my computer’s search engine, and — wow — what a wealth of sites came up: over 100,000. Including at least four articles on wikipedia. And a Facebook page called Children and Artists of Terezín. And a youtube video (unfortunately not a very good one, but the narration does contain the key line that “The spirit of art triumphed over the Terezín walls”).

And… And…

Many sites on the poetry written by Terezín children. It has been collected, along with their drawings, in the book I Never Saw Another Butterfly (first published in 1959 and later re-issued in expanded versions). Other books, too, have kept the Terezín arts alive:

The Artists of Terezín

Art in a Concentration Camp: Drawings from Terezín

Dancing on a Power Keg (the letters and poems of Ilse Weber)

Music in Terezín:1941-1945

Seeing through “Paradise”: Artists and the Terezín Concentration Camp

Defiance at Terezín: Verdi Requiem inspires Czech Artists Last Hurrah

And more. There are also many CDs of music composed at Terezín.

I started wondering how all these artistic works from Terezín survived the end of the war.  I asked Pia Liptak if she knew, and she sent me the program notes from a previous Terezín concert she’d organized. From these very full notes I learned:

“Many children expressed themselves through writing poetry and drawing pictures. From the hand-produced, Czech-language literary magazine, Vedem, some 700 pages survived. Only one of the one hundred boys who contributed to the magazine remained in Terezín until its liberation in May 1945. He had hidden magazines in a blacksmith shop where his father had worked, and brought it back with him to Prague after he was liberated.”

About poet and songwriter Ilse Weber, who was held at Terezín with her husband Willi and their son from 1942 to 1944, when they were transported to Auschwitz. Ilse and the child were sent to the gas chamber, but Willi somehow survived:

“Ilse wrote around 60 poems during her imprisonment and set many of them to music, employing deceptively simple tunes and imagery to describe the horror of her surroundings. She would accompany herself on guitar while she sang her lullaby-like songs to children and the elderly of the ghetto.… When Willi had received a transport notice to Auschwitz, he had immediately filled a sack with Ilse’s poems and sketches and buried them in a hole beneath a shed in Terezín to which he had access by virtue of his job as a gardener. After the war, Willi returned to Terezín and miraculously retrieved the poems.”

About Austrian composer Viktor Ullmann, who was already a major composer when he was deported to Terezín in 1942:

“The works he completed in Terezín have mostly been preserved. In the fall of 1944 he was deported to the camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau where he was killed in the gas chambers. Before he was deported, he left his works in the safekeeping of a friend who helped have the scores brought to England after the war.”

Then I came across the 1993 BBC/Czech TV co-production of a documentary film: The Music of Terezin. From this I learned more about how certain musical compositions survived:

After the war, conductor Karel Ancerl returned to Terezín to collect the scores for Pavel Haas’s study for string orchestra; most parts had survived, so it was possible to reconstruct the piece.

Another survivor, singer Karel Berman, copied out the score of an opera by Viktor Ullmann that satirized Hitler. The SS had refused permission to perform it at Terezín, but Berman saved it and it has been performed since.

More research online would no doubt have revealed how other Terezín artistic works had survived. But this superb documentary film took me in another, even more gripping direction, toward another sort of survival: how creating these arts enabled the survival of the artists themselves — and much of the camp’s population as well.

In 1993, when this documentary was made, some survivors of Terezín were still alive and were interviewed in the film. So, for instance, pianist Alice Herz-Sommer tells us that Viktor Ullmann composed about twenty works while in Terezín. He was asked there how he could compose under prison circumstances, and he said being at Terezín actually helped him, because “the will to create is the same as the will to live.”

Later Herz-Sommer remarks about her first concert there, speaking of the audience of prisoners: “Even if they were ill, they came to this concert. It was a remedy — for us and for them.”

The film’s narrator tells us: “The musical life grew from a genuine need for artistic expression — an escape from their confinement.” And: “On one Sunday there were three different musical performances.” Not all were pieces written at Terezín. In fact, a highlight was a performance of Verdi’s Requiem. Singer Karel Berman says: “One hundred and eighty people sang this piece the day before they were transported to Auschwitz.”

From other sources, I culled these further reflections on the crucial role of the arts at Terezin.

From the Foreword to Dancing on a Powder Keg (a collection of Ilse Weber’s letters and Terezín poems):

“Ilse found refuge and consolation in language.… For Ilse, writing and citing poetry provided a pragmatic, albeit illegal and dangerous, means of coping with and bearing witness to the universe of the Nazi concentration camp and ghetto,… a universe ruled by malice and chance.… In this illogical reality, rhyme and rhythm [Ilse chose nursery rhyme forms for her poems] might have offered a sense of order, momentarily transcending the chaos. The very process of writing rhymes many have provided an otherwise impossible but needed therapeutic escape from one’s immediate surroundings.”

From pianist Alice Herz-Sommer:

“Whenever I knew that I had a concert, I was happy. Music is magic. We performed in the council before an audience of 150 old, hopeless, sick and hungry people. They lived for the music. It was good to them. If they hadn’t come to these concerts, they would have died. And we would have. Music brings to us an island with peace, beauty and love. It is a mystery that, when the first tone starts, it goes straight to our soul. When the old, hopeless, and sick came to the concerts, they became young.”

From a 2014 Boston Globe article, “Terezín and the power of art against evil.”

“Survivors of conductor Rafael Schachter’s chorus recall emerging from a dark, cold cellar where they relentlessly practiced after hours of grueling forced labor to step over the skeletal corpses of those who had meanwhile succumbed. Their own chorus of some 150 had to be replenished twice as members were deported to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.”

Well, it kept our spirits lifted. We felt we wanted to go on. We were hungry, we were tired, we were sick. But we had something to live for,’ [survivor Edgar] Krasa said in a book called The Music Man of Terezin: The Story of Rafael Schaechter as Remembered by Edgar Krasa, by Susie Davidson.”


During the intermission at that Cordancia concert I attended, I found Pia Liptak’s husband, composer David Liptak. He hadn’t read any of the sources I’ve quoted above; but when I asked him how he thought this remarkable music could have been written under such horrifying conditions, he paused just an instant and then replied: “Creativity is survival.”

Drawing of the Terezin barracks by Bedrich Fritta via wikipedia commons.

Image depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

+ Click here to make a donation.

+ Click here to subscribe to Image.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Peggy Rosenthal

Peggy Rosenthal writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See her Amazon Author Page for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

Receive ImageUpdate, our free weekly newsletter featuring the best from Image and the world of arts & faith

* indicates required