29 March, 2009: Dr. Ruth Westheimer does not see herself as a Holocaust survivor. Rather, she tells us she is a Holocaust orphan. In 1939, at the tender age of 10, her parents put their youngest child on a train leaving from their hometown Berlin bound for Switzerland where arrangements had been made for her to stay in a children's home. There she grew up, never seeing her family again.
The irrepressible Dr. Ruth shared this poignant page out of her autobiography last night in her introductory remarks to the gathered throng at the magnificent Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. As we all sat bracing ourselves, however, for what no one expected to be a program of light and lively music, it was clear that there was perhaps a handful of actual concentration camp survivors among the thousand or so people crowding the church.
Other Survivors, namely those of the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Furstenberg, Germany have invited Ars Choralis to perform at their annual Liberation Day ceremonies on April 18 and 19, 2009 on the grounds of the camp. And there are sure to be a number of Holocaust survivors and orphans alike among those who will be at Berlin's Heilig Kreuz Passion Church when Ars Choralis presents the same program there on April 17.
In the still early dawn of 21st Century, however, we Americans tend to be psychically disconnected more than ever by time and space -- not to mention a gaping cultural divide -- that separate us from the unthinkable horrors that make up an ignominious living memory for people we often forget are still with us. The performance last night was presented as a tribute to a group of gifted artists who were forced to live not only through a desperate time of insanity far from anything most of us have experienced. But they also lived ever after haunted by the deep soul-wrenching conflicts of having participated in the bizarre and often humiliating rituals that accompanied the genocide of their own people by the millions.
As musicians plucked from the arriving cattle cars at Auschwitz and kept alive to form the death camp orchestra, the women honored by this program were forced to play while wave after wave of inmates --no more deserving than they -- were degraded, broken down by hard labor, gassed and burned like so much rubbish.
A former inmate, Erika Rothschild, remembered this macabre accompaniment:
Those who arrived in Birkenau were driven out of the cattle wagons and put in rows … to this the band played, made up of the best musicians among the prisoners; they played, depending on the origins of the transport, Polish, Czech, or Hungarian folk music. The band played, the SS pummelled, and you had no time to reflect … some were forced into the camp, the others into the crematoria.
According to the New York Times pre-review (March 25) , "some survivors find it too poignant. The ensemble has agreed to forgo the “Desperate Times” program of music and lyrics at Ravensbrück and play other music instead . . . because 'survivors said it would be too painful.'
Esther Béjarano, 84, a pianist who played accordion in the Birkenau orchestra, said it saved her life. But she called the current orchestra’s revival of the music 'distasteful.'
'I don’t want to listen to this music,' she said recently from her home in Hamburg, Germany. 'I don’t want to be reminded. Never in my life do I want to ever hear it again.'”
How then are we to feel? Understanding how some of the actual surviving musicians feel about this - and why - and sitting among many for whom this beautiful, riveting performance dredges up unfathomably painful memories of a world we never knew, how could we fight our own voyeuristic shame in finding any kind of gratification in the somber experience?
All I can say is: it was an awesome experience for me, beyond the privilege of having been part of a meaningful virtuoso concert and choral performance in the ethereal magnificence of an historic and progressive venue that is St. John the Divine's. I can't help but feel that more people need to experience this sort of connection on a deep personal level with such effective reminders of the extremes to which we human beings are capable of going, any time and all at once.
Naturally it makes a person uneasy to sit in silent attention while performers on a stage before us lead us through complex juxtapositions of innocence and artistry against the brutal context of man's overwhelming inhumanity to man. Unsettling are the echoes drawn from distant places through timeless gut-wrenching ugliness even as they reverberate across the antique cavernous chamber of a massive gothic cathedral. It is an uncomfortable disturbance of the cherished oblivion of our own time. For most of us today, reliving that prior time too horrible to conceive and audaciously denied by a scant few subhumans among us, it is understandably better forgotten by those who cannot deny the truth of what and how they survived. Whatever else comes through in this tribute performance, these echoes will evoke pangs of shame and pride, unreconcilable pleasure, pain and survivor's guilt that impossibly demands reconciliation.
I just can't imagine this coming through with the same meaningful intensity in anything other than a live performance as seen last night. This was ultimately a courageous performance reflecting the humble courage of the original Birkenau Women's Orchestra, 54 women who thankfully survived their 18 months of hell to be liberated by the British just hours before they were slated for execution themselves.
But in the interest of full disclosure, I would likely never have even known about this concert if my very good friend Nancy had not been a part of it. Nancy is not just a unique human being and a very special person in my life - she is also a truly gifted musician and artist whose performances I have missed way too many of in recent years. When I first heard that she was going to be performing at a time and place that just so happened to coincide with my schedule and my pressing need to take a long overdue, long-weekend break from my tedious routine, I did not even think to ask what it was all about. Nancy can do just about anything. If she has not gotten around to everything she may yet master musically I, for one, have always been blown away by her every performance I've been lucky enough to see, hear or hear about.
Nancy plays recorder in the Birkenau tribute orchestra. Ars Choralis is lucky to have her, as are we all!