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The journey to hell in Theresienstadt | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

The journey to hell in Theresienstadt

The violinist Daniel Hope introduces Refuge in Music, his new film on the musicians of Terezín

Daniel Hope with Alice Herz-Sommer, who gave over 100 concerts in Terezín© Daniel Hope

In 1998, as I was driving home and flipping through the radio channels, a piece of music caught my ear. A string trio. With elements of Bartók , Stravinsky and maybe Janáček? And yet I was pretty sure none of these composers had written for this combination. I pulled over and sat transfixed  by the side of the road until the announcer said: “that was a string trio by Gideon Klein”. Who?

I googled Gideon Klein and learned a lot about a place called Theresienstadt (also known by its Czech name as Terezín), a garrison town 60 km north of Prague,  the central collection point or ghetto for between 50,000 and 60,000 Czech Jews. Once the Nazis realised that allowing prisoners to provide their own forms of “entertainment” enhanced morale, they began permitting concerts under the title Kameradschaftsabende (Comradeship Evenings). With each transport more musicians, actors, directors and scientists arrived in Theresienstadt. Some were leading talents of the day, like the film director Kurt Gerron and the former conductor of the Royal Copenhagen Orchestra, Peter Deutsch.

Gideon Klein (pictured) was just 21 when he arrived at the camp. A brilliant pianist studying in Prague, he was set to accept a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music when war intervened. In Terezín Klein was a driving force, urging his older colleagues, many of whom had given up on life, to go back to music. His String Trio, the work I heard that night on the radio, was completed nine days before his transport to Auschwitz. But it is far removed from tearful sentimentality. With a distinct affinity to Alban Berg and echoes of the acerbic rhythms of Janáček and Moravian folk songs, he made something entirely his own. What I soon realised was that the Nazis had all but wiped out an entire sound-world from 20th-century music.

In September 2001, I went into the recording studio with the violist Philip Dukes and the cellist Paul Watkins. We were recording a work by Erwin Schulhoff (whose father was sent to Terezín but who was murdered in a different camp). It was also the day al-Qaeda decided to attack America. We emerged from 12 hours of recording this music in the secluded Welsh countryside to find a world changed forever. Five years later, I bumped into the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter in the lobby of a Munich hotel. We got talking. She told me that her father, a high-ranking Swedish diplomat in Berlin in the 1940s, had shared a train journey with an SS officer, Kurt Gerstein. Gerstein had described to Von Otter Senior in frightening detail the horrors of the death camps and urged him to inform his government. The diplomat complied, and the Swedes duly ignored him.

I discovered that Speer and von Ribbentrop had appropriated the villa where my great-grandparents had lived

Anne Sofie explained that she wanted to make a CD for Deutsche Grammophon of both the classical and the cabaret songs composed in Terezín, knowing that her father – who never really forgave himself for not being able to do more - would have wanted this too. She had asked the baritone Christian Gerhaher to join the production and asked me to come on board too.  When the CD was released in 2007 we toured the project from Carnegie Hall to the Concertgebouw. At every performance we met survivors who shared with us stories of the unspeakable conditions in camps like Terezín. From the first transport of 342 young men which arrived in Terezín on 24 November 1941, the numbers grew to 58,491 by 18 September 1942.  In its four-year history, Theresienstadt saw a total of 139,654 prisoners, of whom  33,419 died there, and 86,934 were deported to various concentration camps. Some 14,000 children were murdered.

After one of our concerts in Coburg, Germany, the director of the Lied & Lyrik Festival, Katja Schaefer, asked me what I’d like to do next with the project. When I told her I wanted to make a film, she asked me to call her if ever I got the idea off the ground.

In the mean time I had begun to research my own family history. I discovered that Albert Speer and Joachim von Ribbentrop had personally appropriated the villa in Berlin where my great-grandparents had lived. After my family fled Germany in 1936, the house became a temporary refuge for the Jüdische Waldschule (Jewish Forest School) under Lotte Kaliski. Up to 320 children studied there until its closure in 1939. One of the pupils was film director Mike Nichols. Thereafter, von Ribbentrop installed the Nazis' main decoding station in the villa, which became a sort of German Bletchley Park. The house is today still owned by the German Foreign Ministry.

What fascinates me about Berlin are the histories buried in its buildings. And so I decided some years ago to fill these places with music, one after the other, by performing at the Reichstag, Tempelhof Airport and the Ministry of Finance (formerly Göring’s Ministry of Aviation). It was at this last concert that I met the amazing Coco Schumann, jazz musician extraordinaire (pictured with Hope, © Daniel Hope). Coco was the King of Swing in the Berlin nightclubs of the 1930s, until he was sent to Terezín. There he joined the so-called “Ghetto Swingers”, performing every night. Later he was sent to Auschwitz, where he was ordered to play popular songs as prisoners were marched to their deaths.

Coco, now 89, is one of those incredible forces of nature. “I’m not a prisoner who played music,” he told me straight: “I’m a musician - who just happened to find himself in a camp.”

“If I could get a film together, would you take me back to Terezín?”, I asked him one evening.

“Sure, as long as drinks are on you!” he replied. 

Next I called Katja Schaefer. Thanks to her vision and the financial support of her organisation, the Bayerische Akademie der Schönen Künste, we made the film. All artists appeared without a fee, and any artist royalties will go to charity.

I needed to find the right classical musician for the film too. I made enquiries and found out that the pianist, Alice Herz-Sommer, now 109, lived in London. She gave over 100 concerts in Terezín and knew all of the composers whose music I have studied over the last 15 years. Soon enough I found myself in her flat, listening to a lady who once met Kafka and played for Schnabel.

“The audience was old, terribly ill and at the end of their lives. But in spite of that they came,” she told me. “These concerts were the only thing they lived for. For us performers it was heavenly. To know that you’d be playing such great music every evening, it was like a word spoken in God’s presence” - and she gave me a beady look - “in whom I DON’T believe”.

On 10 November the city of Berlin marked the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht with a special concert for 12,000 people in front of the Brandenburg Gate (pictured above), an historic symbol in a city once divided. I played music of the “degenerate” composers from the 1930s. Images of musicians, including Coco Schumann and Alice Herz-Sommer, together with artists, citizens and victims of those dark times were projected onto the pillars of the Brandenburg Gate.

Beforehand I asked Coco how that would make him feel, seeing himself on the Brandenburg Gate. He simply shrugged his shoulders.

“I was born a musician. I’m just grateful to music for saving me from hell…”

  • Refuge in Music is out on DVD now

Overleaf: watch the trailer to Refuge in Music

I’m not a prisoner who played music. I’m a musician - who just happened to find himself in a camp

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Daniel, Once when you are in

Daniel, Once when you are in Berlin, I suggest you take the train to Oranienburg and take a tour of Sachsenhausen, where I was imprisoned in 1944 and 1945. There is a Gedenkstätte and Museum there which I understand is very interesting. Peter

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