Hosted by The Defiant Requiem Foundation, The Rafael Schächter Institute for Arts and Humanities is an annual series of events to honor the creative activities of the prisoners in the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp (Terezín) during WWII. In an environment that was designed to deprive prisoners of their basic human rights and dignity, these prisoners – many of whom were talented scholars, artists, writers, musicians, and actors who were rounded-up from all over Eastern Europe – found their spiritual freedom and courage by giving over 1,500 lectures on every conceivable subject, creating and performing music and theater, and teaching and inspiring their fellow prisoners to remember life before the camp. Talented individuals like Rafael Schächter worked diligently to choose life when surrounded by the constant presence of death, disease, malnutrition, medical neglect, and intentional murder. Their evening hours spent immersed in the arts and humanities were, in the words of Rabbi Leo Baeck, “hours of freedom.”
The 2017 Institute was based around a new project called the “10 Stars: Revitalization of Jewish Monuments in the Czech Republic.” The project was completed in 2014 by the Federation of Jewish Communities and was funded with the largest grant for the preservation of Jewish monuments in the Czech Republic during the post-war period in a joint partnership between the EU and the Czech government. The project has enabled the reconstruction, restoration, and preservation of 15 important historical buildings in 10 towns in Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia, including not only the construction and restoration of the buildings, but also permanent exhibits installed in the synagogues and rabbinical houses to inform visitors about Jewish history and culture in an authentic setting. An important factor for the project’s success is cooperation with the local communities in which the revitalized monuments are located and with local cultural institutions and citizens’ associations. Although these organizations are not affiliated with the Czech Jewish community, they are helping to promote and operate these regional centers of Jewish culture today.
As fellows on this year’s Schachter Institute tour of the 10 Stars, Director of Holocaust Education at the Jewish Federation of Tulsa, Cassie Nodine, and Shoah survivor, Eva Unterman, spent 10 days in May 2017 visiting these restored centers of Jewish life. Nodine and Unterman joined eight other fellows from around the world on this intensive study trip. In addition to the fellows, the world-renowned klezmer trio, Veretski Pass, joined the tour and performed music in every synagogue along the 10 Stars path. Additionally, the fellows spent a significant amount of time at Terezin outside of Prague. Terezin, or Theresienstadt, was a transit/ghetto-labor camp best known for its flourishing arts community, housing some of the most talented painters, musicians, architects, and writers of Europe who were imprisoned there between 1941 and 1945, and notorious as a “model camp” used for Nazi propaganda purposes. On the last day of the institute, the Czech national commemoration of the liberation of Terezin was held with 800 people in attendance and speeches from the Czech prime minister, as well as representatives from the local Jewish and Christian communities. Unterman took her place on the front row at the ceremony with the other Terezin survivors as she commemorated the 72nd anniversary of her liberation from the camp.
Following the ceremony, Murry Sidlin, founder and president of The Defiant Requiem Foundation and composer/conductor of The Defiant Requiem (and former music director of the Tulsa Philharmonic), debuted his newest concert drama named “Hours of Freedom: The Story of the Terezin Composer,” which illuminates the compositions of 15 composers who were imprisoned at Terezin. Unterman says of this performance, “Murry Sidlin’s concert at Terezin was a highlight of this amazing journey into the past for me. Listening to the haunted melodies composed under the constant fear of death, by such talented young people and seeing their faces on the screen brought me to tears.” The experience was a reminder of the courage, strength, and artistry of those musicians, who from 1941 through 1945, escaped the fear and uncertainty of the camp for a few hours of social and musical harmony.
The 10 Stars tour is a beautiful reminder of the importance of preservation of memory through place. Although these buildings of worship and learning are empty because of the Shoah, the spirit remains; and though the people are gone, the music still lives. As Murry Sidlin says, “It is only through art we know the truth,” and the truth discovered along the 10 Stars Path is that of the necessity of remembrance and the beauty of resilience.