Thursday, May 5, 2011

Theresienstadt, Atlantis, and the Triumph of the Spirit

Ironically, the city of Terezin (Theresienstadt in German) was originally built by the Hapsburg emperor Joseph II as a fortress city to protect Prague, thirty miles to the south, from invaders to the north. Joseph named the garrison town Terezin, after his mother, Maria Teresa.

At Theresienstadt, the world was told, Hitler, had built a city for the Jews, to protect them from the vagaries and stresses of the war. The Nazi government even made a film, Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City) to show the pleasant and idyllic settlement to which his henchmen were taking the Jews from the Czech lands and eight other countries.

Notable musicians, writers, artists, and leaders were sent there to “keep them safe” from the ravages of war.  Elderly Jews, especially, were encouraged to take advantage of Theresenstadt’s charming locale, its comfortable accommodations, its flourishing cultural life. This ruse worked almost till the end of the war, and in the four years of its existence from 1941 to 1945, nearly 200,000 men, women, and children passed through the gates of Theresenstadt as a way station to the east and almost certain death.

Among Czech Jews alone who were taken to Terezin, over 97,000 died. Of the 15,000 children held there, only 132 were known to have survived the war.
Even the International Red Cross was taken in by Hitler’s deception. The Red Cross was allowed to visit Terezin—once, in the spring of 1944. The village was spruced up for the occasion. Certain inmates were dressed up and told to stand and wave at strategic places along the specially designated route through the town. Shop windows were filled with goods for the day. Bakery shelves suddenly were filled with baked goods the inmates hadn’t seen since arriving at the camp. Even the candy shop window overflowed with bon bons and other treats.

When the Red Cross representatives appeared before one young mother pushing a carriage, they asked her what it was like to live in Terezin. “Just look around,” she answered, conscious of the Nazi officials listening to every word she spoke. “Be sure and look around,” she repeated, as she rolled her own widely opened eyes in an exaggerated manner. But the Red Cross officials did not grasp her attempt at irony. Instead, they reported that conditions at Terezin were actually quite acceptable, given that it was war time.
So many noted Jewish musicians had been transported to Theresenstadt that they could have filled two complete symphony orchestras.  There were various chamber orchestras and choral groups, who offered occasional concerts.  A number of major works were created, including Brundibar (the Bumble Bee) by the composer Hans Krasa. Some of these survived the war, and are now are being resurrected and played throughout the world.

Life at Theresienstadt was harsh, but, according to many of the survivors,  there developed within its walls a deep feeling of family and community. Children went off to schools run by the Jewish elders in the morning. People gathered in the evenings to chat; they watched one another’s children, and helped each other with chores. Women exchanged cherished recipes from their lives before internment. Many of these were gathered into a cookbook by a grandmother named Mina Pachter from Prague, which was later smuggled out of Europe to her daughter in Palestine. The book was published years later as In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin.

But life was unspeakably harsh. The population of the town of Terezin had been around 5,000 people before the war. At the height of the war, the concentration camp at Theresenstadt held nearly 60,000 Jews. Food was scarce; disease was rampant. The yearly death toll was nearly 20,000—a mortality rate just under 50%.  At the height of the war, the Germans constructed a modern and efficient crematorium at the edge of town, capable of handling 60,000 bodies per year.
But Theresienstadt was not a death camp like Auschwitz or Treblinka. Rather, it was an institution unlike any other in Hitler’s Reich. Its purpose was three-fold:
First, Theresenstadt served as a transit camp for Czech Jews whom the Germans deported to killing centers, concentration camps, and forced-labor camps in German-occupied Poland, Belorussia, and the Baltics.
Second, it was a ghetto-labor camp to which the SS deported and then incarcerated certain categories of German, Austrian, and Czech Jews, based on their age, disability as a result of past military service, or domestic celebrity in the arts and other cultural life. It was expected that that poor conditions there would hasten the deaths of many of these deportees, leaving fewer ultimately to be transported to the killing centers in the East.
 Third, Theresienstadt was a propaganda tool of the Third Reich. Among its ancillary purposes was to serve as a clearing house and sorting center for clothing and other property confiscated from Jews across the lands of the Third Reich. But it also had a strange parallel life as a “model ghetto”, an “example” of the “humanitarian nature” of Hitler’s campaign against the Jews. Ultimately, Theresienstadt was a ploy, a diversion meant to distract the world while the heinous crimes of the Final Solution were implemented.
Once the film, The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City had been completed, all those who had taken part in its production were immediately shipped off to the death camp at Auschwitz. Similarly, once the Red Cross had completed its visit and filed its report, deportations to the East were resumed, and then accelerated. In the autumn of 1944, as the Russian army moved in on Bohemia from the east, more than three-quarters of the residents of Theresienstadt were deported to Auschwitz. By the end of the war, only a few thousand inmates remained within its walls.

On May 1, 1945, control of Terezin was transferred to the International Red Cross. One week later, on May 8, Theresienstadt was liberated by Soviet troops on their way to Prague.

            Among the musical talents shipped to Teresienstadt was the Czech composer Viktor Ullmann, who is best known  for his work, The Emperor of Atlantis (Der Kaiser von Atlantis).
Most great musical works are able over time to transcend their particular histories. We don’t need to know much about (say) 18th century Vienna in order to appreciate Mozart; we don’t need to know anything about the state of the Church in 18th century Germany in order to be stirred by a cantata of Johan Sebastian Bach, for instance.
            But other works emerge through time as less pieces of art or music, per se, as representatives of their particular histories; not merely to be experienced for the pleasure or challenge they represent, as to be understood in the context in which they were created.
            This is most certainly to case with Ullmann’s work.  The Emperor of Atlantis is a work whose origins, quite literally, “press in from the margins of [its] score.” Ullmann composed Der Kaiser von Atlantis an inmate at Theresienstadt in 1943. Facing a shortage of manuscript paper, Ullmann is said to have written his score on the backs of discarded transport forms of prisoners sent from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz and other points in the East. It is an opera, quite literally, written on the backs of death warrants.

Viktor Ullmann was born on New Year’s Day in 1898 in the town of Tesin in eastern Moravia, on the border with Poland. (Indeed, in 1920, after the First World War, the town would be divided between Poland and the new nation of Czechoslovakia.) His parents were Jewish, but had converted to Catholicism before Viktor’s birth, so he was baptized in the local church at Tesin, but soon moved to Vienna, where his father pursued a career as a military officer in the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In Vienna, Viktor attended a grammar school, where his musical talents already were noticed.

With the coming of the Great War, he served briefly on the Italian front, and after the war returned to Vienna, where he studied law at the university. At the same time, he was also accepted into a musical composition seminar under the auspices of the noted modern composer Arnold Schonberg. He also continued his work as a pianist, and in May 1919, left the study of law and struck out on his own to pursue a musical career in Prague.

Under the patronage of Alexander von Zemlinsky, he served as a conductor at the New German Theatre of Prague until 1927. The following season, 1927–28, he was appointed head of the opera company in the smaller city of Ústí nad Labem, but his modernist and avant garde preferences did not sit well with local tastes, so his appointment was terminated. Ullmann continued to compose, however, and saw a long series of successful performances of his works, which lasted into the 1930s. In 1929, his Variations on Schönberg, based on a theme by his former teacher in Vienna, was considered one of the most innovative works of the year, and fueled by this success, he gained the prestigious appointment as the conductor and composer of the Musical Theatre in Zürich.
But after two years in this position, Ullmann seemed to have burned out on the musical scene, and in 1931, he left Switzerland for Germany where he ran a bookstore in Stuttgart specializing in works from the anthroposophy movement founded by the philosopher Rudolf Steiner. However, with the rise of Hitler and the Nazis and the implementation of the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws, Ullmann was forced to flee Germany in mid-1933 and return to Prague. There, he resumed his work in the musical field, taking a position in the music department at Radio Prague, writing music reviews for various magazines and newspapers, lecturing to educational groups and serving on the board of the Czechoslovak Society for Music Education, and giving private lessons. He also resumed work as a composer, and his opera Fall of the Antichrist was awarded the prestigious Hertzka Prize in 1936.

In 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and established the “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia”. Wholescale persecution of Jews within the Czech Lands was launched, and Ullmann was fired from all his official positions and banned from publishing. He continued to compose, however, and in the next three years completed 15 major works, of which only a few survived the war in manuscript form. On September 8, 1942, because his status as a respected cultural figure, Viktor Ullmann was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

The peculiar nature of Theresenstadt as a Nazi “showpiece” allowed Ullmann  to remain active musically. He was the piano accompanist at numerous musical programs; he organized concerts; he wrote reviews of musical events for the camp newsletter. He also continued to compose like a man possessed—almost two dozen works between 1943 and 1944—a string quartet, several piano sonatas, new arrangements of Hebrew and Yiddish folk songs. In a reminiscence smuggled out after the war, he wrote: "By no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon. Our endeavor with respect to arts was commensurate with our will to live."

His masterwork at Theresienstadt was an opera in twenty scenes, about an hour in length, Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis).

Ullmann asked a young man named Petr Kien to write the libretto for his opera. Kien was born in Moravia in 1919, and spent the early part of his life in the industrial city of Varnsdorf, before moving to the Moravian capital, Brno, where he attended school. A gifted artist, he enrolled in the Fine Arts Institute of Prague, but with the institution of the anti-Jewish laws was expelled from there in 1939 and took a job as an art teacher at a synagogue in the Prague suburb of Vinohrady.  He tried to emigrate with his wife and parents, but in 1941 all four were deported to the camp at Terezin.

There, he was put to work in the drafting office at the camp, where he produced thousands of pictorial representations of life in Theresienstadt. Many of these survived the war, and provide one of our clearest portraits of life behind the fortress’s walls. Kien also continued to write. His social satire, Marionettes, was performed more than 25 times at the camp. His poetic cycle, Plague, was set to music. He wrote other plays, as well, none of which, however, was ever produced.
In 1943, Viktor Ullmann approached Kien about writing the libretto for his new opera, the Emperor of Atlantis, or Death Abdicates.
As the opera begins, a voice heard over a loudspeaker, which sets the scene and presents the characters. One of these, Harlekin (Harlequin) describes his sorry life without laughter or love. Death joins him and together they lament how slowly time passes in their grim environment. Death ridicules Harlequin's wish to die and explains how much more dire his own situation has become: Now in this awful age, even he, mighty Death has become impotent. The "old-fashioned craft of dying", once something to be feared and respected, has been replaced by "motorized chariots of war" that work him to exhaustion with little satisfaction.
The Drummer then arrives announces the latest decree of the Emperor: Everyone is to be armed and everyone will fight until there are no survivors. Death denounces the Emperor for usurping his role: "To take men's souls is my job, not his!" He then declares that he is on strike and dramatically breaks his sword in two.
In the next scene, Emperor Overalls (Uberalles in German) shouts out battle orders and receives reports on the progress of the universal war. Things are not going well. People are fighting, but no one is dying (Remember: Death has gone on strike.) The Loudspeaker reports that thousands of soldiers are "wrestling with life...doing their best to die", but without success. Fearful that his power will not endure without death, the Emperor decides to use the new situation to his own advantage, and announces that he has decided to reward his subjects with the gift of eternal life. "Death, where is thy sting?” he asks. “Hell, where is thy victory?"

The scene then moves to the battlefield. A Soldier and a Maiden (the Bobbed-Haired Girl) confront one other as enemies. But because they are unable to kill each other, their thoughts turn to love instead. They dream of distant places where kind words exist alongside "meadows filled with color and fragrance." The Drummer attempts to lure them back to battle with the sensual attraction of the call. The Maiden responds: "Now death is dead and so we need to fight no more!" She and the Soldier then sing "Only love can unite us, unite us all together."
Back at the palace, Kaiser Overall continues to oversee his failing realm.  His subjects are angry and dispirited because they are suspended in limbo between life and death. Harlequin appeals to him, reminding him of his innocent childhood. The Drummer urges the Emperor to maintain his resolve, but the Kaiser’s memories turn his thoughts from his plans for the annihilation of all toward deeper questions of his own humanity. Instead of attempting to rally the troops, he gazes into a covered mirror and asks: "What do men look like? Am I still a man or just the adding machine of God?"
When the Emperor pulls away the mirror's cloth, he faces the reflection of Death. "Who are you?" he demands. Death describes his role modestly, like that of a gardener "who roots up wilting weeds, life's worn-out fellows." He regrets the pain his strike is causing. He knows that many would be relieved if he took up his duties again, so Death proposes a solution to the crisis: "I'm prepared to make peace, if you are prepared to make a sacrifice: will you be the first one to try out the new death?" After some resistance, the Emperor agrees to follow Death into the mirror. Through his sacrifice, people are able to find release in death once more. The Emperor sings his farewell:
Of all the things that can happen, only one
Fails to make the gods smile:
Saying Good-bye…
Do not weep for me!
I will follow this strange young man—
Where to, I cannot tell, but I still hope
That one day I may return…
Then think of me without lamenting.
For that which is gone should not be mourned,
But rather, that which is near and lies in everlasting slumber.
 In a closing chorus, with music a variation from Luther’s Ein Feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress), Death is praised and asked to "teach us to keep your holiest law: Thou shalt not use the name of Death in vain now and forever!"

Sketch of Viktor Ullmann by Petr Kien

When Ullmann and Kien had completed their work, plans were made for the opera’s production at Theresienstadt. Roles were cast from among the residents, and in March, 1944, rehearsals were begun. Before long, however, the German authorities caught on that the play was a thinly-veiled satire and that Kaiser Overall was, of course, Hitler himself. Production was immediately halted, and in the fall of 1944, both Ullmann and Kien were transported to Auschwitz. Petr Kien died of typhus shortly after arriving in Poland; he was just 25 years old. Viktor Ullmann died in a gas chamber about a month later, in November; he was 46.

But Der Kaiser von Atlantis survived the war. Just before being deported to the East, Ullmann had entrusted the manuscript to Dr. Emil Utiz, a former professor at the university in Prague, who served as Theresienstadt’s librarian. Dr. Utiz survived the war, and then turned the work over the Dr. Hans Adler, another camp survivor who had worked closely with Ullmann in the Prague music scene before the war. Eventually, The Emperor of Atlantis would be produced around the world, at first as part of Holocaust Remembrance observations, then as a powerful musical work on its own merit.
It would long outlive the men who had created it. It would outlive the tyranny that would order their deaths. It would abide as a living memory—and a stirring work of human creativity, forever, in the hearts and minds of generations yet to come.  

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