Defiant Requiem: Rafael Schachter

Opera in a concentration camp.

Rafael Schachter was a young Czech conductor who brought opera to a concentration camp by training a chorus of his fellow Jewish prisoners.

Known as Rafi, the talented musician and composer was born in Romania in 1905. He went to Prague after WWI to study piano, composition and conducting at the Prague Conservatory. After graduating, he worked as a pianist, vocal coach and conductor in Prague.

In 1937 he founded the Prague Chamber Opera to showcase baroque music, especially unknown and underappreciated works. Rafi also partnered with the well-known dramatist Emil Burian, composing music for Burian’s avant garde theatre company.

The next year, 1938, Germany occupied Czechoslovakia. Because he was Jewish, Rafi was no longer allowed to perform or work in the theater. Instead he supported himself as a private piano instructor and vocal coach, trying to avoid notice by the German authorities. Unfortunately, in 1941, Rafi was arrested and sent to Terezin concentration camp. He knew what this meant: Terezin was where people were housed before being sent to the Auschwitz gas chambers. He did not despair however, but instead determined to improve life for his fellow prisoners by bringing music to the camp.

Rafi went around asking people if they liked to sing, and recruited 150 men and women to form a chorus. Their first production was The Bartered Bride, a popular Czech-language opera. The show premiered at Terezin in fall 1942, without sets or costumes, and Rafi accompanied the ensemble on a beat-up piano that had been smuggled into the camp. It was so popular that they put on 35 performances. Survivor Marianka May, a member of the ensemble, remembered, “What The Bartered Bride meant to the inhabitants of Terezin and to us who sang in it, is something totally, totally unforgettable. I sang in it 28 times. We sang, and you forgot you were in a concentration camp,” she said.

Their next show was The Kiss, a 19th century Czech opera. Bedrich Borges, one of the singers, remembered, “Rafael Schachter literally poured spirit into people… I looked at Schachter and thought I was looking at Johann Sebastian Bach. The man was simply impregnated by music, a rock of a man.”

Survivor Vera Schiff recalled, “He seemed special from the very moment I saw him. Imagine yourself in some kind of jungle and then suddenly you see someone from Fifth Avenue. He wasn’t tall but I thought he was handsome, and he also had a lot of joie de vivre. He was a man of enormous courage and he was brave to a fault. It was a love story in the shadow of death.”

In September 1943, Rafi made a startling choice for the chorus’ next show, perhaps sensing it would be their last. He chose Verdi’s Requiem, explaining to his chorus that they were going to sing something that would “be very dangerous” and they could bow out if they liked. Nobody did.

Theresienstadt’s Council of Jewish Elders was nominally in charge of prisoner activities at the camp, but they did not support the Requiem idea. They disapproved of the Catholic content, and felt that by performing their own funeral mass, the Jewish prisoners were “apologizing for existing.” They also feared punishment from the Nazis.

Rafi was not dissuaded. He taught his chorus, including four soloists, Verdi’s Requiem in a fetid basement, using one score sheet for everyone. They learned by rote in Latin, practicing in the wee hours of the night after long days of brutal forced labor.

After the first performance, tragedy struck when most of the singers were put on a transport train to Auschwitz. Rafi had to find and train a whole new group of performers. As they were rehearsing, another large group was selected for deportation and again he lost most of his singers. Again Rafi recruited new performers and began teaching them the music and Latin lyrics. He still had only one score sheet.

Rafi’s chorale performed the Requiem 15 times to enthusiastic audiences of Jewish prisoners. Their 16th – and final – performance was on June 23, 1944. Instead of playing for fellow Jews, Rafi and his choir were ordered to perform for an audience of SS officials, including the notorious Adolf Eichmann, a top Nazi who helped craft the Final Solution to exterminate the Jews of Europe. There were also members of the International Red Cross in attendance so the Nazis could “prove” to them that the prisoners were treated well.

Rafi told his performers, “We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them.” The song included the following lines: “When the judge takes His seat, all that is hidden will appear. Nothing will remain unavenged….”

Edgar Krasa sang bass in all 16 performances and shared a bunk bed with Rafi. He said, “Rafi Schachter made the prisoners feel they had some element of control over their circumstances, and that they weren’t just puppets waiting to be brought to their deaths… He took the prisoners from despondency of their fate to direct action and participation, and this gave him a lot of strength and some power… He gave them a choice.” Edgar later named his son Rafael.

On October 16, 1944, Rafi was selected for deportation and put on a cattle car with a thousand other Jewish prisoner, from innocent babies to elderly grandparents. They were packed together without food, toilets or even a way to sit down. Many died during the three days of travel to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. As a young and healthy man, Rafi survived the initial selection at the camp and was put to work rather than sent to the gas chambers. Three months later, with the Russian army closing in on Auschwitz, the Nazis sent Rafi and 60,000 other prisoners on a death march westward. Rafi died on the march, one month before liberation. He was 39 years old.

Rafael Schachter is gone but not forgotten. The Defiant Requiem Foundation was created by Maestro Murry Sidlin in 2008 to honor Rafi and bring his music to a wider audience.  Sidlin conceived and created Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin, featuring the music of Verdi as well as testimony from original chorus members, and Nazi footage of camp activities. This powerful concert-drama has been performed worldwide over 40 times, and the Foundation also produced a documentary about Rafi called Defiant Requiem.

The Rafael Schachter Institute for Arts and Humanities is an annual series of events to honor Rafi and other Jewish artists who brought beauty to a place of suffering, death, and hopelessness.  Events include concerts, musical performances, films and lectures, all inspired by the art made by Jewish prisoners at Terezin.

For defying the Nazis to bring music and moments of transcendent joy to doomed Jewish prisoners, we honor Rafael Schachter at this week’s Thursday Hero.

Meet other inspiring heroes!

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