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Singing Holocaust Children’s Poetry At Terezin Teaches Interfaith Harmony To New Generation

I NEVER SAW ANOTHER BUTTERFLY

Sarah Levenstam, Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions Summer Intern 2013, sang a program of poetry written by child-victims of the Holocaust with the Youth Choral Theatre of Chicago at the site of their detainment, the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, Terezin, Czech Republic.

Who better to teach us the consequences of hate than children who were victims of the Holocaust. Though the Nazis attempted to conceal the reality of concentration camp horrors at the time, poetry written by children in the camp of Terezin survives them and provides the purest account of their experience of persecution and hate. Recently, two regional youth choirs traveled to the Terezin concentration camp, reviving the poetry children wrote while they were detained. Singer and CPWR intern Sarah Levenstam shares the lessons and experiences of how musical harmony can transcend persecution.

At the Camp

Our stage is barren—stone stairs lead to a concrete platform, overlooking a gravel-filled wasteland. This is where the children played. Our choir of children sings, with tear-streaked faces and frog-filled throats, to honor the children of the concentration camp at Terezin, the music of the Terezin children’s poetry fighting against the wind and empty space. The Youth Choral Theatre of Chicago and the Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus studied, practiced, memorized the words on the pages, words that blossomed with new purpose and value in striking contrast against the desolate grey of the children’s residences and yard.

I Never Saw Another Butterfly

The piece we performed, titled “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” is a collection of poems written by children who lived in the concentration camp in Theresienstadt, poetry later put to music. Terezin housed many artists and scholars: this helped the Nazis deceive the Red Cross that the camp was an environment where creativity thrived. In reality, the Nazis sent 144,000 Jews to Terezin, and through living in uninhabitable conditions, about 33,000 died in the camp. Another 88,000 were sent to extermination camps, and only 17,247 inmates survived. Children were not shielded from the terror—approximately 50,000 entered the camp, only 280 were spared. A prominent archway marking entry into the male work yard is inscribed “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Makes You Free”); the irony of this gate, that many men died there working to build the site of their own demise, is not lost on today’s visitors.

Our choir is composed of children from approximately 8 to 18 years old, along with a few alumnae, travelling from Chicago and Grand Rapids to honor the child-victims who wrote the poetry in “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.” The Youth Choral Theater of Chicago has performed a variety of impressive repertoire, from South African freedom songs to Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, but this piece has a special resonance with Paul Caldwell, director of the Youth Choral Theater.

The choirs sing on a platform in the children’s yard of the Terezin concentration camp.

Choir director Paul Caldwell first heard the piece performed in the American Boychoir’s recording from the 1960s, and first conducted the piece himself in 1994. In describing what motivated him to present “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” Paul explains, “the piece allows the children of today to give voice to the thoughts of those who died long ago. It immortalizes the hopes and dreams of children who had no voice.” Through this piece, Paul and the children who sing are tasked with the weighty goal of embodying and expressing the inner-most thoughts penned by these children. These children’s words are now heard beyond the stone-cold gates encasing Terezin.

Remembering the Unimaginable

Efforts to commemorate the Holocaust have manifested in various ways across Germany, the Czech Republic, and regions encompassed in the greater European Union. Large museums and memorials constructed around the globe exhibit art and literature to keep awareness of the terrors of the Nazi regime current in our collective memory. In Prague and across Germany, small gold Stolperstein, or “stumbling stones,” commemorate Jewish victims of the Nazi regime, placed at the doorstep of the homes of countless victims . By literally “stumbling” over the memory of these events, people are constantly reminded of the consequences of Nazi genocide embodied and emblazoned in the gold glistening at their feet.

Harmony in Music May Promote Harmony Beyond Music

Music provides a productive tool for reconciliation and conflict resolution. As John M. O’Connell describes in Music and Conflict, “music rather than language may provide a better medium for interrogating the character of conflict and for evaluating the quality of conflict resolution” (2). Words enveloped in lyrical melody appeal to an audience with “multivalent potential” (2)—touching each individual distinctly, with an emotional connection provided by the music. O’Connell posits that conflict is often non-rational, and a melody appeases the irrationality that words are too straightforward to access and dissolve.

In dissonance, the audience feels conflict, in resolving, resolution. On a basic level, music can articulate feelings behind tense contexts, which provides a foundation for “nurturing intercultural dialogue” (4). Regardless of the reasoning behind it, the fact remains that music has been useful in promoting conflict resolution. Harmony in music may promote harmony beyond music.

Through the act of singing and harmonizing together, the choir is a paradigm of peaceful co-existence and cooperation. Kaitlyn Johnson, a current member of the Youth Choral Theater, recognizes the implications of harmonizing with the choir in the context of “Butterfly’s” story of intolerance and genocide. On the topic of music and conflict resolution, Kaitlyn believes “that music is an effective medium. Music is a way to communicate, without directly yelling or arguing. I believe that when people are performing they become connected, not only to the words, but to each other. There, in that moment, they are as one.” She quotes the simple anthem Paul teaches to the choir every year:

“Just look at the lyrics to our song:

‘People who make music together

Cannot be enemies

At least while the music lasts…

Make the whole world better, come and sing…

 Children and the “New Generation”

While we toured Terezin, our guide emphasized the Nazis’ poor treatment of children, as the “new generation” of their perceived enemies, a threat to the ultimate genocidal goals of Nazi leaders. These children’s creativity, the outpouring of their anxiety and hope in poetry and art, is an honest insight into the inner-workings of a concentration camp. Their dreams and frustrations are emotions experienced by all children in some form, feeling isolation, confusion, disgust, hate, empathy, and so on. The innocence of young children gives their work a special significance: the torture of these young lives appears particularly cruel. Children singing the words of these lost victims bring their messages to life. As an actor performing becomes his role, the children singing embody the hopes and fears of the authors.

The message of the Holocaust, through the medium of the children’s words put to music, has imparted to Kaitlyn Johnson a more meaningful message than any other form in which lessons of the Holocaust have been taught: “I would be in school and read the textbooks and watch the documentaries, but I would still feel disconnected in a way from what happened because they were someone else’s words. They weren’t the survivors’ words. I was being told how they felt. Because I felt connected to the children while singing, I would find myself becoming angry at what had happened.”

Alumna Miranda Miller is Consoled by her Mother Mary Alice Miller

Miranda Miller rejoined the choir to sing the piece in Terezin this summer as an alumna in her mid-twenties, remembered first learning the piece at age 16. It was in Terezin she felt most connected to the children who had written the poems, experiencing an unexpected visceral response to a piece she had practiced and performed for many years: “As soon as we walked through the tunnel to get to the pathway, my heart sank as I heard our voices echoing together. I somehow felt a connection to how the people walking into the camp must have felt, knowing that was the last of their freedom, not knowing if they were going to survive or not. It sent chills through my bones, tears in my eyes, and I could not sing any longer the moment we entered the camp singing.” This present generation of children shared a special emotional connection with the past generation of children who were detained in Terezin, sharing in a collective memory through emotions understood by all children.

Message of Hope

The final selection in the “Butterfly” piece is a “Birdsong.” Singing praises of living, a child acknowledges how “wonderful it is to be alive.” The choir had been instructed by director Paul Caldwell to engage in the text, to draw out some happiness, some smiles and brightness, even after the tumult and torture of the preceding poems. Paul understands the message of hope that this poetry articulates: “Birdsong deals with the idea of immortality. When we sing the words of that poem, we actively participate in the failure of the Nazi regime. They tried to exterminate an entire ethnic group. When we sing, we continue to prevent their success. I mean, the child died. But his spirit did not. It’s happy.”

Recognizing the resolve, the hope and appreciation in these words is a difficult task for those of us attached to the message of hopelessness, disgust, and hate, but it may be the most essential message of this piece. The short “Birdsong,” along with the earlier poem “On A Sunny Evening,” conveys a deeper power, appealing less to an audience’s grief or anger, but more to a sense of activism and a commitment to combat and resolve hate and discrimination.

“If In Barbed Wire Things Can Bloom, Why Couldn’t I? I Will Not Die”

The final words of “On A Sunny Evening” find a spirit of hope and active resolve, even in this context of distress. In this message, these poems provide more than an emotional account of hate, they provide incentive against allowing such atrocities to occur ever again. The hope in this child’s narrative extends past his own fate, towards a collective responsibility to end persecution. This composition acts equally as a mandate, encouraging religious tolerance, promoting accountability to protect all children from the terror these children faced. The voices of these poems, and the voices of the singers, force us in the same vein as “stumbling stones” to stay actively aware and accountable for actions of intolerance today. This message appears in a rare form, in appeals by young victims themselves, as they instruct us on the true importance of dialogue and tolerance, and the horrors that manifest when tolerance is absent.

 

Documentary About Albanians Who Saved Jews in Holocaust

by Laura Koran
from CNN

How many people would lay down their lives for a stranger?

It’s the question at the center of the new documentary “Besa: The Promise,” which premiered last weekend at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

The filmmakers’ answer: “Albanians would.”

During one of humanity’s darkest chapters, when millions of Jews, gays, communists and racial minorities were rounded up across Europe, many Albanians put up a fight to save complete strangers.

They risked their lives to shelter displaced Jewish families under Italian, and later German, occupation during the Holocaust. Many in the small, predominantly Muslim country in southeastern Europe took refugees into their homes despite the risks and the cost, passing their guests off as family members to keep them safe.

At the core of this effort was a concept called “besa,” an Albanian code of honor that holds a person’s oath as sacred.

Under besa, a guest in one’s home must be protected at all cost. The code is uniquely Albanian and is cited in the new film as the main reason that Albanians opened their borders and their homes to displaced Jews when many others in Europe turned them away.

The code is fueled in part by the tenets of Islam under which saving a life is a blessed act.

Click here to read the full article

August 14th, 2012 at 10:55 am

Jewish Life in Shanghai’s Ghetto

Much of Shanghai’s Jewish Quarter has disappeared, but visitors still can see some of the buildings, like this one, where thousands of refugees lived alongside the city’s residents. Photo from NYTimes.com

by Casey Hall
from the New York Times

Shanghai–While much of the city’s Jewish Quarter has disappeared in the years since the end of World War II, the Ohel Moshe Synagogue is a constant reminder of how this Chinese city saved tens of thousands of Jews fleeing the Holocaust.

Built by Russian Jews in 1927 in the Hongkou district in northern Shanghai, the synagogue was the primary religious destination for the Jewish refugees who flooded into the city.

And while its facade has not changed, the building now is the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. It is the first stop for many visitors seeking information about what the Holocaust scholar David Kranzler called the “Miracle of Shanghai.”

About 20,000 refugees settled around the synagogue, in an area called the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees but more commonly known as the Jewish Ghetto. The 2.68 square kilometers, or about a square mile, which was cordoned off by the Japanese who controlled the city, also was home to 100,000 Shanghaiese, who were welcoming to their new neighbors, according to Jian Chen, the museum’s director.

Click here to read the full article

June 25th, 2012 at 10:55 am

Whose Truth, Whose Justice?

Religious and Cultural Traditions in Transitional Justice

by Landon E. Hancock and Aysegul Keskin Zeren
from Journal of Religion, Conflict, and Peace

Transitional justice mechanisms are typically created to aid societies moving from authoritarian rule or as part of a post-conflict reconciliation process. For the most part their construction reflects one of two trends that have developed in the wake of the Second World War. The first is the legacy of the Nuremberg Tribunals, established in order to reassert the rule of law and, to a lesser extent, to legitimize post-Nazi Germany’s government as separate from that which prosecuted the war and conducted the Holocaust.[1] The second is the rising use of truth commissions, originally used as alternative mechanisms when tribunals proved difficult or impossible to implement, but increasingly seen as valuable in and of themselves as mechanisms for inducing healing and reconciliation.[2]

Much has been written about the relative strengths of tribunals versus truth commissions. Which, for instance, delivers more justice? Which provides for more long-term reconciliation? Or how do both mechanisms operate in the same environment?[3] One area explored less often is the cultural relevance of each of these mechanisms and whether or not there is a “good fit” between any particular transitional justice mechanism and local cultural and religious traditions. A few studies have examined the role of religion itself—as separate from culture—focusing largely on the role of religion in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission; but to date none has tackled the larger issue of culture.[4]

This paper seeks to problematize the role of religious and cultural traditions in transitional justice mechanisms, paying attention to the nature of local traditions, the extent to which they are reflected in the chosen mechanism, and the overall result in terms of meeting the stated goals and satisfying the affected populations. In doing so, we will apply portions of a framework developed by Julie Mertus to examine the effectiveness of international tribunals by matching their functions to interested audiences. Mertus’ examination compares six functions common to tribunals with the interests of three broad constituencies: the international community, local power brokers, and survivors, victims and bystanders.[5] Our examination uses Mertus’ ideas that transitional justice mechanisms have the ability to speak for and to serve different populations. However, since we are extending our examination beyond tribunals to encompass truth commissions and other local mechanisms, we are moving beyond her six functions to focus largely on the extent to which mechanisms receive the approval of different constituencies and whether a high degree of congruency between the mechanism and local religious and cultural traditions results in a higher degree of approval by survivors, victims and bystanders than those mechanisms that seem otherwise to be primarily serving the international community.

Click here to read the full article

New York synagogue restores Torah that survived confiscation by Nazis

by Philip Rosenbaum, Matthew Moskowitz and Jonathan O’Beirnefrom from CNN

 

Help wanted: Someone who can sit in one place for hours on end, has the hand-eye coordination of a brain surgeon, a yogi’s power of concentration, a linguist’s knack for languages – especially ancient Hebrew – and a monk’s ability to work alone in contemplative silence, all while avoiding impure thoughts.

The hypothetical job posting, which you’re not likely to see in the classifieds, is for a sofer, or Torah scribe.

Every day, scribes around the world spend painstaking hours writing new Torahs – which contain the first five books of the Bible – by hand and restoring damaged or old ones that show the natural ravages of time that could make the scrolls unusable for services.

Such was the case for a Torah at Manetto Hill Jewish Center in Plainview, New York. Until recently, the Torah sat in disrepair in a showcase in the suburban Long Island synagogue after the congregation adopted it in 1974.

It is one of 1,564 Torahs from the former Czechoslovakia that made it out of the ashes of the Holocaust into Jewish hands, in the form of the Westminster Synagogue in London. From there, the Torahs were distributed to synagogues around the world.

During World War II, the Nazis confiscated this Torah, also known as number 559, from a synagogue in Kolin, about 35 miles east of Prague. The Nazis were known to confiscate sacred items.

The town’s Jewish community was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic, where most were killed.

Rabbi Yochanan Salazar, a scribe with Sofer on Site, a North Miami Beach, Florida-based organization, restored the Kolin Torah, which he calls a “survivor of the Holocaust.”

Click here to read the full article

International Holocaust Remembrance Day: Bringing Imams to Auschwitz

From The Huffington Post

We are passing through a season of singular national distemper where, for reasons best understood by social psychiatrists, the American people have entered into what can only be described as “open season” on Islam. Mosques everywhere, not just the “Ground Zero” mosque, are under attack; voters in Oklahoma have amended their state constitution to forbid state courts from considering Sharia law in their decisions (not that they had any intention of mastering that sophisticated legal corpus); otherwise “liberal” communicators debate whether First Amendment protections extend to followers of the Prophet Mohammed; and Muslims everywhere worry (rightfully) whether they have a place in the American mosaic.

Saddest to me, as a Jew, are the number of my co-religionists who are riding point on this peculiar crusade.

Click here to read the entire article.

Reclaiming Islam And Emboldening Muslim Women In America: 10 Minutes With Mohamed Magid

From The Huffington Post

(RNS) Imam Mohamed Magid assumes the helm of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest Muslim group in the U.S. and Canada, at a time of unprecedented hostility and suspicion against U.S. Muslims.

Changing those perceptions is the first priority for the Sudanese-born Magid, 45, who has earned high marks as an outgoing bridge-builder who heads the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, a congregation of 5,000 families in Sterling, Va., just outside Washington, D.C.

Magid succeeds Ingrid Mattson, a soft-spoken but unflappable Hartford Seminary scholar who was elected as the group’s first female and first convert president in 2006.

Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Click here to read the entire article.

Righteous Among the Nations: Muslims Who Saved Jews from Holocaust

From The Huffington Post

ST. LOUIS (RNS) In 2003, Norman Gershman was looking for some of the righteous.

What he found astonished the investment banker-turned-photographer, and led him toward a project now on display in a St. Louis synagogue.

The Righteous Among Nations are gentile rescuers who make up “a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values,” according to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum.

They are, the museum says, “the few who helped Jews in the darkest time in their history.”

Gershman’s story begins during the Holocaust and involves Albanian Muslims — villagers, peasants and farmers — who risked their lives and the lives of their families to shelter Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.

Click here to read entire article.

November 3rd, 2010 at 6:00 am