Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Music and Poetry for Holocaust Remembrance Week St Mary's Church Totnes Saturday 24 January 2015

 Holocaust Remembrance Day
Music and Poetry

Pianists: Sam Richards & Lona Kozik
Poetry: Jane Spiro
Piano & Clarinet: Elie Fruchter
Soprano Voice: Claudia Alvarez-Calderon


Today it is precisely seventy years since soldiers of the 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in southern Poland. Seven thousand starving survivors were found inside, abandoned by their captors.

The tens of thousands of Poles, Soviets, Roma and other nationalities who had been sent to the camp were eclipsed by more than one million Jews who were deported to Auschwitz. Nearly all were systematically murdered.

To open a week of remembrance for the victims, five Totnes performers brought together music and poems of remembrance in a one hour performance. The venue was St Mary's Church in Totnes High Street. Publicity for the concert had been excellent. By 10.30am the church was full and everyone was settling in with hot drinks and cakes provided by church members.

At 11am, against the swell of conversation, Elie Fruchter opened the concert by playing gently on his clarinet. He chose the Shabbat hymn "Hine Ma Tov" ("Imagine how good" [ - and how pleasing, if all could sit together in unity.] ) The quiet, tender sound focussed attention and soon everyone was sitting silently, listening, the mood just right.

Elie introduced the Holocaust Remembrance theme. The day of remembrance was formally introduced as an internationally recognised event in 2006. The United Nations General Assembly passed the resolution inaugurating the commemoration in November 2005.

Elie also spoke passionately about his time in London as a young adult. He lodged with an elderly Jewish woman who had survived incarceration in Auschwitz. She was then living with her husband, who had been an interpreter at the Nuremberg Trials where twelve of the surviving architects of the Holocaust were convicted and sentenced to death in 1946.

Elie is also Jewish, and recalled fondly the memory of being with someone who despite having experienced the terror first-hand, had remained a caring loving person. Elie just had time to hint at the long-lasting effects of the experience on his land-lady. Everyday concerns meant little to her after having endured such a terrible ordeal.

Jane Spiro took over from Elie and recited a series of poems illustrating the terrible experiences of Jews and all victims during the 1930s and the Second World War. As Jane read each poem one of the musicians would take their place at the grand piano to play a complementary piece of classical music - many of which were by Jewish composers.

First, Jane read "Exodus" by Lotte Kramer. Lotte was one of the last children to be rescued from Germany on a 'Kindertransport' in July 1939. For the following six years Lotte dreaded the news that must eventually come. After the war she discovered that all twelve members of her extended family in Mainz had been deported and murdered.

"Exodus" compares her experience to the story of Moses, set adrift by his mother in a basket. Lotte's train journey was an "Exodus from death".

Lona Kozik reflected the mood of Lotte's poem in Felix Mendelssohn's "Gondola Song", from "Songs without Words".

Jane recited her own poem "Children's Pictures, Theresienstadt".

Despite being a forced-labour and extermination camp, Theresienstadt was presented to representatives of the Danish and International Red Cross organisations as a model Jewish ghetto. A prisoner, Kurt Gerron, was employed to make a propaganda movie following their visit.

This elaborate deception was undertaken two weeks after the allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944. The prisoners involved in the visit and film, including Gerron, were subsequently deported to Auschwitz.

Jane described the pictures drawn by children at Theresienstadt. Initially they showed family life, then fantasies, then the shocking scenes of brutality and incarceration, but finally images of hope.

Following on from the idea of a child's natural expression through art, Sam Richards played Arnold Shoenburg's "Six Little Piano Pieces" which he wrote in 1913, and intended to be free from symbols, context and logic . . . "expression and nothing more". These six miniatures are delightfully expressive - and unconstrained by classical conventions, just as advertised.

Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemöller's recurring challenge to German intellectuals following the war, for their inaction in the face of the oppression and persecution of minorities, was summarised in poetic form. Jane read "First they came for the Jews" ( " . . . and I did not speak out because I am not a Jew." ) In the poem (and many post-war lectures), Niemöller lists the other groups abandoned by those who could have helped them. Finally, "Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me."

This familiar plea for solidarity was followed by "Andante Cantabile in B minor" by Sergei Rachmaninov. Elie's gentle performance of this short but lingering movement gave time to reflect on our own failings when presented with the opportunity to protect others.

"Shema" by Primo Levi presses home the need for everyone who lives in security and warmth to consider the plight of the disenfranchised - and the ultimate cost of not doing so.

Luciano Berio's "Wasserklavier" was Elie's sound equivalent to Primo Levi, it's gentle trickling sound now suggesting the icy damp and discomfort of incarceration.

The poem "An Eternal Window" by Yehuda Amichai is a brief and simple testimony to loss, which belies his involvement in many modern conflicts. He escaped the Holocaust, having moved with his family to Palestine in 1935, but fought with the British Army against Germany, He was also a soldier in the Israeli War of Independence, the Sinai War and the Yom Kippur War. He returned to Germany to try to understand how so much suffering had been allowed to happen. His poems are now internationally acclaimed.

Lona played an equally modern work by American Jewish composer Philip Glass (whose family emigrated from Lithuania). Philip was born in 1937 and developed his very distinctive style in post-war America. At that time, racial oppression was still a problem for many Americans, and the consequences of poorly applied principles of integration are reflected in the haunting anthem to ill-conceived social engineering 'Pruit Igoe' for orchestra and choir.

Restricted to solo piano, Lona played Philip's equally famous and emotive "Opening Piece" from "Glassworks". The corruscating ripples of sound subtly convey deep and affecting emotions, a beautiful interlude.

Jane moved to a poem by Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Anna witnessed the siege of Leningrad by German forces and also suffered surveillance and censorship under Stalin. Her poem "With the Lads in the Gutter" reminded us of equally brutal conditions in other countries - including the Soviet Union.

James Agee's "Sure on this Shining Night" was first read by Jane and then sung in Samuel Barber's musical arrangement by Claudio Alvarez-Calderon. The words reflect loneliness and sadness, especially when all hope is gone. Claudia's sung version was even more desolate in its beauty.

Jane had one last poem to share - "My father carries me across a field" by George Szirtes. George was born in Hungary after the Second World War, but was also a victim of deportation and concentration camps - following the 1956 Budapest uprising. The poem describes an attempted escape at night, from the perspective of a confused and terrified child, which was a common experience throughout German occupied territory during the war as well.

Elie ended the concert as he began it, with a Jewish song played on his clarinet. This time however he played "Mir Lebn Eibik" (We shall live forever) which was played by Jewish victims to their German tormentors in the Vilna Ghetto in 1943. The song was later used in Joshua Sobol's stage play "Ghetto" relating the experience of the Lithuanian Jews of Vilnius.

Elie Fruchter played his own transcription for clarinet.

With so many poems, reminiscences, and piano pieces, it was a masterpiece of timing for Elie to bring his final clarinet solo to a subtle and engaging conclusion at precisely two minutes to midday - leaving just time for a brief appeal for contributions towards the Holocaust Educational Trust.

Follow the link to find out more about the Trust - and how to contribute to its work.

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