Between 22 – 28 May 2008, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir visited Germany as guests of the Zamirchor from Bayreuth, as part of a project in honour of Israel’s 60th anniversary of independence. During the seven day trip, we performed with the Zamirchor two works in Hebrew, composed by the Israeli Yitzchak Tavior – Mount Sinai, a cantata for choir, orchestra and soloists, and The Vision of the Dry Bones, a symphonic poem with a libretto taken from the Book of Ezekiel. The former was particularly apt in view of the fact that it was performed shortly before the Shavuot festival, which celebrates the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It was the latter, however, that carried the punch. I don’t have to tell you that to sing about the rebirth of the Jewish People, sixty years after we arose from the ashes of Nazi Europe to rebuild the Jewish State, and to perform in, of all places, Nuremberg, which witnessed the mass Nazi rallies of the 1930s and 1940s and which gave its name to the infamous Nuremberg Laws, was no easy thing.
Here is the diary of that journey.
We set out from Jerusalem at about 2 a.m. Our flight is due to take off at 5 a.m. but when we reach the airport, we are informed that, due to thick fog, the plane which is supposed to carry us was unable to land and has been diverted to Larnaca in Cyprus. Our flight has therefore been put back to 8:30 a.m.
Lufthansa invites us to breakfast and as we eat, we keep an anxious eye on the bulletin boards as our flight is put back yet again, to 9:15 and then to 10:15. At some stage, Elia takes out her guitar and we start to sing. (Nu, what do you expect? We are a choir. That’s what we do.) Actually, I personally am unable to sing, being afflicted with a bad cold and a sore throat which I have been unable to shake off for over a fortnight.
The three and a half hour delay turns into a six hour delay, as we don’t take off until 11 a.m. (Meanwhile, despite the fog, other planes do manage to take off and land.) This means we will miss our connection in Frankfurt. First black mark against Lufthansa.
(We would all have preferred to fly El Al, but the tickets were bought and paid for by our hosts and, as they say, he who pays the piper calls the tune.)
Arriving in Frankfurt, I discover that my suitcase has been damaged in flight. The retractable handle that allows me to wheel it along is stuck and cannot be pulled out. Worse, Amit’s suitcase hasn’t arrived at all! Second black mark against Lufthansa. I file a damage report and then we board a bus for the four hour drive to Bayreuth (well, four and a half if you count a half-hour stopover to eat a late lunch).
We were supposed to arrive in Bayreuth at 1 p.m., in time to get organized in our hotel rooms and have a rest before attending our first rehearsal with the Zamirchor at 6 p.m. We decide that, in view of the unforeseen delay, we will forego the rehearsal this evening. However, when we arrive in Bayreuth at 7 p.m. we discover that the local choir is waiting for us with "light refreshments" and Tavior, the composer, who is going to conduct his own works, wants us to come for a short rehearsal, at least – say 20 – 30 minutes. Feeling really ill (in addition to my cold and sore throat, the 4-hour flight in a pressurised cabin has caused my ears to get blocked and they haven’t yet unblocked), I decide to retire to bed. However, I am lured by the promise of "light refreshment".
On reaching the Zamirhalle, however, which is right opposite our hotel, on a quiet, tree-lined street, we discover that our hosts have prepared a veritable banquet for us, consisting of home-baked pies and quiches, dips, salads, cheeses, various delicious kinds of bread, cakes, coffee, tea, soft drinks and even wine! Overwhelmed and rather touched, I decide to stay for the rehearsal. Actually, I cough my way through most of it and when it is over, several of our German friends express their concern, offer me hot tea with honey and suggest various remedies. As we have, as well as the two concerts with orchestra, two a-capella concerts, in which I am a soloist, I am ready to try anything. Honey is actually known to be a useful remedy in such cases, so I try that and do feel slightly better, but I still suffer several bouts of coughing during the night.
The day starts with a fairly lavish breakfast – none of your namby-pamby continental snacks here. This is Bavaria. Toast, eggs, (with or without bacon), sausage, fresh vegetables, various cheeses both hard and soft, muesli and other cereals, fruit (fresh and preserved), smoked salmon, rolls and several delicious kinds of bread. Did I miss anything? (I should like to make it clear that I did not partake of the sausage or the bacon…)
After breakfast, there is a short rehearsal, after which we are free till 4 p.m. Naturally, the first thing we want to do is explore Bayreuth. The old town is only a short walk away so we set out together for a bit of sightseeing. We have no set programme, we just wander aimlessly and soon find ourselves opposite the Baroque opera house built by Frederick the Great’s sister, the Margravine Wilhelmina. We do not go in, as it appears there are tours at fixed times, so we now repair to the synagogue, which is just around the corner. Felix, the head of the Jewish community in Bayreuth, tells us how the synagogue was not burnt down by the Nazis on Kristallnacht, due to its proximity to the opera house, which is right next door and which would have been in danger of being burnt also. Later on, the synagogue "returned the favour" by saving the opera house from being destroyed by the allies. Thanks to Felix, we also gain free entry to the tour of the opera house, a magnificent Baroque gem (see pictures).
According to Felix, the Festspielhaus up on the hill, with its uncomfortable seats and lack of air-conditioning, is "a music factory" whereas, at the Margravine’s opera house, "we cherish culture".
We have lunch at an Italian restaurant and then it is back to the hotel for a quick shower and a very short rest, before setting out by bus for the town of Hof, where we are to have our first rehearsal with the Hofer Symphoniker, the Hof Symphony Orchestra.
After rehearsing the two works by Tavior, we have some time in hand while the Zamirchor rehearses a piece by Mendelssohn which they are to perform at the concert with the Bayreuth Philharmonic Choir, so we go off to do some sightseeing in Hof. What most sticks in my mind is the lilac. You don’t often see lilac in Israel, but in Europe, May is lilac time – and it was everywhere. It’s a pity the photos can’t capture the intoxicating scent…
Then it’s back to Bayreuth and bed. My ears are still blocked and I can’t hear properly. Tomorrow is the first of our two a-capella concerts. I have to be well.
Alas, morning dawns and I’m really feeling no better. Ronen, our conductor and Musical Director, has arrived from Israel and joined us. We have another rehearsal in Hof with the orchestra this morning, after which we return to Bayreuth, where I borrow a kettle from the Zamirchor clubhouse, with the intention of cossetting myself with chamomile tea and honey. Unfortunately, I can’t close the lid or figure out how to make the thing work.
At 6 p.m. we set out for nearby Speichersdorf, where we are to give a benefit concert (I’m not sure in aid of what) together with the Zamirchor and, as it transpires, a local string ensemble. Tonight, I have a solo. I am plied with various types of chewing gum (for my blocked ears, you understand) and boiled sweets (for my sore throat) which, so my fellow choir members assure me, taste disgusting but will open up my sinuses in a way that is nothing short of miraculous. They are half right, anyway. The proferred candies, do indeed, without exception, taste disgusting. However, they produce a mere illusion of open sinuses and a temporary one at that. When the time comes for me to sing my solo, I feel as hoarse as ever and my ears are still blocked, so I can’t hear myself properly. Perhaps it’s just as well…
In addition, the acoustics in the hall where we are to appear are very poor. All in all, not a very successful concert, as far as I am concerned, although the audience appears to enjoy it and the review in the local press the following day is wildly enthusiastic.
And since champagne is served during the intermission, I suppose I shouldn’t complain.
Today, we are going touring in Fränkische Schweiz – Franconian Switzerland. The sky looks rather overcast but the weather forecast is promising. In fact, the day turns out to be perfect. My ears have unblocked themselves. It does not rain, and the temperature is over 30 degrees Celsius.
The woods and meadows of the aptly named Franconian Switzerland are beautiful, green and inviting. There are wild flowers everywhere. Babbling brooks and sparkling streams beckon, lakes are alive with fish, birds are singing in the trees. We discover a kind of mountain railway, of the kind I have never dared ride on. Jan goes for it, then Ronen and afterwards, almost everyone else. Finally, after the others have gone down to the cafe, and there is nobody left to laugh at us, Orna and I decide to give it a go. It’s great fun, especially feeling the wind in my face as we gather speed (but not too much speed). Why did I never try this before?
The next item on the agenda is the Teufelshöhle – the Devil’s Grotto, a cave famous for its stalagmites and stalactites. The guided tour is something of a Sound and Light show. The various formations have fanciful names such as Barbarossa, the Three Kings and so on. The largest chamber is called The Cathedral. We just have to test the acoustics. After a lively discussion of precisely what it would be suitable to sing here, Ronen decides on Bruckner’s Ave Maria (Oy vey Maria as it’s affectionately known to us). Personally, I feel dubious. The soprano line is very high. But, glory be, I actually manage to sing it. As an impromptu rehearsal for tonight’s concert, it’s not bad and the other visitors to the Devil’s Grotto seem to like it and applaud when we finish. I’m somewhat surprised the reverberations don’t cause stalactites to fall.
On the way back to Bayreuth, we stop in a town called Gößweinstein, where there is a very beautiful church or cathedral. We arrive just as they are finishing Sunday morning prayers. We are not the only tourists there and I am not the only person jostling to photograph the procession that wends its way down the central nave, followed by a brass band. Somehow, one of our number, Naomi, gets splashed with holy water and wonders, does this make her a Christian? I tell her we shall have to consult Michael, one of our tenors and a Roman Catholic priest, when we get back to Bayreuth.
Although pressed for time, we also want to visit a ruined castle that towers high above the town. There is a splendid view from up there, but only Romy and Ilan actually go in.
In the evening, we appear in our second a-capella concert, this time in the Zamirhalle in Bayreuth. I have been feeling much better, but it appears that I have been overdoing things. I am still hoarse. I can at least hear myself, this time, but I am not happy with what I hear. Still, I manage to perform my solo without actually croaking, including the highest notes, which is something anyway.
The concert ends early enough for us to go out to supper at an Italian restaurant (again!) where our waitress, who speaks excellent English, turns out to be, in fact (surprise, surprise!) Italian. After an excellent meal, we return to the hotel where Naomi invites us back to her room to help her drink the three bottles of champagne given her by an Internet acquaintance of hers whom she met today in person (and who joined us on our trip in Franconian Switzerland). Elia brings her guitar, someone else brings more liquor, and the evening doesn’t end until almost 2 a.m.
As I said, this has been a perfect day…
Today we are going to face the ghosts of the past. We set out in the morning by coach for Nuremberg, where we have a rehearsal with the Hofer Symphoniker in the Stadttheater. The place is huge and it’s easy to get lost backstage although someone has thoughtfully pinned up signs marked Chor pointing the way for us up to the top floor, where there is a huge choir rehearsal room. Our rehearsal is actually onstage, of course. When we get down there, the orchestra is already rehearsing Hatikva. Here, in this auditorium, where Hitler and his minions used to listen to Wagner’s operas, we will be singing the anthem of the State of Israel.
Did I say we would be facing the ghosts of the past? More than that – we are going to triumph over them.
After rehearsal, it’s time for more sightseeing – the Hauptmarkt with its famous fountain, the Frauenkirche, the Albrecht Dürer House, the Castle. The last time we were here, in November 2006 (see my previous blogs, "Project Elijah"), it was snowing heavily. This time, however, we lunch outdoors at the same restaurant where, a year and a half ago, we took refuge from the blizzard. The waitresses are in traditional Bavarian costume, the food is tasty and filling and the beer (from which I abstain!) flows freely.
By 6 p.m. we are back at the Stadttheater where, in a couple of hours, the concert is due to start.
I have been informed by one of the Zamirchor members, that it is not the custom in Germany to stand for their National Anthem. However, since Hatikva is to be played first, we can’t very well sit down again for the German anthem. That would appear discourteous. I don’t know how I’m going to feel standing for this anthem which has such associations for us, even though I understand that the words sung today are no longer those sung under the Third Reich. In the event, while Hatikva is sung enthusiastically by the Oratorio Choir, and I can see that members of the audience are joining in, the singing of the German anthem is more restrained, and appears to begin only mid-verse. At any rate, I try to preserve an attitude of courteous indifference. Protocol must be observed.
As we sing the first of the two works by Tavior, Mount Sinai, I find myself articulating (in Hebrew, of course) the words: "For I the Lord your G-d am a jealous G-d, visiting the sins of the fathers on the children, unto the third and fourth generations of them that hate me," with more than usual force. Do our hosts – and the audience – understand the meaning of the words, I wonder. This is, after all, only the second – or at most, the third generation. How can I help but ask myself, what were their grandparents doing 65 years ago?
I try to push this thought to the back of my mind, however. Our hosts have shown us nothing but kindness and it is clear that they are trying to make amends. I am not a Christian and therefore am under no obligation to turn the other cheek. That does not mean I have to reject overtures of friendship, nor will I do so.
The second Tavior piece, The Vision of the Dry Bones, ties in not only with the resurrection of the Jewish People after the Holocaust, but also with the establishment of the State of Israel. The final, triumphal lines speak of how G-d has kept his promise. "Thus saith the Lord G-d: Behold O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the Land of Israel. And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, and brought you up out of your graves, O my people. And I shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land; and ye shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it; thus saith the Lord."
Impossible not to be moved, impossible not to remember where we are, impossible not to sing directly to the balcony (where, so the leader of the local Jewish community tells us in his speech after the concert, the Nazi High Command used to sit), with a feeling of victory. Because Hitler and his minions are now dust and ashes, but we are here. In the end, the Triumph of the Will was not theirs, but ours.
Tonight we are due to give our second concert in Bayreuth, but before that, we have civic and ambassadorial duties to perform. There is to be a mid-morning reception at City Hall. At 11 a.m. therefore, we duly repair to the Neue Rathaus to meet the Deputy Mayor and various municipal dignitaries, and drink champagne (for those so inclined) or orange juice, and listen to speeches. Afterwards, we are free until the late afternoon for more sightseeing.
We split up into small groups. Some of us discover a small Catholic church. Michael (the tenor, our resident priest) feels the urge to try his hand at conducting and so we sing a couple of songs from our a-capella repertoire. One of them is "Eli, Eli" to words written by Hanna Senesz, a young, Hungarian-born Jewish woman who settled in the Land of Israel but parachuted back into Nazi-occupied Hungary in order to help rescue Hungarian Jews. She was captured, tortured and eventually executed. We sing her most famous poem in this Baroque jewel of a church in the town inextricably associated with the antisemitic Wagner, in her memory and in memory of six million others.
It is very hot, somewhere in the 30s. I have not yet seen the famous Festspielhaus, up on the hill. I can live without it. I suppose, however, that to come to Bayreuth and not have even a glimpse of Wagner’s villa, Wahnfried, would be unbecoming in one who considers herself a serious lover of music. In the event, I make do with the gardens and grounds, which are very beautiful, before heading for the relative cool and shade of the Hofgarten, where several of us wilt under the trees by the lake, causing Shlomo to decide that what we need is a lesson in Feldenkreiz.
On our way back, we pass the Stadthalle, where we are to perform tonight. The main entrance is decorated with a gigantic Israeli flag – in stark contrast to the Stadttheater in Nuremberg, where there were no external signs to indicate that a choir from Israel was to perform there or that a concert in honour of Israel’s 60th anniversary was to take place. (In spite of that, I am told, there was a small demonstration outside the hall of very Aryan-looking young Germans, demanding an end to Israel’s "oppression of the Palestinians." As well for them – and for my own blood pressure – that I didn’t see them, and only heard about this afterwards.)
We lunch at a vegetarian restaurant in the old town of Bayreuth – the first such restaurant we have seen in this land of beer and wurst – and return to the hotel with barely enough time to shower and change, before setting out again for the Stadthalle.
The Stadthalle stage is decorated with the flags of Israel and Germany, as well as the municipal banner of Bayreuth. As in Nuremberg, the auditorium is full and the audience includes the leaders of the local Jewish community, as well as the Israeli cultural attaché, who also attended the concert in Nuremberg. The concert, no need to ask, is a resounding success, ending, as it does, with "Jerusalem of Gold" performed by all three choirs.
After the concert, we are all invited back for refreshments in the Jewish community’s garden, outside the synagogue, where speeches are made and gifts are exchanged. At the request of our hosts, we sing a few songs from our Hebrew repertoire and then it is time to take our leave of them. It is hard to tear oneself away. E-mail addresses are scrawled on paper napkins and everyone promises to keep in touch. How did Shakespeare put it? "Good night. Good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, That I shall say goodnight, Till it be morrow."
Day 7 – 8
The day begins promisingly enough. After the usual substantial breakfast, a large group of us take the train for Bamberg, which, we have heard, is a very beautiful town. And so it is. The old town centre boasts a myriad of entrancing little shops, colourful old houses line the River Regnitz in the area known as Klein-Venedig (Little Venice), the lilac is in bloom and the sun is shining. The first place we head is, naturally, the Cathedral where (as I’m sure you’ve guessed) we test the acoustics by singing a psalm in Hebrew by Salomone Rossi, a contemporary of Monteverdi. From there, we head for the Neue Residenz, home of the bishops after the seventeenth century. The Residenz has a famous Rose Garden, from which there are spectacular rooftop views of the city.
After that, we wander without any particular destination in mind and end up in a cafe by the river. There is just time for cappucino and apple strudel before we have to rush back to the railway station in what I consider to be undignified haste, in order to catch a train and be back in Bayreuth by 4 p.m.
Back at the Zamirhalle, our hosts have prepared a farewell party for us. There are a lot of very rich cream cakes. I mention this, as I partly blame the cakes for what comes later.
By 4:30 p.m. we are on the road to Nuremberg Airport. En route, a bottle of champagne is passed round, from which we swig as if it’s a bottle of water. The champagne, too, might have played its part in later events.
The flight from Nuremberg to Frankfurt International Airport takes about 40 minutes. At Frankfurt, I start to feel queasy. Not really surprising, when you consider that I have been running around in the sun, not drinking enough, and that since breakfast, I have eaten nothing but apple strudel and cream cake. And let’s not forget the champagne, (although I barely had a sip). I feel if I can only be sick, (jettison the load, so to speak), I will feel better – but I cannot, try as I might. Not, at least, until the plane is actually taxiing down the runway. Bad timing…
The cabin crew cluster around me, with paper bags and glasses of water and assure me this is nothing to be ashamed of, it happens to at least one passenger on every flight! A cabin attendant takes my blood pressure and announces that it has dropped so low, it has completely disappeared. Meanwhile, the plane has come to a halt. A paramedic appears. I am quizzed on what I have eaten/drunk today. The general consensus seems to be that I have food poisoning, probably from the vanilla cream that came with the apple strudel, or maybe from the cream cakes. The crew decide I must disembark – not as a punishment, they explain, but for my own good. When I beg to remain, as I have nowhere to go, they reassure me that they will take me to be examined by a doctor and from there, to a hotel and will bring me back to the airport for tomorrow’s flight. Having "cast up my accounts" as they say, I now feel perfectly all right and assure them that this is totally unnecessary. I have just managed to persuade them that this is indeed the case, and signed (at their insistence) a waiver absolving them of responsibility, when another member of our group chooses this moment to vomit. The Captain is now convinced we are carrying some contagious disease and insists on removing the entire group from the plane.
Back in the terminal, we discover that the ground crew has been instructed that we requested to leave the plane, even though the complete opposite is true! They therefore insist that they have no responsibility to provide us with accommodation. They have also been instructed that we asked to see a doctor – again, a blatant falsehood. In the event, since there is a clinic at the airport, I decide to avail myself of the "invitation". Another mistake on my part. It turns out that I have to pay for the examination, to the tune of 51 Euros. The medical orderly who receives me is abominably bad tempered, as it seems I have disturbed his game of solitaire on the computer, and mutters loudly and lengthily to himself in German. He might be cursing, for all I know. As for the doctor, he has no more idea than anyone else what is wrong with me. He says that it is most probably a virus, but in the medical certificate he gives me, he writes "gastro-enteritis". He also gives me some medicine to drink, and a prescription for more of the same to be purchased when the airport pharmacy opens at 7 a.m. Since the immediate effect of the medicine is to make me throw up again, I decide that this is one prescription I can do without.
When I get back to the rest of the group, it is almost 1.30 a.m. and I find them sleeping – or rather, trying to sleep – on chairs and on the floor of the departure lounge. There is nobody from Lufthansa (or the Airport Authorities) to talk to, we have no food, no blankets, no water even (since we had to throw away our water bottles for security reasons prior to boarding the plane from which we were so unceremoniously removed), except for a large bottle of mineral water which a cabin attendant had given me on the plane, telling me I needed to drink a lot. The security personnel want to take this from me on my return from the clinic, (because to get back, I have to pass through Airport Security yet again) but I wave the doctor’s certificate under their noses and the bottle comes through with me. Third, fourth and fifth black marks to Lufthansa. In fact – strike out.
I pass what remains of the night on a sofa in one of the airport cafes, using my hand luggage as a (most uncomfortable) pillow. My own, inflatable pillow, has disappeared – I think I was sick on it. Apart from us, and the cleaning staff, the airport is apparently empty. Being used to the round-the-clock bustle of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, I am astounded by the fact that one of the largest international airports in Europe seems to be deserted at night!
By 6 a.m. we are all up and about again. I head for the bathroom and try to freshen up, but without my washbag (which I had packed in my suitcase, in order to avoid the hassle of having to argue with security personnel about what liquids I can or can’t take onto the plane with me), this is not easy. For one thing, I have no toothbrush and no toothpaste. For another, as we have been separated from our suitcases, I have no change of clothes and am still wearing the vomit-stained trousers I wore the day before, and in which I slept. Fortunately, Orna travels light and instead of a suitcase, has only her carry-on hand luggage. She lends me a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Meanwhile, the Lufthansa desk has opened and the powers-that-be deign to provide us with breakfast vouchers. Even more fortunately, there are seats still available on this morning’s flight to Tel Aviv (a matter of some doubt which had troubled my attempts to sleep). Despite the fact that we were removed from the plane last night on the grounds that we represented a health hazard to the other passengers, nobody bothers to ask how we are feeling today, our health seems to be of no concern to anyone and, as far as Lufthansa is concerned, we are free to infect the passengers and crew of today’s flight with whatever deadly virus we were carrying yesterday!
We repair to a cafe, where everyone but me has a hearty breakfast. I decide that it’s better to be safe than sorry and make do with dry toast and tea without milk.
We take off at 11 a.m. and the flight is mostly uneventful, except for the failure of the sound system which makes it impossible to hear the soundtrack of the in-flight movie. To those who complain forcefully and frequently enough, the cabin crew offer, as compensation, a 25 Euro voucher to be used for duty-free purchases on board. There is actually very little on offer for 25 Euros, nor do I feel inclined to add to Lufthansa’s profits by adding any of my own money, incensed as I am at their behaviour to us last night. I therefore buy a small Elizabeth Arden skin and lip balm set for 24 Euros. Okay, so I "lost" one Euro. We are planning on suing Lufthansa for a great deal more.
We land at Ben Gurion in the late afternoon. I arrive home at around 7 p.m. and crawl into bed. I haven’t slept for 36 hours. Possum and Pixie curl up beside me and I go out like a light.