Each year, on January 27th, the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, the international community, through the medium of the United Nations Organisation, commemorates the Holocaust – the extermination of six million Jews, men, women and children, by the German Nazis and their willing (nay, enthusiastic) collaborators throughout Occupied Europe. This is the day designated by the United Nations General Assembly resolution 60/7 on 1 November 2005 during the 42nd plenary session, on which every member nation (I presume that also includes Iran!) is urged to honor the memory of Holocaust victims, and encouraged to develop educational programs about Holocaust history to help prevent future acts of genocide. The resolution rejects any denial of the Holocaust as an event and condemns all manifestations of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief.
The occasion is marked by special memorial ceremonies in the UN. This year, 2014, marked the third time my choir, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, has participated in the Memorial Concert, having done so also in 2010 (in New York) and in 2011 (in Geneva). This series of articles is the diary of our journey, punctuated by six concerts over the course of nine days, in Germany and Switzerland (with a brief French interlude).
I am rather cynical about the UN’s gestures towards commemorating the Holocaust, in view of their hypocritical and one-sided attitude to the Jewish State which rose from the ashes of the Nazi crematoria, although I have no doubt whatsoever as to the sincerity of the members of the Zamirchor from Bayreuth, our friends and partners for five and a half years now, not only in the Dry Bones Project (so called because the central musical offering of the concerts is the cantata “The Vision of the Dry Bones” by Israeli composer Issak Tavior) but also in other musical initiatives.
For various reasons – prior commitments, exams, the expected birth of grandchildren (Mazal Tov, Nadine 🙂 ) – only twelve members of our choir took part in the project this time: the Twelve Disciples, as our young and dynamic new conductor, Ofer Dal Lal, nicknamed us. But since the Twelve were made up of three from each voice, sopranos, altos, tenors and basses, the balance was good and, while this would have made little difference in the three symphony concerts with the other choirs and with professional orchestras, it was important in view of the fact that we also had three a cappella concerts planned, in which each of the participating choirs (JOCC, Zamirchor and the Tivon Chamber Choir) would be able to demonstrate their abilities.
We set out on the afternoon of Tuesday, January 21st, on a Lufthansa flight to Munich. At Munich, after some confusion as to which train we had to catch, we boarded a shuttle bus from the airport to the main railway station, where – despite a few anxious moments, and an impromptu “rehearsal” of our a cappella repertoire on the platform, we caught a train to Nuremberg. From there, we had to transfer to yet another train, which brought us to Bayreuth a couple of minutes short of midnight. There, a few members of the Zamirchor were waiting for us, some to collect those of us who would be hosted by Zamirchor members in their own homes, and two more to transport those of us who had elected to stay in a hotel, to the comfortable and very conveniently situated Arvena Kongress Hotel, right opposite the Zamirhalle.
Suffice it to say, I didn’t get to bed till about 1.00 am – and we had to be ready with our music and concert costumes to leave on the bus at 8.30 am for Hof, where we were due to appear in the first concert on Wednesday evening!
Still, when needs must, one can manage on very little sleep and we made it safely to Hof, more or less on time, for a late morning rehearsal at the Freiheitshalle, with the Hof Symphony Orchestra. There was actually a light dusting of snow on the ground when we reached Hof, but it felt less cold than it had here in Jerusalem, during the snow blizzard in December – possibly because I was bundled up so warmly.
After the rehearsal, and an excellent lunch, we were treated by our hosts to a coffee and cake reception in the vaulted basement of the Museum Bayerisches Vogtland, (my apologies for the peculiar Google translation 😉 ), which is devoted to the subject of the regional history of Hof and its surroundings. The (homemade) cakes were delicious and the museum was very interesting also. And then, it was time to return to the Freiheitshalle and get ready for the concert, which, besides “The Vision of the Dry Bones” and other works by Tavior, included the “Kaddish” by Maurice Ravel (performed by the indefatigable Barbara Baier, founder of the Zamirchor and moving spirit behind the whole project) and the first movement of Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony, “Babi Yar”, performed by the men’s choir.
The following day, Thursday, we set out in the morning for Nuremberg, for the second of the memorial concerts. As you can no doubt imagine, performing in the city which gave its name to the Nazi race laws and where the sons of Amalek used to hold their mass rallies, was fraught with special significance. The performance, which took place in the concert hall of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra (adjacent to the former Nazi Party Congress Centre and parade grounds) was broadcast live by Bayerischen Fernsehen – the Bavarian TV network.
Whenever I participate in one of these Holocaust memorial tours, there always comes a point where I break down. This time, it happened in Nuremberg, while listening to the testimony of a Holocaust survivor, Rudi Ceslanski, who – like my own father – was sent to England on the Kindertransport. Ceslanski described the fate of his family – almost all of whom perished in the Holocaust. But there was one, miraculous exception, and when he described the moment, after the war, when – against all hope – he learned that his father was still alive, that was, for me, the moment that opened the floodgates. I think I was not the only one.
The whole concert can be seen on the Bavarian TV link, given above. Rudi Ceslanski’s testimony is at round about 0:53 minutes.
After the concert, we were taken on a guided tour of the old Nazi parade grounds and the Congress Centre, which has been converted into a Documentation Centre, charting the rise of National Socialism and attempting to explain how even apparently normal, decent people could become so swept up by the Monster. The director of the Dokumentationzentrum explained the Centre’s philosophy, that the present generation is not responsible for the crimes of the Nazis but it does bear the responsibility of ensuring that the crimes of that generation are never forgotten and never repeated.
On returning to Bayreuth, at the end of a rather harrowing day, during the course of which, all we had had for lunch was a bowl of soup (albeit a very rich potato soup and no doubt more satisfying than the thin, watery broth doled out to the inmates of the concentration camps), some of us (the members of the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, together with two couples from Zamirchor, who were hosting JOCC members in their own homes) went out to dinner at a Greek restaurant – where, after a very satisfying meal and plenty of beer and ouzo, we turned to song (as we are wont to do), and the Irish fiancée of one of the Zamirchor members displayed her mellifluous contralto in a mournful, but tuneful Irish lament while the waiter (I believe he was actually the owner of the restaurant) showed off his acrobatic skills by managing to gather up almost all of the plates in one go.
Once again, it was past one o’clock in the morning when I got to bed, but since the next two days were to be concert-free and therefore, less hectic, I knew that I would be able to sleep late the following day and recuperate my strength for the four remaining concerts.
To be continued…