Expand AU Menu

Voices of Terezin | Faculty Voices

Pamela S. Nadell, Director, Jewish Studies Program

For well more than a decade, I have taught the history of Holocaust at American University. Yet, not until the summer of 2009, supported in part by a Mellon Grant from the College of Arts and Sciences, did I have the opportunity to travel to many of the European sites where, in those terrible years between 1933 and 1945, the Holocaust took place. Among the stops on my journey of thanato-tourism, with the members of the Holocaust Education Foundation's East European Seminar for Faculty, was Terezín.

When the Nazis renamed Terezín Theresienstadt, they asserted German linguistic hegemony over its eighteenth-century fortress—which they used as a notorious prison—and the town—which they falsely touted as a model ghetto for isolating the Jewish menace. Of course, Theresiendstadt was really a reception and transit camp, a way station to Auschwitz. Of the 155,000 men, women, and children who passed through the Terezín ghetto, more than 118,000 of them perished, either in the ghetto from disease and starvation or in an extermination camp.

Little did I realize when I toured Terezin how much it would become a central focus of my work at American University. This multi-dimensional "Voices of Terezín Project" brings, through the prism of the voices of those who lived and perished there, this history to life. Hearing individual voices—those of the children whose poems are sung and of the playwrights whose Smoke of Home described their living horror—scales to a human dimension a genocide whose enormity our human consciences can scarcely grasp.

Pam Nadell

Gail Humphries Mardirosian, Associate Professor, Department of Performing Arts

Jiri Weil in his epilogue to I Never Saw Another Butterfly, the anthology of children's drawing and poems from Terezín, speaks to the idea that through art "their voices have been preserved" and that they are "voices of reminder" and "of truth." He has aptly stated my outlook for this entire project as the multiple voices from Terezín are heard speaking through and with the particular to the universal. I have often approached this material with a heavy heart, but find that I am constantly uplifted by the power of the arts. When I read the poetry of the children, gaze upon their drawings, listen to the music of the composers, or read, yet again, the scripts of the dramas and cabarets, I am reminded of the power of art to sustain, uplift, provoke thought and inspire. It is affirming that in the midst of a world of repression, the arts truly did provide a strategy for survival and a means of asserting individual identity. The Voices of Terezín reach to me today resonating with an affirmation of humanity with the arts as a conduit, exceeding the most horrific of circumstances and celebrating the spirit of creativity that exceeds time and space. I am humbled and honored by integrity of the art.   

Gail Mardirosian

Max Paul Friedman, Associate Professor, Department of History

"Human Rights in History"
While all major religions contain humanistic traditions of justice and solidarity, the modern, Western history of human rights begins with the French and American Revolutions that emerged from the Enlightenment tradition in the 18th century. These twin revolutions focused on the individual not as subject of arbitrary power but as a being with an inherent right to equality and liberty. The contradictions present in the course of those two national histories, involving absolute claim to rights in principle and the denial of rights to selected groups in practice, are exemplary of the contested nature of human rights thinking both long before and after the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The Holocaust, one of the most egregious violations of human rights in world history, contributed directly to development of international humanitarian discourse. The conflict between the values of universal protection versus national sovereignty, the enforcement of social equality versus freedom from state interference, individual rights versus social needs, has meant that the history of human rights has not been a history of unbroken progress. Friedman will provide a brief overview of the evolution of the concept of human rights before and since the Holocaust.


David Vine, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology

"Human Rights, Holocausts, and Our Common Humanity"
Despite a complicated and often dark relationship with the Nazi Holocaust and the subject of human rights, anthropologists have an important role to play in documenting human rights abuses—helping to redress past crimes, prevent future ones, and hold perpetrators accountable. In addition to trying to ensure that we “never forget,” anthropology encourages us to ask why some genocides and human rights abuses are remembered, why some are forgotten, and why some go entirely unnoticed. So too, we must ask why we feel abuses suffered by some people more than others. And we must ask what this says about how humans have divided ourselves with categories like race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and religion—categories that lead us to recognize the full humanity of some while relegating others to second class status, or worse. Finally, we must ask how we can all play roles in recognizing our common humanity and ensuring the equal enjoyment of human rights worldwide. 


Brenda Werth, Assistant Professor, Department of Language & Foreign Studies

"Human Rights and Theater"
Adopted in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights attempted to develop a language to address the atrocities of war and to safeguard against future crimes by enumerating the universal rights to which all humans were entitled. Mass violence has continued to punctuate the post-World War II era on a global scale, creating a newfound consciousness of how trauma affects and interconnects our lives. Combining bodily expression, visual media, music, and ritual, the language of theater has proven to be uniquely powerful in addressing atrocity and engaging human rights. My remarks will introduce several post-WWII plays that exemplify this engagement in different ways, focusing on theater as a genre of testimony and witnessing; an act of profound resistance and solidarity; a space for mourning and commemoration, and a forum for activism and community empowerment.


Laura Petravage, Musician in Residence, Department of Performing Arts

Whenever a musician approaches a work, he asks whether or not it is worthy of his time and his gifts. In the case of Robert Convery's Songs of Children, we ask whether we as artists and former children are worthy of these lost children's gifts. Songs of Children, premiered in 1991, is a tribute to the youngest artists at Terezin: the children. Using poetry written by children interred at the camp, the cantata gives a musical voice to artists whose blessings did not have time to emerge.

When the men, women, and children were sent to Terezin, they left behind humanity but brought music with them. Terezin, as a transit camp, had the distinction of being a place where musicians and artists were imprisoned together. It is an unfortunate irony that the finest singers, composers, conductors, and performers found themselves brought together in the camp, more so than they were in any formal concert hall. Composers created new works, carefully crafted for their world-class colleagues, and conductors performed major works with expert voices accompanied by old accordions or a neglected piano. The artists believed in a commitment to excellence and musical integrity, humbling themselves before art and also allowing art to express their oppressed voices. Music provided an outlet to the musicians, allowing the mind to live even as the body was dying. We hope that our voices and Songs of Children serve as a witness to the spirit of lost childhood and to the artistry of the Terezín musicians. 


Daniel Abraham, Co-Chair of the Department of Performing Arts

Music at Terezin and Convery's Songs of Children  

Terezin (or Theresienstadt in German), was designed to persuade an unknowing world that the Jews had nothing to fear from Nazi Germany. Cultural activities took place at the camp which included a schedule of musical performances, some of which were filmed for inclusion in the Der Fuhrer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (Hitler Presents the Jews with a City). The propaganda film shows prisoners in scenes that suggest that the camp was an artists' colony. Terezin was used as a showcase—while the suffering was great and most prisoners were eventually deported to Auschwitz or its sub-camps, the Nazis kept portions of Terezin for public display. When dignitaries visited, the musicians played. A Children's Choir/Children's Theatre company formed at the camp and gave over fifty performances of Brundibar, an opera ironically about children trying to usurp an ogre. When the Danish Red Cross visited Terezin in the summer of 1944 to determine conditions, the musicians were called to perform: it was touted as the only location in Europe where Jewish Music was still freely heard. It was an elaborate hoax for which great measures were taken to disguise conditions and to portray a situation of normalcy. In the end, music gave no true refuge: many of the musicians of Terezin and their families were killed at Auschwitz when deportations intensified in May 1944.  

Among the chilling scenes of Der Fuhrer schenkt is a performance of the Pavel Haas (1899-1945) work Study for String Orchestra, complete with added applause. The work was composed for a string orchestra organized by Karel Ancerl (1908-1973), who survived the war and became the leader of the Czech Philharmonic. Haas had built a substantial career in Czechoslovakia before he was sent to Terezin in 1941. A student of Janacek, Haas' style combines a sense of sweet lyricism with the restless rhythmic motion characteristic of Czech folk music. The many musicians of Terezin were mainly exiled from prominent positions in Berlin, Munich and other cultural centers of Germany. In addition to Haas, were Viktor Ullmann (1898-1945), Hans Krása (1899-1945), and Gideon Klein (1919-1945), all of whom were well recognized musicians and composers before the war.  

Ullmann was the musical leader at Terezin. He was a student of Schoenberg from 1918 to 1919 and had created a highly mobile, yet accessible modernistic language. Krása was born in Prague and studied at the German Academy of Music with Alexander Zemlinsky. He was the composer of Brundibar as well as a set of orchestral songs, works for string trio, and a symphony. Klein, a Moravian Jew who had studied piano and composition from a very early age, gave at least 15 recitals as a solo pianist at Terezin and several of his most important compositions date from his time at the camp, including a Fugue for a String Quartet finished only nine days before his deportation to Auschwitz in October 1944. He was soon after moved to Fürstengrube where he was forced to work in the coal mines and was killed the same day as Haas and Ullmann during the liquidation of the camp in January 1945.  

The commemorative cantata Songs of Children by Robert Convery (b. 1954) is scored for voices, piano, cello, violin, and viola and written "In memory of the children who perished in the Holocaust." Judith Clurman, director of The New York Concert Singers, commissioned the work in 1989. A setting of poems written by children at Terezin, the work consists of nine movements divided into eleven sections, including an instrumental interlude and an opening passage from Deuteronomy sung by the choir. The lyrics of the other nine sections are drawn from I Have Not seen a Butterfly around Here, a collection of drawings and poems created by the children of Terezin between 1942-1944. The materials were hidden at Terezin inside mattresses and within the cracks between the walls of houses. Having survived in a suitcase, the poems and drawings were rediscovered in 1955. Convery's general musical style is exceedingly appropriate for the task as his expressive outlook holds a distinctly personal lyricism and rhythmic vitality. His harmonic sense is modern and highly individualized, but his works maintain a clear sense of form and transparent textures.  

Songs of Children received its premiere in New York City on April 21, 1991. Its Washington, D.C., premiere came on April 16, 1993, as part of the celebration of the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. According to the composer, the ordering of the poems in the cantata demonstrates a spiritual transformation, beginning with a naive entrance into the concentration camp, the quick and brutal reality of the confinement, a sense of having one's soul stripped from one's body, a cool vision of the reality of the camp, and finally, a transcendence of reality with an affirmation of life even in the confrontation of certain death. The cantata is unified by use of a cantus firmus: the Jewish melody Ani Maamin is divided throughout each of the eleven sections of the work. The folk melody is well known as a song of faith and was sung in unison by concentration camp prisoners as they were taken to the gas chambers.

American University would like to acknowledge Ron Jeffers and earthsongs of Corvallis, Oregon for their management of the performance rights and performance materials.