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

July 17, 2013


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.

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.”

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.

Featured image courtesy of Wikipedia
Top right: 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.
Above left: The choirs sing on a platform in the children’s yard of the Terezin concentration camp.
Bottom rght: Alumna Miranda Miller is Consoled by her Mother Mary Alice Miller