Celebration of Nazi show camp’s incredible culture

Ensemble 360 cellist Gemma Rosefield
Ensemble 360 cellist Gemma Rosefield

STAMPING and shouting with many trying to provoke a standing ovation, the audience went wild at the end of Schubert’s String Quintet last Thursday as part of Music in the Round’s May Festival.

It was the culmination of the festival’s Terézin day, anchored by Ensemble 360 cellist Gemma Rosefield, celebrating the astonishing cultural activity (concerts, opera stagings, etc) within the Nazi’s ‘show camp’ in northern Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic) for Jews during World War Two.

In reality, a transit concentration camp in the castle of the small fortress town of Terézin where there was a one in ten chance of survival, the day took in two concerts, which included music by composers incarcerated there, each preceded by a talk, and a screening of the children’s opera Brundibar.

Gemma had furnished a detailed fact sheet to accompany the day, which showed among many other horrifying statistics that 15,000 children passed through Terézin, 8,000 ending up at Auschwitz while the others perished from disease or starvation, except less than 100 who survived.

Two of those survivors were in the audience at the evening concert, Otto, who now lives in Sheffield and Peter who had come over from Manchester for it, as were near relatives of former Terézin inmates.

“I do want to leave an account for my family, but not in general,” said Otto Jakubovic during the interval with regard to recording his own experiences.

Now 83, he was born in a town in Czechoslovakia which became part of Hungary after the war, then Russia and is now in Ukraine – “one of those places where you are born in one country, educated in another, start working in the third and die in the fourth, without moving!” he quipped wryly.

Otto only just survived. Dumped in Terézin at the age of 14, he was transported to Auschwitz at 16 and was on a human shield forced march as Russian troops advanced when he was liberated at 17.

He said: “We finished our forced march and the Germans, who marched us out away from the Russian front, just disappeared.

“One morning we woke up in a hay barn and knew within minutes what had happened when Russian troops drove by in lorries and so on.”

Except becoming mindful of “something in the East which was not desirable – something pretty horrid,” he wasn’t aware of his possible fate in Terézin where he was taught daily by fellow inmates, including university professors, and developed an interest in history and mathematics.

Was he aware of the musical activity?

“Yes, I was, because I heard some rehearsals, but I didn’t realise how widespread it was. I wasn’t especially interested in music at the time; I was more interested in kicking a ball, like all young boys.”

“I’m not aware of permanent mental scars but it’s something you can never forget, of course. I don’t dwell on it in my mind. I think about it very little, only when occasions like this come up.”

Gemma Rosefield began the day with a scene-setting description of “the waiting room for hell,” as one prisoner described Terézin, she said. It also included a reminder that it was far from just musicians who were the only Jewish people sent there – those who laid the railway tracks, for instance, which would eventually take them to Auschwitz.

The talk ended with a rare screening of the first half of a propaganda film made for the Nazis by a Jewish director in 1944 to show how happy the population was in work and play.

The plangent-toned cellist then joined her Ensemble 360 string colleagues, Benjamin Nabarro, Claudia Ajmone-Marsan (violins) and Judith Busbridge (viola) for the lunchtime concert which included superb accounts of Gideon Klein’s String Trio: full of rhythmic energy and vibrantly optimistic, and an aptly Janácek-ian account of Pavel Haas’ Third String Quartet.

Events later in the day began with an early evening screening of a production of Hans Krása’s allegorical opera Brundibar (the title role depicts Hitler as an evil organ-grinder) which was performed 55 times by children in Terézin.

The film, a performance in English by some strongly motivated London children, was followed by the final scene of opera performed by children in Terézin to a large-looking audience of overly interested children extracted from the second half of the aforementioned propaganda film.

Seeing the opera’s propaganda value, the Nazis encouraged performances of it, the last one being the filmed one after which everyone on stage were in cattle trucks bound for Auschwitz.

The pre-concert talk directly after about music making in Terézin included questions from a sizeable audience but came to halt when it became known that Otto (who was expected) and Peter were in it and their reflections duly took over.

After which Ensemble 360’s string players were back with a recreation of what might have been a typical concert programme in Terézin, beginning with more Krása, Passacaglia & Fugue for string trio, the former movement being sombre with the extraordinary effect of Gemma Rosefield’s side string bowing creating the sounds of oblivion.

After the super fugue, largely in each instrument’s high register, Tim Horton put a token appearance in to offer two of Smetana’s Salon Polkas Op 7 for piano after which, a terrific performance Suk’s ‘St Wenceslas Meditation’ in its string quartet version was followed by a highly persuasive one of Erwin Schulhoff’s Duo for violin and cello from Ben Nabarro and Gemma Rosefield.

Then, with Martin Storey sitting in as second cellist, came the immortal Schubert String Quintet – perhaps lacking a little poise and polish every so often in the opening allegro, but found with interest in the equally long largo which has a sublime timeless quality and heavenly sounds.

The scherzo, which had tremendous punch, can never have sounded more bucolic before a positively euphoric last movement with stunning unanimity between the five performers.

Small wonder one of the festival’s largest audiences, in a state of euphoria, went wild at the end!

Summed up, a highly successful day in which it was impossible to cram everything in (rather like writing this piece) about the Terézin phenomenon, however – and this is an observation not a criticism – where was Viktor Ullmann, the most influential and active composer in Terézin?