By Peter A. Klein
The poetry of teenaged Jewish boys imprisoned in the Terezín concentration camp will be given new life in the oratorio “Vedem,” by composer Lori Laitman and librettist David Mason. “Vedem” will receive its world premiere at Music of Remembrance’s spring concert on Monday evening, May 10 at 8:00 PM in Benaroya Recital Hall.
Laitman believes that these lines of Mason’s express the essence of the piece:
We lived for what we wrote and painted,
as if imagination were a jewel.
Terezín (aka Theresienstadt) is an old Czech fortress town which the Nazis turned into a transit camp during the Holocaust. 144,000 Jews were sent to Terezín, including many from the arts and letters. One-quarter of the prisoners died there, and two-thirds were later killed in the death camps. Yet they created an astounding cultural life in Terezín, which existed right alongside starvation, cold, overcrowding, disease, and death.
Boys in Terezín lived in a converted school building designated L417, with the oldest occupying a room known as Home Number One. Educating the children was forbidden, but the Jewish leaders of the Homes did so secretly.
Home No. One’s adult leader, Valtr Eisinger was a teacher of Czech language and literature. With Eisinger’s encouragement, the boys created their own clandestine literary magazine, called “Vedem,” which means “We Lead” in Czech. “Vedem” existed for two years between 1942 and 1944. The key contributors were aged about 14-16. Petr Ginz, a multi-talented writer, artist and diarist, was editor-in-chief. The magazine’s logo was a Jules Verne-inspired rocket ship flying past a book towards a star.
Imagine your high school newspaper and creative writing magazine rolled into one—handwritten, in a concentration camp. The boys created stories, poems, essays and drawings which expressed their observations, hopes, fears and dreams. Every Friday night, they read aloud and critiqued the week’s work.
According to Mason, an acclaimed poet and Bellingham, Washington native who now lives in Colorado, the story of “Vedem” is “an opportunity to get at the lives of very specific boys, and they’re not angels, they’re rascally little guys…they’re in that strange period between childhood and adolescence…and I find that profoundly interesting. We’re not only writing about mechanistic, institutionalized victimization…it’s a story about human aspiration and fire and creativity in the face of absolute annihilation.”
Mason is the author or editor of nine books of poetry, and a regular contributor to magazines such as The New Yorker, Poetry and The Nation.
Approximately 100 boys worked on “Vedem.” Only about 15 survived. Most, including Ganz, died at Auschwitz. One boy, Sydney Taussig was allowed to remain in Terezín because he worked in his father’s blacksmith shop, which the Germans considered essential. Taussig buried about 800 pages of the magazine in a metal container meant to hold crematorium ashes, and retrieved them after liberation.
Efforts were made to publish the “Vedem” materials, but Czechoslovakia’s postwar Communist government had no interest. Excerpts found their way into an émigré magazine in Paris, and clandestine “samizdat” manuscripts circulated among dissidents and literary people.
Finally, in the mid-1990s, the “Vedem” boys’ story and work were published in the book “We Are Children Just the Same,” first in Czech, then in English. Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who went into space on the ill-fated Columbia shuttle mission, took with him a copy of Ganz’ drawing of Earth viewed from a fanciful lunar landscape.
When MOR Artistic Director Mina Miller read the book about “Vedem” she told herself, “One day I will commission a piece on this.” Miller had someone in mind—Lori Laitman, one of America’s foremost composers of art songs. Over the years, MOR has performed several of Laitman’s Holocaust-related song cycles. But this time, Miller wanted something bigger, an oratorio with soloists, a children’s chorus, and a chamber ensemble.
Laitman turned to Mason, with whom she recently collaborated on her first full-length opera, The Scarlet Letter. She selected a group of the boys’ poems, which Mason wove into a narrative libretto.
Lori Laitman grew up in a musical family in Long Beach, NY, and now lives in Maryland. She studied at the Yale School of Music in the 1970s. Laitman earned her Master’s degree in flute performance, but also studied composition. At that time, she was mostly interested in composing for film and theatre. After Yale, she taught flute, scored several industrial films, and wrote incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
Motherhood occupied most of her time in the 1980s. Then in 1991 soprano Lauren Wagner, an old friend, asked Laitman to write an art song for Wagner’s debut CD. Laitman set poet Sara Teasdale’s “The Metropolitan Tower.” The music came to her very quickly, and at first, she felt very timid about showing it to anyone. It turned out to be the spark that ignited her career.
“I haven’t stopped since,” says Laitman. “I found my voice writing for the voice.” She now has over 200 songs to her credit, to texts by many noted poets past and present.
Talk to Laitman about her craft today, and she radiates self-confidence. Her working method is different from that of many other composers. “I always write the vocal line first,” Laitman says. “I never think of a musical structure and squish words into it.” Each melody is “custom crafted,” with the musical notes meticulously matched to the text’s meaning, flow and dramatic content. Only after she is satisfied that the vocal line is perfect will she begin to flesh out other elements, such as harmony and accompaniment. Each of these layers exists, she says, to further “color and magnify the emotions that are inside and behind the words.”
Mason describes their working partnership as “a collaboration of great joy for both of us.” When working on a project, they talk almost daily, with Laitman often singing themes to Mason and playing the piano over the telephone. Laitman says, “He understands what it is that I need. He understands how to write a libretto, how to write a poem. He’s a genius.”
Says Mason: “I’m in the hands of a great composer, and I can trust her absolutely. She responds to language in a way that I cannot even begin to describe.” For “Vedem,” Laitman stretched her “vocal line first” rule a bit, creating an instrumental theme that recurs and develops throughout the work.
“Vedem” is MOR’s most ambitious project to date. In addition to the full oratorio, Laitman has crafted a more portable version without choir that can be performed at schools and outreach concerts. Filmmaker John Sharify is creating a “Vedem” documentary that includes interviews with five of the six survivors still alive today. Miller and Laitman each met separately with two survivors—Emil Kopel and Leopold Lowy—at Lowy’s New Jersey home.
Because Miller was a musician and would understand, Kopel took her aside and revealed something he’d never told anyone before, fearing he’d be thought crazy—how a well-known piece of classical music saved his life during a death march out of Buchenwald. Prisoners who collapsed or fell behind were shot. Kopel kept pace by “listening” to Dvořák’s “Humoresque No. 7” over and over in his mind.
“I was stunned,” says Miller. Her “hands still shaking,” she called Laitman on her cell phone, introduced Kopel, and they told Laitman the story. Kopel, who lives in Australia, said that if Laitman would include the “Humoresque” in “Vedem,” he would return to the U.S. for the premiere. Laitman agreed, then found to her surprise that the melody “fit exactly” into a section of music she had just written.
The concert also includes the “String Quartet No. 3 (1938),” by the Czech-Jewish Pavel Haas, one of several composers imprisoned at Terezín. The program opens with a reprise performance of Seattle Symphony conductor Gerard Schwarz’ “In Memoriam,” dedicated to the memory of beloved Symphony and MOR cellist David Tonkonogui, and played by Schwarz’ cellist son Julian. “We’re dedicating the concert,” says Miller, “to all who died too young.”
“Vedem” will be performed by tenor Ross Hauck and mezzo-soprano Angela Niederloh, and the Northwest Boychoir (Joseph Crnko, conductor), accompanied by Mikhail Shmidt, violin, Laura DeLuca, clarinet, Walter Gray, cello, and Mina Miller, piano. Four survivors who worked on the original “Vedem” magazine are scheduled to attend.
Also performing in the concert are: Leonid Keylin and Elisa Barston, violin, Susan Gulkis Assadi, viola, and Mara Finkelstein, cello. A “Meet the Composer and Librettist” interview will take place prior to the concert, at 7:15 PM.
This article also appeared in the April 30, 2010 issue of JTNews.