The Music and Terror of Terezin - Concord Academy

The Music and Terror of Terezin

Category: Parents
Posted on: April 16, 2010

On Thursday, April 15, Edgar Krasa shared memories of the Terezin and Auschwitz concentration camps that he survived, while Mark Ludwig, director of the Terezin Music Foundation and violist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, explained the role music and musicians played in Nazi propaganda.

At age 21, Krasa “volunteered” to be a cook in Terezin in exchange for a guarantee that his parents would not be deported. He helped ready the camp, in what is now the Czech Republic, and saw it quickly become a Nazi warehouse for some 140,000, many of them artists and musicians. About 80,000 Terezin prisoners, including Krasa, eventually were sent to the death camp at Auschwitz.

Ludwig, who spoke first, displayed Nazi posters that characterized music performed by blacks or Jews as “degenerate.” The Nazis had been persuaded to allow cultural events at Terezin to create an illusion that Jews were treated well. Even in Auschwitz, said Ludwig, musicians played marches to keep inmates in step. Among his slides was a photograph of a prisoner being led to his execution, musicians accompanying the death march. In another photo, a man is surrounded by a circle of fellow prisoners while several guards and a pet hang casually on the periphery. Ludwig explained that the guards routinely chose an inmate to stand in the center, then beat him to death—while the circle of musicians was forced to play. “What did music mean to them afterward?” he mused.

Ludwig also shared Terezin prisoners’ works of art and unraveled their symbolism. In his final slide before introducing 89-year-old Krasa, he flashed a poster from a Terezin production of Verdi’s Requiem, in which Krasa performed.

Krasa, slightly stooped and gray-haired but robust, described the twelve-meter thick walls and moat around Terezin, as well as the talented Rafael Schechter, who formed the choir that would sing the Requiem. Schechter taught the singers the Latin piece in seven weeks without music or paper, said Krasa, and trained new singers as the original choir members were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz, a fate Schechter later encountered.

Krasa described how the Nazis stocked clothing and bakery storefronts to deceive the Red Cross during an inspection, even giving a group of children chocolate and having them say, “Not chocolate again, Uncle.” Krasa also told CA about his three-day ride from Terezin to Auschwitz, packed into a freight car with no food, drink, windows, or ventilation, and an overflowing “comfort bucket” in a corner.

After his all-school lecture, Krasa visited two classes, American History and Literature of Paris, both of which had studied the period. During the literature class, he discussed his successful escape during a forced three-day run—Auschwitz had shipped out prisoners because Russian troops were encroaching. Seizing a chance to slip away from the guards, Krasa hid in a forest but was shot under his arm. A French doctor—one who had treated him back in Terezin—found him and extracted the bullet with a small knife, using no anesthesia. Krasa found the strength to move on. After relating this story, he also told the class about his ravenous encounter with food after the war (gaining seventy-nine pounds in six weeks) and his eventual reunion with his parents, who also survived.

The presentation by Krasa and Ludwig was made possible by Concord Academy’s Hall Fellowship, which honors former Headmistress Elizabeth B. Hall by inviting distinguished lecturers to campus every year.

To view photos of the Hall Fellows’ visit, please click here.