While the Netherlands celebrate Liberation day today, on 5 May, my first association with “liberation day” will aways be 4 April – the day when Soviet troops chased away the last nazi units from Hungarian territory in 1945 – the day I celebrated in a white shirt and a blue and later a red tie as part of the Communist youth of socialist Hungary.
Although the war was over and the capitulation of Nazi Germany a fact on 5 May 1945, the inhabitants of Amsterdam had to wait until 8 May until the occupation ended with the Allied forces entering in the city.
On this very same 8 May, Soviet troops marched into the camp Terezín and took control over it the next day. For Viktor Ullmann, they arrived to late.
Ullmann was sent from Terezín to Auschwitz on 16 October 1944, together with many other prominent Jewish intellectuals, like fellow musicians Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas and Hans Krása, writer Peter Kien and actor Kurt Gerron. Gerron just had finished the fake documentary about “das jüdische Siedlungsgebiet” – the crown on the ghoulish work of cruelty and deception that was successively called lager, then ghetto and finally Jewish settlement Theresienstadt.
To cover up the function of the former garrison town as a transit camp and to save face in general, the SS collected in Terezín all Jewish intellectuals that were still alive and had not fled in time. After initial prohibition of any cultural activity, the NS quickly understood the value of it in the deception of both the inhabitants as well as an international public and henceforth actively supported and – through the “jüdische Selbstverwaltung” – meticulously regulated the cultural life in Terezín. With the sole exception of a movie theater, there was everything one could possibly wish for – in abundance: a library, theater and dance performances, lectures on any possible topic, language courses and poetry readings, and first and foremost – music. A choir, a classical and a jazz orchestra, several chamber music groups, singers and instrumentalists, amateur and professional musicians of all levels and backgrounds guaranteed a diverse program – often with several different performances a day. Smetana’s The Bartered Bride was performed 35 times after its premiere in November 1942. Verdi’s Requiem was sung 16 times under the baton of Rafael Schächter. Krása’s children’s opera, Brundibár had 55 performances. And there was more. While one can play and sing music out of many motives – to distract or comfort one self and others, just to name the most obvious ones – composing music can’t be but powerful expression of strength and hope – and the will to live, as Viktor Ullmann formulated it. He was one of the leading figures of the “Freizeitgestaltung” and led the “Studio für neue Musik” – propagating freshly composed music by the composers imprisoned in Terezín.
Ullmann himself wrote about twenty compositions in the camp, approximately 14 of those are vocal works. For the texts he turned to very diverse sources and his choice of the poetry reveals much about the circumstances of their creation and can be seen as a synthesis of much of what Ullmann was. By setting texts of Hölderlin, Ullmann professes his allegiance to German culture, reclaiming it for himself, the ethnic and cultural outcast. With Albert Steffen, he returns to a source of inspiration that has played an important role throughout his adult life – anthroposophy. The songs on poems of friend and fellow inmate H.G. Adler are the most direct reflection of the new reality of both poet and composer; poetry written in Theresienstadt – according to the testimony of Adler’s son specifically for Ullmann in order to be set to music. And last but not least, Ullmann, who has been born to assimilated and baptized Jewish parents, later converted to Protestantism and became Rudolf Steiner’s adherent – now was imprisoned for being a Jew and it was in Theresienstadt that he composed something explicitly Jewish for the first time in his life: arrangements of Yiddish folksongs.
While celebrating our freedom in the seclusion of our homes in 2020, 75 years after the liberation of Terezín and the end of the war, we don’t have the possibility of rehearsing or performing. Yet we are happy to offer you the possibility of listening to the performance of our program Terezín Songbook from 2019 in Amsterdam. The entire concert can be listened to here.