Within these walls: in memory of Alice Herz-Sommer

To commemorate the life of the oldest known Holocaust survivor and pianist, Alice Herz-Sommer, we re-visit Simon Broughton's insights into the creativity that thrived in the Terezín ghetto despite appalling conditions, originally published in our May 2010 issue

In memory of Alice Herz-Sommer

'I remember my first concert was in winter time, very cold. So I was playing in my coat, in my high boots and I don’t remember whether I had something on my head, but I played. I admire still now the people who came – old, ill and suffering. It was a remedy, for us and for them.’ Pianist Alice Herz-Sommer is remembering concerts of Bach, Beethoven and new compositions she gave in the Terezín ghetto during World War II. Now aged 106, she still has vivid memories of an extraordinary place where music became a source of sustenance, literally a life-saver, in the most extreme conditions. ‘When I played,’ she adds, ‘we felt we were nearer to God.’ 


Terezín (Theresienstadt in German), a garrison town built in the 1780s by Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II, lies about 60km northwest of Prague. Built on a grid pattern round a church and central square (see above), it’s enclosed by fortified red walls. In Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, from November 1941 until the Soviet liberation in May 1945, it became a ghetto and concentration camp for the Jews of central Europe.

It wasn’t an extermination camp, but conditions were appalling. Up to 60,000 people were crammed into a town built for 6,000, one in four of the inmates died and transports left regularly for Auschwitz. But the town was administered, under Nazi supervision, by the Jews themselves and as a form of damage limitation they organised an incredible cultural life which included lectures, theatre, cabaret, music and opera. At first it took place in secret with performances in cellars and attics with pianist and conductor Rafael Schächter one of the main instigators. Then, when cultural activities became officially permitted, the Jewish-run Freizeitgestaltung (Free-time administration) organised regular concerts and even produced programmes and artistic posters for the events (see below).

‘People needed to live some kind of normal life, under abnormal conditions, because it gave them hope and made them forget their situation,’ remembers actress Zdenka Fantlová, who was 18 when she arrived in Terezín. Working in the kitchens alongside the conductor Karel Ancerl (who survived to become principal conductor of the Czech Philharmonic), in her free time she got involved in the cabaret. ‘Terezín was really ideal for the arts. There was no competitiveness, no hierarchy. Everybody gave their best out of sheer enthusiasm. But of course there were transports constantly being assembled – going to the east. We didn’t know what it meant or what was in store for us; only the Germans knew. So they let us get on with it and we were just dancing under the gallows.’

The ghetto was home to an incredible pool of talent – directors, designers, artists, actors, musicians and composers – though it’s not the case, as is often mistakenly thought, that they were specially selected to go to Terezín. Helga Weissová-Hoková was just 12 when she arrived. As a very talented young artist her father told her simply to ‘draw what you see’ and her pictures, with their childish naivety, are some of the most moving from Terezín. One depicts the string quartet led by Egon Ledec, an associate leader of the Czech Philharmonic. ‘I remember them playing when we were all cramped together in the barracks,’ she says – her picture (below) shows overcoats and cooking utensils hanging on the walls and the audience with the obligatory yellow stars of David. ‘My father wrote a poem and dedicated it to Ledec: “On behalf of us all, dear friends/Play to us and make us well again/We must live each moment to the full/If we don’t die like cattle.”’

Ironically, Terezín was, culturally speaking, probably the freest place in occupied Europe, with inmates left to get on with their performances unhindered. Outside, music by Jewish composers, jazz, and what the Nazis called entartete Musik (degenerate music) were forbidden. So what was going on in Terezín was astonishing: performances of new, ‘degenerate’ pieces by Jewish composers, as well as jazz and satirical cabaret. 

The leading figure of the political cabaret was Karel Venk, writing both words and music. The Terezín March he composed for his first cabaret in 1941 became so popular it was repeated in all subsequent shows. The Last Cyclist, his most powerful show, was a political satire on the Nazi’s racial policies. ‘In The Last Cyclist the Kaiser had to pacify the people who were undergoing severe shortages,’ remembers Fantlová. ‘So he blamed the cyclists. They were the cause of all the trouble because they were internationally connected and so they had to get rid of them.’ Similarly, Viktor Ullmann’s opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis) is a satirical tragedy composed for an ensemble of about a dozen instruments that were available in the ghetto. Kaiser Überall (Overall) is a thinly disguised cariacature of Hitler – with ‘Deutschland über alles’, the German anthem, parodied in a minor key. Death, an old soldier, goes on strike because of the vast, indiscriminate killing. His music is lush and luxuriant, belonging to the operatic world of Richard Strauss or Alexander Zemlinsky. The Kaiser begs for Death to return to work, to which he agrees on the condition that the Kaiser is his first victim. 

The Emperor of Atlantis was prepared up to the dress rehearsal,’ recalled Karel Berman, the bass who played Death, when I talked to him in 1991. ‘Then the SS saw it. They had to attend all the dress rehearsals. They realised that the Kaiser represented Hitler and banned the performance.’ It was one of the rare examples of censorship in Terezín.

Of the several composers working in Terezín, four stand out: Ullmann, Pavel Haas, Hans Krása and Gideon Klein. Ullmann received his musical education in Vienna and was in Schoenberg’s composition class. His music, often highly chromatic but resisting his teacher’s atonality and serialism, is very Viennese in style. A pupil of Janácek, Haas’s music is unmistakably Czech, with strong rhythms and sinewy melodies. Krása, meanwhile, was the most idiosyncratic of the four, his music concentrated and fiery, racing from one idea to the next – his 1938 children’s opera, Brundibár, was the most popular piece in Terezín, its hummable tunes spiked by acerbic harmonies. These three were already established figures, but Klein was a young man of 22 when he arrived in Terezín in December 1941 as part of the workforce sent to convert the town into an internment camp. He’d already written some extremely accomplished chamber music and was awarded a scholarship in 1940 to study at the Royal Academy in London. Sadly, the Nazi laws against the Jews meant he was unable to leave the country. (The chances are that had Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, Korngold and Kurt Weill not escaped to the US, their talents too would have been part of the creative ferment of Terezín.) 

After Danish Jews had been sent to Terezín in the autumn of 1943, the Danish government repeatedly enquired about their wellbeing and requested to visit them. In response to this pressure, the Nazis realised Terezín could be a useful propaganda tool. A ‘beautification’ programme went on for several months – housefronts were painted, the streets cleaned, a playground built and the ghetto cafe spruced up. To ease over-crowding 7,500 were shipped to Auschwitz.  The International Red Cross visited on 12 June 1944 and filed favourable reports. After this success, the Nazis decided to shoot a propaganda film. In charge of it, they appointed Kurt Gerron, a film director and cabaret actor, who’d played Mack the Knife in the original Berlin production of Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. He was an inmate of the ghetto and shooting took place in August and September. The film was completed in March 1945 and never shown, but it does contain two hugely important records of the musical life in Terezín: a concert featuring the closing bars of Pavel Haas’s Study for Strings, conducted by Karel Ancerl, and the final moments of Brundibár

By now it was clear the Nazis were losing the war and transports to the east increased. Many of the composers and musicians went on transport Er 944 on 16 October 1944. These included Ullmann, Haas and Krasa, the jazz orchestra and the conductors Rafael Schächter and Ancerl. ‘In October 1944 I was in the same cattle truck with Ancerl and Schächter,’ says Fantlová. ‘When we arrived in Auschwitz there was a selection – people to the right and to the left. AnΩerl was in front of me with his wife and son, who was born in Terezín. He was sent to the right and she was sent to the left with the child. They went straight to the gas chambers.’ 

Of the 140,000 people who passed through Terezín, about 20,000 survived. The courage and resilience of those who kept a sense of creativity in the face of death is remarkable. Ullmann composed over 20 works in Terezín. ‘The will to create,’ he said, ‘is the same as the will to live.’ More than that, the music these composers wrote is extremely good, yet they’ve been largely forgotten. We owe it to them to place them back in the repertoire where they belong.  

Simon Broughton


This is an ammended version of a feature that originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of BBC Music Magazine