Arts Listings

Jewish Music Fest Spotlights Work Composed in Nazi Camps

By Ken Bullock Sepcial to the Planet
Thursday October 15, 2009 - 01:11:00 PM
They Left a Light, Susan Waterfall’s multimedia program of music composed in Nazi prison camps.
Nicholas Wilson
They Left a Light, Susan Waterfall’s multimedia program of music composed in Nazi prison camps.

They Left a Light, Susan Waterfall’s multimedia program of music composed in Nazi prison camps, will be presented this Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at the East Bay Jewish Community Center on Walnut in North Berkeley for the 25th annual Jewish Music Festival. including Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, composed in 1940 at a P.O.W. camp in Silesia, and rare selections of music composed by Jewish musicians at Terezin (Thereisenstadt) concentration camp north of Prague. This will be the second year Waterfall and the Mendocino Music Festival have collaborated with the Jewish Music Festival, after last year’s Degenerate Music, music of the Weimar Republic and German emigration, condemned by Hitler as “degenerate art.” 

“I’ve wanted to play Quartet for the End of Time again—I played it with some of the same people in 1992 in Mendocino,” said Waterfall, “It’s so powerful, it takes people into an awareness of the eternal, which makes the music from Terezin more heartrending, knowing these people were denied even a normal lifespan. 

“I didn’t know right away about Terezin, or in much detail about the camps. After what I’d been immersed in the previous year, I was asking what happened to Central European music, this incredible thread that was cut off and died in the camps. Janacek is one of my favorite composers; I wondered why he had no heirs. He had a lot of students—and they were Jews, in the eyes of the Nazis: Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas, Hans Krasa ... all strong Czech nationalists.”  

The program will include rare cabaret pieces from Terezin, arranged by Julian Waterfall Pollack. Terezin had been a popular spa before the war; the Nazis concealed the desperate nature of the true life of the camp under a facade of a paradise for Jewish artists and intellectuals. Yet “it’s fantastic to see how music helped people to survive, to escape into it, to express revolt ... it was a way to restore dignity, to continue with the best part of their lives from before entering the camps.” 

Photographs and drawings of the camps, the composers and original performers, as well as translations of the songs, will be projected during the performance. 

Waterfall will play piano and narrate, accompanied by Jeremy Cohen on violin; Burke Schuchman, cello; Emily Onderdonk, violin; and Art Austin on clarinet. Singers will be soprano Erin Neff—whose inspired performance last year drew accolades—and baritone Paul Murray.  

Waterfall’s intensive research led her to other musicians and scholars around the world, including Bret Werb of the U.S. Holocast Museum in Washington, D.C.; Kobi Luria at the Beit Terezin (Terezin House) in Israel; Serge Dreznin, Paul Hamburg of the Judaic Library and Moshe Zoman. “I met some amazing people during the course of this.” 

The music itself was hard to get: Waterfall spoke of two scores being “in thread form.” 

Though “every story is devastatingly sad; you can’t take it all in—only by accretion,” there are unusual vignettes, like the friendship Messiaen developed with Albert Ruhl, an anti-Nazi guard who helped him get manuscripts and kept him from hard labor so he could write the Quartet; of Messiaen meeting two musicians who helped him, one an Algerian Jew from a military band, of listening to birdsong on night watch together—and of Bartok’s letter to Hitler, insisting Bartok be placed on the list of proscribed composers, as they were the most distinguished.  

Waterfall’s programs are always in depth and intensive, with multimedia imagery that expands the effect of the music, consolidating its impact. Nonetheless, music is the thing, beginning with the Messiaen, inspired by his vision of the Angel of the Apocalypse from seeing the Aurora Borealis above the camp, music that Alex Ross in the New Yorker called “the most ethereally beautiful ... of the 20th century,” so transcendental yet forceful, at times a listener feels as if bodily lifted up.  

“I’m moving my Bechstein into the JCC for this, for the Messiaen,” said Waterfall. “It’ll really be a treat.” 

The program is dedicated to the memory of Max and Rosa Eichengruen, Walter Green’s paternal grandparents, who died at Terezin. 



7:30 p.m. Sunday at the 25th annual Jewish Music Festival at the East Bay Jewish Community Center, 1414 Walnut. $20-$25. 848-0237.