When Red Cross representatives visited the Theresienstadt Ghetto, in June 1944, they encountered an eerie simulacrum of thriving cultural life—residents tended gardens, performed operas, and competed in soccer matches attended by cheering crowds. All of this had been carefully choreographed for the visit: The concentration camp, located in Terezín, in the north of what is now the Czech Republic (Theresienstadt is the German word for the Czech town), was chosen by the Nazis to appear as a model Jewish settlement to the outside world. But the real Theresienstadt, of course, was nothing like the tranquil “spa town” of Nazi euphemism. Tens of thousands of prisoners died there, and in a single month at the height of eastward deportation in the fall of 1944, 18,000 were shipped east to Auschwitz and killed.
Among those on the fateful trains were Czech musicians Gideon Klein, Rafael Schaechter, and Viktor Ullmann, who had composed and performed throughout their imprisonment in Terezín—despite, or, perhaps, because of their ghastly circumstances. The enigmatic pieces they left behind have since been performed and recorded for numerous memorial concerts and anthologies, and there’s a whole non-profit organization devoted to preserving the legacy of the Terezín composers and commissioning new works to honor musicians lost in the Holocaust.
But Michael Beckerman, Carroll and Milton Petrie Professor of Music and a leading scholar of Czech music, is more interested in the questions these pieces raise about music and the kinds of information it can—and cannot—communicate. “I like to treat this music with both enormous respect and also a kind of skepticism,” he says. “That’s part of the way we respect artwork. We should not assume that we automatically understand it, but continually enquire deeply into what it may be about.”
Of course, there are questions one can chase but never quite catch. We gather, Beckerman explains, that the Terezín composers were compelled by their captors to keep working in order to maintain the ruse for the Red Cross and others. But little else is certain. Did they try to encode in the music hidden messages about the realities of the concentration camp? Did they know they were going to die? And what kind of effect might any of this knowledge have on the listener?
At a performance some years ago of a string trio written by Gideon Klein, Beckerman conducted an experiment: He ensured that just half of the audience members received program notes explaining that the composer completed the piece just weeks before being deported to Auschwitz. Those who didn’t receive the notes “tended to think it was a sweet, pretty little piece,” Beckerman recalls, while those who did “thought it was one of the great tragic statements of the century.” How does one account for the difference?
“It’s like a horror movie, where we’re watching a family sit down to dinner while all around the house are horrible creatures ready to do something awful to them,” Beckerman says. “We know what’s about to happen. It’s the same with Terezín—we know how the story ends.” It’s only natural to feel anguish when we listen to music composed in such circumstances. But context isn’t everything, Beckerman explains, and whether sadness and foreboding are embedded in the musical sounds themselves is a more complicated question to answer.
Beckerman’s research focuses on music composed at Terezín in the summer of 1944, and because it’s instrumental, he can’t rely on lyrics for clues. But he’s found plenty of evidence that their works were rich with complex meanings. In Klein’s string trio, for example, Beckerman hears references to the first song in Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (or Songs on the Death of Children) as well as to Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (opening lines: “My peace is gone / My heart is heavy”). And in Viktor Ullmann’s final piano sonata, he points to a section in which four melodies are played in counterpoint: There’s a Zionist anthem, Bach’s name spelled out in notes, a Czech patriotic song, and a German chorale, all playing at once. But what is it trying to say?
“Was the goal to simply document what was happening, or to send a kind of message in a bottle, or just to use all of these influences to write a powerful piece?” Beckerman muses. But he’ll never get a chance to ask the composers what their intentions were. In fact, Beckerman says, it’s an accident of history that their scores, entrusted to friends left behind in Terezín when they departed for Auschwitz, even survived.
So Beckerman walks this line—a scholar considering music as historical document, trying to find the balance between exaggerating and downplaying apparent messages in the score, all while keeping his own assumptions at bay. Beckerman likens himself to a scientist or a detective who’s always forced to follow new information with: “Excuse me, I have just one more question.”