Schächter, Rafael, conductor and pianist, born May 27, 1905, in Braila (Rumania). After World War I, Schächter moved to Brno, where he began his formal musical studies. He continued his studies at the Prague Conservatory of Music, where he received degrees in composition and conducting, and at the Master School, in piano. After graduating, Schächter formed a successful Chamber Music Opera, and was a sought after vocal coach.
Schächter arrived in Terezín on one of the first transports in 1941. Due to the lack of resources (i.e. instruments and scores), early musical activity took the form of communal singing in the barracks. By 1942, Schächter's organized choral activities began to take shape. In collaboration with Karel Švenk, an actor, director, writer and composer active in Prague before the war, Schächter produced the first all-male cast cabaret variety show. The final song, “Terezín March” became an instant hit, and was a mainstay in all subsequent cabarets staged by Schächter and Švenk. With the influx of musical prisoners to Terezín, Schächter's choral activities grew in scope and quality. The arrival of pianist Gideon Klein was particularly opportune; he arranged Czech, Slovak, Hebrew and even Russian folk songs for Schächter's expanding choral group (an invaluable resource due to the lack of scores). Due to the growing success of his all-male ensemble, Schächter formed a women's chorus, which he eventually incorporated into one larger mixed ensemble. Schächter's efforts inspired other musicians to organize singing groups; Karel Berman formed a girl's chorus, Karel Vrba a boys' chorus, and Siegmund Subak a chorus specializing in Jewish liturgical music,Yiddish folk songs, and new Palestinian music. In addition to organizing choral activities, Schächter produced several Opera's for performance in Terezín, including Smetana's The Bartered Bride and The Kiss, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute.
Schächter was a popular piano accompanist in Terezín; he performed in many recitals of lied, songs, and operatic excerpts. He also offered private lessons to talented children that wanted to participate in adult musical activities. During the years 1943-44 Schächter was involved in staging several oratorios and cantatas. He organized and conducted Verdi's Requiem and the cantata The Czech Song by Bedřich Smetana. In the summer of 1944, Schächter presented a vocal concert dedicated entirely to Smetana's compositions in honor of his sixty year remembrance. Schächter delivered several successful performances of Verdi's Requiem, despite heavy deportations that greatly depleted members of his chorus. In 1944, he was ordered to give a gala performance of the Requiem to the Committee of the International Red Cross, hosted by Adolf Eichmann.
Schächter was deported to Auschwitz in one of the final liquidations of Terezín in October of 1944, and was immediately executed upon arrival.
Rafael Schaechter was a conductor and pianist who staged musical productions with inmates at Terezin, a unique concentration camp where the Nazis imprisoned many of Eastern Europe’s most talented artists and musicians. Under starvation conditions, they continued to create works. The camp became a façade, a cultural showcase promoted by the Nazis to convey a false reality of how well they treated the Jews.
Rafael Schaechter was a composer, conductor and pianist who staged musical
and theatrical productions at the Terezin concentration
This new book by Susie Davidson is based on the recollections of Holocaust survivor Edgar Krasa of Newton, Mass., who was a member of Schaechter's choruses.
It is illustrated by Fay Grajower.
He came from Romanian town Brăila, but after the World War I he came to
Brno, where he studied piano at Vilém Kurz. He moved toPrague with Kurz and
started to study piano at master school with Karel Hoffmeister, and
composition and conducting at Prague Conservatory. After he finished studies,
he was engaged (in 1934) to avant-garde theatre Déčko by E. F. Burian. In
1937 he established own ensemble - Komorní opera, where he performed less
known chamber and also baroque music. Schächter was, as aJew, transported to
Terezín concentration camp on 30 November 1941. Here he set up a smuggled
piano in the basement of the men's barracks housing. Without the constant
oversight of Nazi soldiers within the camp, Schächter was able to assemble a
male choir to keep morale high. He also managed to slip by the barred gates
of the men's section to the woman's barracks to assemble a female choir
there as well. When the genders were reintegrated by the Nazis, Schächter's
established choir was able to gain clemency from the camp director. With his
choir, which numbered well in excess of 200 members, he was able to create,
often from a single score, productions of famous operas and works of
The first opera performed in Terezín was Bartered Bride by Bedřich Smetana. Schächter rehearsed the performance only with piano and improvised choir and solos, but it was subjected to great acclaim. Première took place on 25 November 1942 and performance was reprised many times.
Near the end of 1941, Schächter also became obsessed with the idea of performing one of Verdi's requiems as a mass, for the Nazis, he believed, would be damned in the final judgement. From a single score, he had his singers memorize the Latin lyrics, learn the translation, and individually taught them the tune. In September, the Nazis resumed deporting prisoners to Auschwitz extermination camp. However, though his choir was decreasing rapidly with time, Schächter refused to perform the requiem before it was perfect. Finally, in January 1942, Schächter's masterpiece premièred. Over the following months, even as his choir shrunk, the requiem was performed 15 times. Finally, when only 60 members of the choir remained, Schächter retired the piece. The final performance, however, came afterwards when Schächter was invited to perform the piece before visiting members of the International Red Cross and Schutzstaffel (S.S.). Unable to resist performing this piece in the face of the Nazis, Schächter gathered his choir for one final performance.
Only a few weeks after this final performance, on 16 October 1944, under transport number 943, Schächter was loaded into a rail road cattle car with approximately 1,000 other prisoners. They were transported during a 3 day journey to the infamous Auschwitz camp. His final fate is unclear. His ashes, as cremation was customary at the camp, were scattered without a memorial or marking at the camp only a few months before the Soviet push which liberated the camp.
This new book by Susie Davidson, illustrated by Fay Grajower, tells the
story of Schaechter and presents the recollections of Holocaust survivor
Edgar Krasa of Newton, Mass., who was a member of Schaechter's choruses. (Davidson
worked with Krasa to produce the recollections.)
Schaechter, whom Krasa refers to as “a psychologist without a degree,” was able to uplift the spirits of the doomed Terezin prisoners by teaching and involving them in various musical productions. Schaechter is best known for staging Verdi's Requiem at Terezin, which was a secret defiant act aimed toward their Nazi captors. By singing about the final judgment day when they would meet their maker, the prisoners were able to denounce the Nazis. The Requiem was conducted 15 times at Terezin, with shrinking casts each time due to deportations., including for a performance for the Nazis and the Red Cross. Schaechter was advised against doing it because if the Nazis learned the secret, and discerned the real meaning of the lyrics, he could be hung and the prisoners all deported. He persisted, however, and after telling the singers about this risk, they unanimously agreed to continue with the production.
It was secretly a defiant act, produced under great risk. By singing the Requiem’s verses about the final judgment day to the Nazis, the prisoners were able to denounce their captors. When Schaechter was asked to stage a performance for the Nazis, their invited Nazi guests, and a contingent from the Red Cross, the head of the Council of Elders advised against it, because if the Nazis learned the secret about the lyrics, Schaechter could be hung, and the prisoners could all be deported. He persisted, however, and after telling the singers about this risk, they unanimously agreed to continue with the production. It was their final, successful act of defiance. Shortly thereafter, Rafael Schaechter was deported to Auschwitz, where he perished.
His legacy has been perpetuated by such groups as the Defiant Requiem Foundation, which founded the “Rafael Schächter Institute of Arts and Humanities" at Terezín; the Terezin Music Foundation, which created the Krasa-Schaechter Fund that commissions young musicians to perform works of Terezin artists; in the Beit Theresienstadt museum in Givat Haim Ihud, Israel), and in other tributes. This is the first book project about Schaechter.
Edgar Krasa is a survivor of Terezin and other concentration camps. He is
on the board of the Terezin Music Foundation, which has established a
Krasa-Schaechter Commission Fund for young composers. He often speaks at
schools and community venues.
Susie Davidson is a poet, journalist, author, and filmmaker who writes regularly for the Jewish Advocate, the Jewish Journal, the Jewish Daily Forward, JointMedia News Service and other media, and has contributed to the Eagle-Tribune, the Jerusalem Post, the Boston Sunday Globe, and the Boston Herald.
Other books by Susie Davidson:
· “I Refused to Die: Stories of Boston-Area Holocaust Survivors and Soldiers who Liberated the Concentration Camps of World War II” (2005)
· “Jewish Life in Postwar Germany” (2006)
· “Selected Poetry of Susie D” (2009)
· “In Gratitude and Hope” (collection of remarks made by former German Consul to New England Wolfgang K. Vorwerk at area Holocaust community events, ed.) (2008)
(All Ibbetson Street Press, Somerville).
Fay Grajower, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, studied at The School of Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and holds an M.A. in Studio Art from New York University. Her works have been featured in galleries and museums in cities throughout the U.S. and abroad including in Germany, Poland and Israel, and exhibited at the Auschwitz Jewish Museum in Oswiecim and in Poland at the Biblioteka Slaska in Katowice and the Czestochowa Museum.
For more information/to arrange book readings and events (no charge for synagogues), please email
Search for The Music Man of Terezin on Facebook or visit www.SusieD.com
James H. Burnett III can be reached at email@example.com.
Follow him on Twitter@JamesBurnett
WHO : Susie Davidson
WHAT : The Boston-based filmmaker, poet, and author has written four books, all about some aspect of the Holocaust. Her newest is “The Music Man of Terezin: The Story of Rafael Schaechter as Remembered by Edgar Krasa.”
Q. The Holocaust and its many impacts is a constant theme in your writing, but for the lay person who doesn’t know them, could you briefly describe who Schaechter was and Krasa is?
A. Rafael Schaechter, as you know, was a renowned Jewish composer and conductor in Europe, who was taken into custody by the Nazis and housed at the Terezin concentration camp near Prague, where he famously continued to make music — much of it in secret, even though the Nazis forbade most of it. And Krasa is a Holocaust survivor who lives here in the Boston area, who was a young man during World War II and was also housed at Terezin. He was a cook at the camp and got to know Schaechter very well and remains in awe of him to this day. He even named his son Rafael.
Q. So for all the people with amazing stories tied to the Holocaust, why Schaechter and why now?
A. I’d have to say it was new revelations about the “Verdi Requiem,” a story I’ve thought for a very long time should be a Hollywood movie. It’s so moving. For those who don’t know, the “Verdi Requiem” was a composition that addressed judgment day at the end of one’s life. Schaechter wrote a version for his Terezin chorus of other Jewish prisoners to sing to the Nazis. But what was special about the piece is that they were telling their captors that one day they would be judged for their sins, their actions.
Q. That was pretty nervy of Schaechter and his chorus. How did they expect to get away with it?
A. Well, the “Verdi Requiem” was written in Latin. And even though the Jewish Council of Elders at Terezin warned him not to do it and cautioned him he was risking his life, Schaechter decided to take a chance that the Nazis there would not understand the language or the meaning. It was an extreme gamble, given that Latin was not an unknown language in Europe at the time, especially to people who were fans of classical music.
Q. Was Schaechter’s “stunt” ever discovered by the Nazis?
A. No, but he knew the risks. And ultimately the risks caught up with him in a more general sense. He lost his life at Auschwitz. For Schaechter and for his chorus who followed his leadership, getting away with the “Verdi Requiem” was a small victory. And at the time, small victories were treasured, considering the circumstances they lived in.
Q. You mentioned new revelations about Schaechter moving you to share his story now. What were they?
A. Well, they were that he was a prolific writer while at Terezin. I was shocked to learn how many major projects he composed and performed while there — more than 100, including versions of the “Bartered Bride” and “The Marriage of Figaro.”
Q. A constant and perhaps clichéd criticism of younger people — let’s say under 30, for the sake of discussion — is that history this serious never quite moves them as deeply as it should. What makes you think your new book on Schaechter’s “Verdi Requiem” will be received differently?
A. One of Edgar’s favorite adages is that music is a form of resistance. Performing the “Verdi Requiem” at Terezin is the ultimate resistance story. And I’ve always felt that young people respond well to “rebellion” themes, especially expressed through music. I mean I’ve always been attracted to that. I’m aging myself, but I grew up on punk rock. To this day, Johnny Rotten is my favorite musician. I’m a big Clash fan. Music with a conscience gets young people’s attention. And so Rafael’s story will hopefully appeal to them.