‘Eternal Hope’ festival celebrates legacy of Czech-born composers at Nazis’ ‘model camp’ in Terezín


A unique festival dedicated to Gustav Mahler and later Jewish composers interned by Nazi Germany in a north Bohemian ghetto gets underway this Sunday. Organised by the Eternal Hope foundation and the Terezín Composers’ Institute, the aim is to celebrate the work of brilliant composers whose lives were cut tragically short.

In forcing tens of thousands of European Jews into the notorious Terezín ghetto and “show camp” north of Prague, the Nazis inadvertently brought together some of the continent’s most gifted musicians. To convince the International Red Cross that the Jewish captives were being treated well, the Third Reich allowed them to enjoy a cultural life, albeit under the most inhospitable conditions.

Miraculously, much of the work written or composed in the Terezín ghetto has survived, but remains underappreciated, says musicologist Lubomír Spurný, who heads the Terezín Composers’ Institute, noting that the festival programme is both intentionally and inherently eclectic.

“It’s something of a mosaic of different genres and styles. Even the composers who were interned in Terezín had no common artistic starting point, no common style. This was mirrored in the cultural life in Terezín.”

The week-long festival ‘Eternal Hope: Gustav Mahler & Terezín Composers’ showcases pieces by Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Hans Krása and Pavel Haas – all of whom were born in what is today the Czech Republic, and all of whom died in Nazi extermination camps.

Gustav Mahler,  photo: Public Domain
Among the groups performing the works of Terezín composers are the string trio Virtuosi Brunenses, pianist Ivo Kahánek, the Bennewitz Quartet and the ensemble Martinů Voices. Apart from classical music, cabaret is also on the programme.

Why cabaret? Lubomír Spurný again:

“On our team is former National Theatre in Brno artistic director and celebrated ballet choreographer Zdeněk Prokeš. His parents were interned in Terezín, and his father wrote a play there. I’m curious how it will be received – cabaret is a genre reacting to contemporary events.”

And why Gustav Mahler? The composer, a Bohemian Jew who flourished in fin de siècle Vienna, embodies the pre-war ethos of a shared creative community of ethnic Czech, German and Jewish artists. But the Terezín Composers’ Institute is not just looking to preserve the musical culture of the Jewish ghetto and concentration camp, says Lubomír Spurný.

For a full listing of concerts, in both Terezín and Prague, see www.vecnanadeje.org/festival-2019-en

“Today, mainly socially disadvantaged people live in Terezín. We want to set up a music school for children there with teachers offering lessons in piano, flute, guitar and choir singing. We want to finance these teachers and have already bought instruments. So, we’re trying to keep the music alive there.”

Within two years, he says, the sponsors would like to see those students perform Brundibár, an opera written in Terezin by Hans Krása and staged 55 times by the children also imprisoned there.