Documentary shows how Jews defied Nazis through arts, culture |

Documentary shows how Jews defied Nazis through arts, culture

Program begins at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Belly Up Aspen. Tickets can be purchased at Belly Up box office or by calling 970-544-9800

During the Holocaust, it was almost impossible for Jews to maintain their human identities. The Nazis stripped them of all of their belongings, forced them into manual labor camps, officially declared them as inferior under the Nuremberg Race Laws, and executed them by the millions.

“Defiant Requiem” is a film that tells the story of how Rafael Schächter defied the Nazi Party through culture and art by conducting Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem through a chorus of 150 Jews in Terezín, a concentration camp in Czech Republic.

“Defiant Requiem” will play at Belly Up Aspen on Thursday evening accompanied by Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat speaking about the film and the global reemergence of anti-Semitism. Eizenstat has served in multiple senior leadership positions including chief domestic policy adviser in the Carter administration, under secretary of state, deputy secretary of the treasury, and U.S. ambassador to the European Union in the Clinton administration.

“It is not a skin and bones documentary, it’s a sad but uplifting movie focused on how arts and culture can lift people up and allow them to resist the Nazi cruelty,” Eizenstat said. “I think people will find the documentary among the most moving things they’ve ever seen. I think people will get a very transformative, moving experience from the film.”

Eizenstat is largely responsible for the funding and creation of “Defiant Requiem.” In 1968, Eizenstat was working as the head of research for presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey. While working, he discovered information about how the Roosevelt administration failed to act and aid those affected by Nazi Germany during World War II.

“If I ever have a chance to rectify this wrong in public service, then I will take the opportunity and make a difference,” Eizenstat said.

In 1993, Eizenstat was a U.S. ambassador to the European Union and took on the task of property restitution throughout Europe in the aftermath of Nazism and communism. After multiple grueling legal processes, Eizenstat successfully negotiated settlements that totaled more than $8 billion from Switzerland, Germany, Austria, France and other European countries to repay Holocaust victims for their unpaid labor, among other reasons.

In June 2009, Eizenstat was appointed by Secretary of State Clinton to head the U.S. delegation to negotiate the Terezín Declaration in the Czech Republic. The arrangement was designed to encourage countries to return looted property from World War II.

“My wife Fran and I went to the closing ceremony and were so overwhelmed by what we saw that we ended up becoming deeply engaged,” Eizenstat said. “We then helped create the Defiant Requiem Foundation to promote what we saw and develop a manifold set of programs to support it.”

What they saw was Murry Sidlin conducting a 150-person chorus performing Verdi’s Requiem. Sidlin is responsible for uncovering Schächter’s story of how he conducted 16 different performances of Verdi’s Requiem in Terezín. What made it even more difficult was Schächter having to teach the single vocal score by memorization to two different groups of 150 Jews because they being were sent to their death following performances. Now Sidlin works as president of the Defiant Requiem Foundation and travels the world conducting Verdi’s Requiem.

On June 23, 1944, the Nazi SS elite corps brought in the International Red Cross to present Terezín to assure the international community that the rumors about Nazi death camps were false. Terezín was redecorated with candy stores, clothing outlets, a couple swing sets, and Schächter’s chorus performing Verdi’s Requiem. Once the Red Cross departed the camp, the choir singers were sent for execution at Auschwitz. Of the vast majority of Czech Jews who were taken to Terezín, 97,297 died among whom were 15,000 children.

“It is a previously undocumented story and it’s incredible,” Eizenstat said. “It tells story of Jewish heroism and a broader story how culture and arts can lift people out of their circumstances and give them hope for the future.”

“Defiant Requiem” was the No. 1 documentary film for 2012 by the Big Apple Film Festival. The film includes interviews of those who performed in Schächter’s chorus and survived the war. The singers retell how performing Verdi’s Requiem was their only way of defying the Nazis and maintaining their humanity.

Scott Schlafer is an editorial intern working for The Aspen Times through July.

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