My sweet, little mom passed away last March. She was ninety-nine. Honestly, my heart found only peace and joy that she had finished her race and had fought the good fight. I had done my deeper mourning long ago, twenty years before as a matter of fact. It was during the years when she realized that she was heading into the twilight and eventual darkness of dementia. I felt her helpless fear in my own heart because for a time she knew she was slipping away and could do nothing about it. Over those years I watched this vital, spitfire of a woman lose all memory of the ones she loved so fiercely and dearly. Eventually she was to become a little child—quite literally. She would find herself dwelling in the land of childhood memories. I became for her at one moment her little sister Isabelle and at another moment she saw me as her ten-year-old best friend Maddie. She would lead me around by the hand and say, “Thank you so much for coming to my party.” There was the sweetest charm even in this aching sadness, for she had landed in a happy place. She had left me, but I got her back as a child. A child who loved parties.
My mother was a social butterfly. She would revel in holidays, birthday parties, teas. She was the best hostess I have ever encountered in my lifetime. That is why my heart was once again to feel the heaviness of grief in a new way. My sweet mom died the day before the COVID quarantine was put into place. There would be no one coming to the funeral home to visit other than a little knot of her children who lived in town. Her other children and grandchildren were not able to be there and were left to mourn in their own isolated way far off in other states and countries. This lovely woman, this woman who delighted in revelry, this utterly social woman was to pass from this world without the party. The irony puzzled and saddened me. Until I heard the music.
The funeral Mass was to be held in an old, gorgeous Gothic church down in the deep city where I live. My sister’s church, a church where she had rooted, a church she loved much. And there we were, the same knot of maybe twenty people all huddled in the front of this echoing cavern of arches hidden in a cloud of comforting incense, like the remnant of Israel. The kind priests were all clothed in beautiful vestments of black and gold, making sure everything was done with the highest of liturgical beauty, even for these very few people sitting before them.
They will always have my deepest gratitude, but it was to be six ordinary men who would give me back my joy that day. I saw them out of the corner of my eye. They were not allowed in the choir loft due to the restrictions on churches, but they had found a way to come and sing my tiny mom into the glory that is eternity. It was a high priority for them. They stood all six feet apart, with no organ, no instrument but their voices. And they sang the ancient chant of the Catholic Church in the words of the Requiem Mass. From the first note, my heart was filled with peace. Peace seeping through me in the healing chrism that is music. These six men knew, knew by experience, or by grace, or by a knowledge born of God that music is what was needed; and so they gave it, gave it with the exquisite charity of their hearts to my heart. My dear mom flew that day, as we all prayed enveloped in the beauty of music and the lyrical loveliness of Latin:
“In Paradisum, Deducant te Angeli:
In tuo adventu suscipiant te Martyres,
Et perducant te in civitatem santam Jerusalem….”
“May the angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs greet you at your arrival
and lead you into the holy City of Jerusalem…”
My mom was getting her party at last, the everlasting festival that is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Music is balm, music is magical, and liturgical music—saves. I am wholly and entirely convinced. It saved me from deep personal sorrow that day, but it was also to save an unlikely group of people who lived long before me in the city of Prague through another seemingly ordinary young man. A young man whose story was to amaze me and fill me with wonder. His name? Rafael Schächter.
Rafael was a musician, pianist, and conductor—and a Jew. When the Nazis marched into his city and banned all Jews from performing in public, he taught piano lessons in secret. He simply could not live without his music. Soon the Jews in his city would be rounded up and transported. Schächter was twenty-nine years old. Each Jew was allowed to carry only 110lbs of luggage with them. Rafael was to use most of his allotted weight for musical scores, dozens of them collected over the years. The tools of his trade, his art. Among his few shirts and pants were tucked Beethoven, Mozart, and a surprising choice for a young Jewish man: Verdi’s Requiem Mass.
The trains took Rafael and his fellow Jews only forty miles from Prague to the ancient fortress town of Terezin. And here in this half-square mile area of buildings designed to hold 6000, whose foundation was prophetically shaped in a six-point star, 60,000 inmates were crowded in despair and darkness. It was to be the “holding pen” for Czech Jews who would all eventually be sent east to the death camps. They only then had a vague understanding of this fate, but rumors of it hung like a noxious cloud over the whole camp. Yet, the Nazis had made a fatal error in judgment. In this camp were crowded along with the more pedestrian Jews, artists of all kinds: playwrights, composers, poets, painters, musicians, and professors. By some blessed fate they found themselves all in the same basket, so to speak. And in a glorious twist of irony, in a world where the Nazis had forbidden Jews to even gather, or play music together, or even venture out at night, these inmates found within the walls of their dark prison “a strange artistic freedom.” The Nazis allowed them this freedom because they knew eventually these artists were going to die, and it did not much matter; they simply assumed their spirits would be broken in the end. But this allowance created a fertile ground of the deepest hope that was never lost. Artists drew propaganda posters for the Nazis by day, but by night they drew a history of the atrocities that were committed there, to be revealed later in history. Composers wrote music, and plays were written and performed in the crowded barracks. As one surviving inmate was to say years later, “if people are robbed of outward freedom, they want to be creative within.” They “pushed through ceaseless hunger to feed a deeper artistic longing.” They found themselves defiantly “dancing under the gallows” with their art.
Rafael was one of the first to realize that music would work a magic in the hearts of these people like nothing else would. It was the night he found himself restlessly wandering in the basement of one of the barracks. There he found an ancient piano cast off into this unlikely storage space. It was to be the salvation of many souls. The whole town was filthy, crowded with too many people, a constant gnawing hunger, fear of being pulled out by the SS and tortured in the “factory” building. Hard labor all day long and nothing but despairing thoughts at night—basically each inmate found himself/herself sleepwalking in hell. Schächter was no different. He spent ten hours a day in grueling construction but at night he found himself drawn to this piano and began to play it. Since the Nazis allowed the camp to be run by Jewish guards, these guards allowed him to play. Eventually he convinced the camp cook, a young man named Edgar Krasa, to gather a few people in the basement and they started out singing Czech folk songs together. He told them to come again. Every night they sang and sang and soon they began to look forward to their nightly gatherings. They worked themselves to the bone all day, but they knew that singing was coming! One survivor put it this way: “Rafi made us realize this was food for our souls. I never felt my hunger when I was singing, because all the soul needed was music to make it strong.” Another survivor was to say, “This was not the world with the Nazis. This was our world…Singing made us strong. It was a resistance against our fate.”
Eventually, the incorrigibly joyous defiance of Rafi reached for a higher goal. He pulled out his single copy of Verdi’s Requiem Mass that he had brought in his luggage. And he told the group they were going to learn it and perform it for the other inmates. Consternation rippled through the camp. Jews, singing a Catholic Mass? Unheard of. But Rafi insisted that the beauty and words of this piece would seep into their souls and they would feel its medicine. They were to honor the music of Verdi. So, night after night he taught them to memorize the Latin words of the Requiem Mass and the music as well. Some had never heard of a Mass. Most had never spoken or read Latin. But he persevered and soon this Mass became a fight song. God would avenge them! Evil would be punished! The day of wrath was coming! And they would be free! These were good Jews. They were not Catholic, but this Requiem Mass stirred up in them the glory of the Living God and His saving power. The God who had delivered Moses in the desert—the God who would deliver them from their current slavery. It filled them with hope. Under the persistent direction of Rafi, they learned the whole Mass by rote—Latin and all.
In September 1943, the dreaded specter of “transports to the east” soon began to rustle through the camp. News spread that indeed they were going to be taken somewhere soon and perhaps in a week. So, Rafael Schächter plopped his piano decisively in the middle of the group of his 150 singers on a makeshift stage, and they performed the Requiem for the other inmates in “concert” in that ugly barracks. And magic happened. The whole room was filled with the singing of inmates comforting their fellow inmates. One surviving prisoner years later was to begin weeping at the thought and merely stammered out, “It was the very sound of hope”
A week later, Rafi lost half his chorus to the trains. He replaced them with others and was to perform the Requiem fifteen times before all was said and done. Finally, he too was to be sent off on the trains and the camp was emptied of all the artists the world would never know. Rafi was to defiantly survive three more camps before dying on a death march to another. Rafael Schächter would not give in to despair. He had packed his suitcase with the sheet music of hope. He saved the hearts of hundreds of fellow Jews because he would not let their souls die. He knew what they needed, and he gave it with a generous and exquisite love. He fed them with what he had. Music.
Years later, a conductor named Murray Sidlin decided to perform Verdi’s Requiem in the same spot that Rafi had performed it years before. Sidlin wanted to honor Rafi and all the Terezin prisoners. He said, “we have to tell the people of the unmarked graves that we’ve heard them. That we have heard their determination to remind everyone of man’s best”. Two of Edgar Krasa’s sons would sing in the chorus.
That Requiem Mass—sung in simple chant in an empty Church for my own sad heart—was the same as the glorious intricacy of Verdi’s masterpiece that saved the souls of the inmates of Terezin years before. Music is power, music is balm, and music saves. I cannot say it any better than Murray Sidlin when he quietly murmured with tears in his eyes:
“We all have an emotional powerhouse stored within us and we don’t necessarily have the language to get at the power of our feelings. When common language can no longer get even close to what it is we’re feeling—that’s when art begins”.
I can only say, Amen.
Denise Trull lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband Tony. She is the artistic director of a small but mighty theater company and loves the written word in all its forms.