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Of Ethics and Empathy: Music as Memory and Survival

On May 14, 2015, Humanity in Action will collaborate with several artists and leading public figures to present a major concert at Carnegie Hall commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Theriesenstadt concentration camp. Renowned violinist and composer Ittai Shapira will premiere his latest piece, The Ethics, which channels the memory of the Jewish prisoners of the camp through music. Other featured speakers include Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel, photographer Judy Glickman Lauder and Humanity in Action Executive Director Judith Goldstein. Natasha Zaretsky, an anthropologist who writes about the politics of memory in the Jewish diaspora and the Americas, wrote this essay, "Of Ethics and Empathy: Music as Memory and Survival," about the inspiration for the commemorative concert. 

Seventy years ago, Eva Sachs was liberated from the concentration camp Theresienstadt, also known as Terezín. One hundred fifty-five thousand Jews had passed through this transit camp; 35,000 died there, and over 80,000 were deported to their deaths in other camps. Eva was 17years old when she and her family were transported from their home in Prague to Theresienstadt in 1941. But Eva’s world began to change years before she crossed its threshold. As she describes in her (unpublished) memoir, Letters…: Echoes of My Youth in Terezín, the new laws of the 1930s forced her to wear a yellow star and experience other forms of discrimination. These laws shifted the place of Jews in the European world, deepening the dangerous boundaries between Jews and non-Jews.

It is in such an imagination of difference that the Holocaust began. For genocide, as we know, does not begin with the act of killing, but with looking at another human being as not fully human. This imagination of difference may at first appear in laws and institutionalized forms of discrimination, but often turns into violence, including physical segregation into ghettoes, detention, torture, and killing—a pattern the world witnessed in the Holocaust and the many other genocides of the 20th and 21st centuries, when one group tried to destroy another which it saw as radically, fundamentally “other.”

Brundibár: Music in Theresienstadt

But what happens to the imagination of those defined as such “others”? In concentration camps and during moments of extreme suffering, do they lose their humanity? At Theresienstadt, tens of thousands of Jews died from malnutrition and disease, and thousands more were executed in an area called the Small Fortress. Yet this camp was also a space for art. Although philosopher Theodor Adorno famously questioned the possibility of poetry after Auschwitz, we see poetry, drawings, musical performances and other forms of cultural expression emerging within the walls of the camp, with those “others” chronicling their experiences and expressing themselves at this time of extreme suffering.

One such performance was Brundibár, a children’s opera composed in 1938 by Hans Krása, a Czech Jew (killed in Auschwitz in 1944). The children’s choir in Theresienstadt performed this opera 55 times. Reminiscent of children’s fairy tales, it tells the story of a boy and girl who do not have a father and are trying to raise money for their mother by singing in the marketplace. The organ grinder, named Brundibár, chases them away, but they prevail with the assistance of animals and other children.

In their recollections, Theresienstadt survivors who performed Brundibár describe the music’s importance in connecting them to their humanity, offering them an escape from the realities of the camp and a link to life outside the walls. In a 2007 interview with 60 Minutes, Ela Weissberger, who played the cat in Brundibár, talks about what these performances meant to her: “This was the only time that they said we don’t have to put on the Jewish star. A couple of minutes of freedom.” Being onstage thus allowed the performers to escape imaginatively to a different reality, with the music also becoming an expression of defiance. The mustachioed villain was widely understood to represent Hitler. The music also contains messages that can be interpreted as instances of resistance, including language about justice in some versions and a final victory song that survivors remember as emblematic of their desire for liberation.

Yet, despite the powerful moments of escape Brundibár may have represented for the performers, it also became a tool in the Nazis’ propaganda, used to convince outside observers that all was well in the camp. They included this performance in staging Theresienstadt as a “model city” for visitors from the International Red Cross in 1944. This staged city included a coffee shop and a kindergarten; the Nazis even deported 7,000 Jews to Auschwitz to make the space appear less crowded. Although the image the outside observers took away from their visit was far from the reality of the camp, the Nazis made clear that the perception of the world outside the borders of the camps was critical to their genocidal vision.

Ittai Shapira: Reflecting on Identity, Empathy, and Ethics

As we know, genocide did not end with the liberation of Theresienstadt, and today we are, in some ways, outside observers again. What can we do, seventy years after the end of the Holocaust, to resist the intolerance and radical hatred at the heart of genocide?

After Judith S. Goldstein of Humanity in Action approached Israeli violinist Ittai Shapira to perform a concert commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Theresienstadt, he began by learning more about the music at the camp and the lives of the children and to watch footage of Brundibár. He then turned to the letters in Eva Sachs’ (unpublished) memoir, provided to him by George Wolf, and met with survivor Ela Weissberger.

These experiences triggered a persistent musical fragment for Shapira—what he describes as a “musical cell”—that then inspired him to compose The Ethics, which premieres tonight. What struck him was how “culture, and most notably music, gave the inmates the will to live.” This connected to the ideas of philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whose notion of “conatus” describes an organism’s internal drive to move forward under any circumstances. Shapira understood music as playing that role for the Brundibár children.

Drawing on the three main portions of Eva Sachs’s letters, The Ethics is comprised of three main movements: (I) “The Fortress,” portraying daily life in the camp; (II) “A Waltz with Fate (The Arrival of the Train to Auschwitz),” examining the panic people experienced when the list was called for deportation to Auschwitz; and (III) “Defiance—Liberation,” which explores the final moment of liberation by the Soviet Army, exhilarating and daunting for the 123 children who survived.

In assigning particular roles to each instrument, Shapira drew inspiration from the children in the camp, including their poems. The Choir represents the Brundibár children looking back on their experience from today’s vantage point. The piano represents the Jewish police, playing the role of double agent, supporting the choir in a rhythmic manner and then breaking into improvisation-like solos with the violin and the percussion. The percussion represents the harsh reality and surreal, ghostly moments between life and death, so routine at the camp. The violin represents a new generation learning about, and empathizing with, the children at the camp.

The Ethics seeks to capture the incredible diversity of musical culture that thrived at the camp, including classical, folk, gypsy, cabaret, jazz and, of course, Brundibár. The musical fragment (“cell” or motif) that first arose for Shapira when beginning this composition can be heard in one form or another throughout the piece. Resembling a Czech mountain song, it also contains hidden Jewish prayers, thus representing Czech and Jewish identity. A connecting thread, it evolves to capture musical styles from various nationalities and cultures. It thus symbolizes how “each [style] is slightly different than the other, but they all stem from the same basic musical motif or cell.” Despite our differences, we can find points of connection—of identity and empathy—in the face of the violence that exists between nations and religious and ethnic groups today.

The continued need for such empathy inspired the title of The Ethics. The beginning of the piece draws on Spinoza, who wrote: “If you want the present to be different from the past, then study the past.” Building on that past, Ittai Shapira hopes this music, inspired by the music and experience of Theresienstadt, can become a vehicle for educating Jews and non-Jews alike.  Just as the music of Brundibár provided a space of hope and survival in the camp, today’s music can renew our commitment to remember and build new points of connection and empathy across borders of difference.

Music as Memory and Survival

While music was important to the survival of humanity in the camps, it can also continue to sustain humanity today. In my work as an anthropologist, I study how communities make sense of the world in the aftermath of political violence. I have witnessed how the Jewish community in Buenos Aires (the largest in Latin America), many of whose members were Holocaust survivors, responded to two terrorist attacks in the 1990s, destroying the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the AMIA (Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Society) in 1994.

The AMIA bombing killed 85 people and wounded hundreds, destroying the main Jewish community center in Argentina. It also prompted a crisis of belonging for Jews, questioning their place in the nation, especially during the many years of impunity that followed. In response, protest movements formed, turning to memory as a way to demand justice. Yet, Jewish Argentines also turned to the arts in their response, including music.

The Coro Guebirtig (the Gebirtig Choir) formed in 1995, named for the Polish Jewish poet Mordechai Gebirtig, who died in the Krakow ghetto in 1942. Inspired by the work of Gebirtig and other Yiddish poets and composers, this choir turned to Yiddish and Holocaust memory as a response to contemporary violence. Eventually growing to over 150 members, as part of their work, they would also perform Yiddish songs in public spaces, challenging the borders of difference between Jews and non-Jews in Argentina. Their music thus became an act of survival, necessary for rebuilding a new cultural and political space of belonging threatened by violence. In this way, through memory, music became an important vehicle for social change, promoting a more plural, inclusive public sphere.

Empathy and Humanity

Memory can certainly be an essential tool in preventing hatred and inspiring tolerance. Yet, in contemplating our responsibility to the past, is remembering enough? The Holocaust, like any genocide, was rooted in hatred: one group imagining another as radically different. Although Theresienstadt was liberated in 1945, the racism and xenophobia at the heart of the Holocaust continues to plague the world in Rwanda, Cambodia, Argentina, Guatemala, the former Yugoslavia, Darfur and countless other places. Genocide has continued. Political violence and hatred continue. 


Though imagining a radical “other” is at the heart of such violence, imagination can also be the fertile ground upon which we connect and identify across difference. Just as genocide begins with how one group sees another, so can the response to hatred, where we look at another group and find points of connection rather than difference.  

Seventy years after the liberation of Theresienstadt, the persistence of intolerance makes such empathy increasingly vital. We must not allow ourselves to become passive bystanders. We must actively engage the past and find moments of understanding with “others” in the present. The importance of such efforts can be seen in the work of Humanity in Action, promoting the need for understanding and encouraging diversity in new generations, in Judy Glickman Lauder’s powerful photography, and in the valuable and insightful remembrances of Dr. Eric Kandel. It is also evident in Daniel Libeskind’s museums and memorials, dynamic contributions to public space and memory. Music can also be such a vehicle for tolerance. Tonight, even as we sit here separated from that experience by time and space, through Ittai Shapira’s music, we can reflect on Theresienstadt and consider its continued significance for helping to build the empathy so vital to humanity today.


© 2015 Natasha Zaretsky; reproduced with author's permission.


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About the Author

Natasha Zaretsky, Ph.D., is an anthropologist who writes about the politics of memory in the Jewish diaspora and the Americas, exploring the significance of cultural practices developed in response to violence, including music, testimony, social protest, and commemoration.  Currently a Visiting Scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights, her forthcoming book, Landscapes of Memory and Impunity (co-ed. with A.H. Levine; Brill 2015) examines Jewish life in Argentina in the wake of the 1994 AMIA Bombing. Dr. Zaretsky prepared these reflections as Program Editor and Advisor for the World Premiere of Ittai Shapira’s “The Ethics” at Carnegie Hall on May 14, 2015, an event dedicated to Humanity in Action that commemorates the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Theresienstadt.

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