I daresay humankind has asked this question, “Where was God?” trillions of times over the centuries when it comes to facing and dealing with tragedy, illness, death, wars, and chaos. I recently heard a quote which somewhat settled an enigma for me about God’s ways and our ways. I heard the quote recently at a concert I attended entitled “Hours of Freedom, The Story of the Terezin Composers.”
The composers consisted of 15 musically gifted Jewish prisoners trapped in the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in the now Czech Republic. The composer’s and musician’s destinies would have been fame and notoriety if they had lived after World War II. Most of them were in their 20s and 30s before they were shipped off to their deaths at Auschwitz.
The Terezin story skillfully interwove narrative, film, soloists, photographs, and the Hours of Freedom Chamber Players. Not only was the presentation of their “Nine Chapters” of music and narrative moving, I was struck by the composers’ will to live; and not just to survive but choosing to rely on the arts, humanities, and retention of life-giving activity to escape the raw realities of their lives under the Nazi Regime.
The “Hours of Freedom” referred to their times of composing and writing on tiny pieces of foraged scrap paper and then playing their instruments after horrific 15-hour workdays and scant food. The “Nine Chapters” included titles like “The Broken Heart,” “Longing,” and “The Eyewitness.” Some of the music was agonizingly mournful yet brilliant in composition. I especially noticed a fascinating interplay of cello and violin notes which portrayed a dissonance, an inharmoniousness, which remarkably expressed the paradox of pain and pleasure amid horror. Surprisingly, some of the compositions were upbeat as if to recall better times and future hopes.
The Hours of Freedom concerts are a modern reality now due to Maestro Murry Sidlin, a famous conductor and President of The Defiant Requiem Foundation which promotes the concerts worldwide. It’s his quote which I found so compelling. Atlanta’s Ahavath Achim (AA) Synagogue hosted the event and Stuart Eizenstat, former Ambassador to the EU and lifelong AA member introduced his friend shown here.
In his glowing remarks, Eizenstat noted that over the years Murry was asked “Where was God when the Holocaust happened?”
Murry’s reply: “‘Where was God? Instead the real question is, “‘Where was man, who had free will?’”
When Mr. Eizenstat-also the Board Chair for The Defiant Requiem Foundation-referenced Maestro Sidlin’s quote, I co-opted it right then and there. I consider it one of the best, most succinct answers I’ve ever heard for the age-old question about life’s tragedies.
To punctuate the horror and deceit of Terezin, the program included two Nazi propaganda films produced at Terezin in 1944. The Nazis designed the films to fool the world about the so-called “humane” treatment of Jewish prisoners. One of the films at the concert showed a hundred imprisoned Jewish children singing. A dreadful thought ran through my mind; It’s as if the children were singing at their own funeral. Later, all of them were among the million and a half children murdered during the Holocaust. I felt as if I was walking again, after many previous times, through the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem listening to their names in a darkness only lit by dim candles reflecting into thousands of lights. This photo shows candles placed at a Theresienstadt memorial event to honor the victims.
Shedding more history on the propaganda films, an archive entitled “Terezin Diary,” gives more detail: “Terezin was the so-called model camp established by the Nazis in 1941 at Terezin (Theresienstadt),an old fortress town near Prague. A 1944 Nazi propaganda film, “The Fuhrer Gives a Town to the Jews,” presented the camp as an idyllic setting where children, their parents and old people could live, work and play far from the cares of a world at war. About the same time, a Red Cross team inspected the camp and gave its approval.” Beyond comprehension and description.
The other Nazi propaganda film depicted the Hours of Freedom Chamber Players performing a concert at Terezin complete with its prison camp population applauding and trying to look content. They were somewhat well dressed, I’m sure only for the film. At the concert here in Atlanta, the 15 Chamber Players on stage played WITH the 15 Terezin musicians while the film was shown. It was a jarring and sobering moment when the 30 musicians played together 75 years later. It was also a moment of remembrance showing honor for the Terezin musicians; their human dignity, courage, and hope for the future. A hope unfulfilled and violently extinguished.
Where was God?
My real question is, “Where will I, and other pro-Israel Christians, stand against the malignant cancer of worldwide antisemitism on behalf of Israel and the Jewish community everywhere. Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, hung at Flossenburg for his valiant efforts to save the Jewish people,summarizes it best: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”