Time Travel

By Schneck, Daniel J. | Strings, May/June 2000 | Go to article overview

Time Travel


Schneck, Daniel J., Strings


The Audubon Quartet digs into a dark past and gives voice to long-silenced artists

It all started on the way to the airport in Munich," says David Ehrlich, first violinist of the 25-year-old Audubon String Quartet, which is in residence at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia. Ehrlich is referring to the events that led up to the quartet's unique multimedia concert series, which brings the music, literature, and art of the Holocaust to today's audiences. Ehrlich and Akemi Takayama, violin, Doris Lederer, viola, and Clyde Shaw, cello, are no strangers to innovative programming. They routinely hold interdisciplinary seminars on campus, were the first American quartet to tour the People's Republic of China jin 1981), and regularly tour worldwide to present contemporary premieres as well as quartet standards. But the most recent addition to their performance repertoire touches on a most personal aspect of the history of the Second World War.

Ehrlich, himself a son of Holocaust survivors, continues, "We had just participated in a music festival in Germany. En route to the airport, our host asked if we would be interested in returning the following year [1995 to participate in a Teutonic Celebration of Degenerate Art, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. `Degenerate art' was a term used by the Nazis to describe any type of art not produced by someone of the Aryan race and hence, by definition, less than perfect. Although the intent of the festival was actually to acclaim the art rather than to denigrate it, we were hesitant to accept the invitation and agreed only to help the organizers of the celebration find musical compositions that were representative of the time period." As it turned out, they found that they had every reason to get involved.

In researching the subject they discovered that Lederer's father, Wolfgang Lederer, was one of the key musicians in the German concentration camp known as Theresienstadt, a "show camp" located in Terezin, 40 miles northwest of Prague, in what was then Czechoslovakia. Over the course of the war, an estimated 144,000 Jews (primarily from Bohemia, Moravia, and Prague) were deported to Theresienstadt-15,000 of them children. Only 16,832 remained alive there as of May 9, 1945 (and just 100 of those were children). What happened to the other 127,168? About a quarter died during their incarceration; the rest were deported to Auschwitz and other points east.

Wolfgang Lederer, one of the survivors, performed in the very first concert given there, barely a month after Theresienstadt's establishment in December 1941. This and other concerts were part of a propaganda program to convince the international community that the camp was a "humane mecca for Jewish prominents." Lederer, as it turns out, was a salient figure among the distinguished scholars, professors, scientists, jurists, diplomats, industrialists, composers, performers, artists, actors, and writers there. At one point, the camp had four orchestras, two or three string quartets, two jazz groups, a pianist (Lederer), chamber-music and opera performances, theatrical productions, lectures, a lending library housing 60,000 books, and even a music critic. But Theresienstadt was also an overcrowded, filthy ghetto, hardly the "oasis" portrayed in German propaganda. Tt was a vile stop on an ultimate journey to the death camp at Auschwitz.

Yet, barbaric as the camp was, music, art, theater, and literature thrived, giving spiritual sustenance to an otherwise dying community. The composers and writers imprisoned at Theresienstadt sent the world outside and their descendants a message: You can break my bones; you can destroy my body. But my soul is free, and my art is immortal!

After discovering that Theresienstadt was more closely entwined with their lives than they had realized, the Audubon members-now armed with renewed enthusiasm and personalized interestapplied for, and received, an award from Chamber Music America enabling them to develop and offer a program entitled "Songs and Lives: The Art of Spiritual Resistance. …

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