Tommy Mandl on music in Terezin

January 7, 2003

Tommy Mandl on music in Terezin

Daniel Terna, our son, graduated from the Middle School in June of 2001. Rebecca Shiffman, Daniel’s mother, is the daughter of survivors of the Shoah, I, Frederick Terna, Daniel’s father, am a survivor.

Most of the text that follows is a lecture by Tommy Mandl about Ghetto Theresienstadt, in Czech called Ghetto Terezin. Tommy and I were inmates in Terezin at about the same time. We did not know each other then. Late in 1944 we were both in the same transport from Terezin to Auschwitz, and eventually shipped from there to Kaufering, a cluster of sub-camps of Dachau. We shared the harrowing months preceding liberation together. I shall elaborate a little about the final weeks further down.

Tommy was born in 1926 in Brno, Principal City of Moravia, one of the regions of the Czech Republic. Very early in his life he decided to become a musician, and this became his field after the war. At this writing Tommy and his wife are living in Miami Beach.

I shall not try to describe Tommy’s life after liberation. It would be quite presumptuous to condense into a few lines his brave and daring exploits escaping Communist Czechoslovakia, effecting the successful escape of his wife to the West. While living under Communist rule in Czechoslovakia he, and his wife, a pianist became performing soloists. Tommy is the author of several books in Czech and in German. Their subject is the time of the Shoah, and also of life under Communism. Some of his work is fiction, some texts are historical observations, aspects of philosophy, and some are about music. Tommy acquired several degrees of higher learning in music.

As the war was coming to an end in 1945 both of us were in Kaufering No:4. (There were eleven Kaufering camps with different numbers). Both Tommy and I were in the same group, and slept in the same earth hut. At night we could hear the rumbling of artillery further north, and we knew that the Americans were but miles away. While we were still under SS guard the supply system was breaking down. Most of us inmates had been without food for a number of days. In the earth hut where we were housed some were dead, probably from starvation, disease or exhaustion. Suddenly, in the middle of a night we were driven out of the earth huts. I was so weak that I thought that I could not get up and walk. An SS-man put a pistol under my ribs, and I did manage to get up indeed. (That SS-man saved my life, though that was certainly not his intention.) Prisoners able to walk were driven out of the camp. Later we learned that the Nazis used flame-throwers to kill the many inmates still alive in the earth huts.

A section of the electrified barbed wire fence had been cut away, and we were driven to a rail siding where empty freight cars were waiting for us. It was in the middle of the night; searchlights from guard towers lighted the area. There was wild chaos, SS-men shouting to hurry up, there was shooting, and guard dogs were barking. I was quite scared that we would be machine-gunned inside the cars. I found a flat piece of iron, and Tommy and I managed to be some of the last ones to be pushed into the car. As the door was being slid shut I jammed the iron so that the door did not close all the way. While the guards were trying to push it shut the train was starting to move. It was still dark outside.

The train went but for a short while when American fighter planes attacked it. The train came nearly to a halt, and the planes kept shooting it up. There was still snow on the ground, it had been a hard winter, and these were the foothills of the Alps. I pushed Tommy out through the door opening, and jumped after him. The train was on an embankment. We landed in deep snow, and fell behind a big tree. The planes kept shooting; but the tree was protecting us. We were on the shadow side of the bullets. Other inmates who jumped from our car were hit, some fatally so.

Tommy and I both needed each other to get up from the ground. We then had to decide where to move. There were no SS guards within sight. It was very early in the morning. We had the choice of going west, and we knew that there was a forest, but we did not know how deep it was. We were afraid that we could freeze to death there. We knew that we needed shelter from the weather and, if possible, to find some food. Going east we would have to cross open fields, and, if lucky, find a haystack, perhaps even an open barn. However, there was also a highway to cross. Both of us were quite weak, and moving with difficulty through the snow across the open space.

I shall omit details of what followed. We were caught by German troops, including some SS, retreating towards the Alps, presumably for a final redoubt. Since we could not move at their pace they wanted to shoot us. They dropped us at the nearly abandoned camp of Kaufering No:1, where there were still some SS guards at the gate. Much later we learned that the inmates of that camp had been marched south, and that only a few had survived the death march. Before long the SS guards disappeared. Neither Tommy nor I remember how long we were in Kaufering No:1 before liberation by American troops on April 27, 1945. Both of us were near death.

In the preceding sixteenth set of Notes for the Shoah Archive I described how I was hospitalized after liberation in Bad Woerishofen. Tommy was brought in a short time later, and we were in the same room together for a good while. From there we were moved to Kempten in Swabia to join repatriation transports which would take us back to our former homes. Tommy went to Brno, and I went to Prague.

Trying to get in touch with Tommy was not possible. I did not have his address in Brno. It was a long time before even elementary search organizations were set up. In 1946 I ran away to Paris. After the 1948 Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia I stopped trying. Such a search from the west would endanger the person sought.

A few years ago my telephone rang in my studio in Brooklyn. In Czech a voice asked: “Is that you Bedo?”  Bedo is a diminutive of Bedrich, Czech for Frederick. “Yes, but who are you?” “Tommy.” “Tommy who?” “Tommy Mandl.” “Where are you talking from?” “Miami Beach.”

It was more than fifty years since we had talked to each other. We have made up for the lost time, talking over the phone, and visiting each other.

Tommy speaks from personal knowledge about music in Terezin, about its composers and their work there. I have his permission to include the text below as his contribution to the Heschel Shoah Archive.



Lecture by Thomas Mandl at the Florida International University

November 2001

The 20th century can be characterized by a number of new historical qualities. Among them two ideologies – National Socialism and Communism – exerted an enormous influence. They were new by claiming that their teaching was based on science – National Socialism maintained that the political aims were derived from biology – the expression “race” sounds like biology, the Communists claimed that their political aims were based on sociology – the expression “class” makes us think of sociology. This accounts for both the differences and the similarities of the two systems. One of the elements they shared was the verdict that the political opponent has no right to exist, and that the political enemy was incapable of producing cultural values because of his parasitical nature. Both systems used black lists. It is informative that black lists of both systems frequently contained the same names, e.g., Sigmund Freud, Arnold Schoenberg, and Rudolf Steiner.

With regard of culture in the sphere of National Socialism it should be noted that the Holocaust did not start with the functioning of the extermination camps, but with the takeover by the Nazis in 1933. From the very beginning Jewish artists and scientists were excluded from the realm of Culture. Typical of the initial phase are the following episodes. After the exclusion of Jewish scientists, the minister in charge, Rust, summoned the leading German mathematician David Hilbert, to ask him whether German theoretical physics had suffered. Hilbert’s answer: “Not in the least. It died instantly.” Dr. Josef Goebbels, the chief propagandist of the Nazis had a plan: German scientists were to write a book intended to damage the planetary fame of Albert Einstein. The title of the book – it was never written – “100 Scientists against Einstein”. When Einstein – he was at the time already in the USA – heard of the plan, he made a simple and convincing commentary: “Why 100 scientists? If my theories are wrong one is absolutely sufficient.” In those days, in the first years after the takeover, Jews could still passively take part in the cultural life. They could attend concerts, theatrical productions and lectures, they could listen to the radio, make music in their homes, listen to records.

All those things changed fundamentally within a few years. Laws, decrees, and ordinances excluded Jews from most professions, they lost their homes, their property, their musical instruments, turntables, radios, bicycles, electrical devices, furs, pullovers, jewelry, shares. They were not allowed to use the streets and roads after 8 PM, their food rations were drastically smaller than those of the non-Jewish population, social contacts between “Aryans” and “non-Aryans” were prohibited, i.e. punishable, Jewish children were not allowed to attend public schools: movie theaters, theaters, museums, parks, all cultural events were inaccessible to Jews. The mass media at all times produced anti-Jewish propaganda that was intensified from day to day. There existed even one periodical that contained nothing but anti-Jewish propaganda – “Der Stuermer”. I still remember one illustration: It was a photograph of Einstein shaving. The Text: “This is not an anthropoid ape – it’s Albert Einstein, the Jewish relativity swindler”.

While Jews were excluded from the cultural life their longing for culture was growing. In the first years it was still possible to organize private concerts, recitals, lectures and courses in private homes. There still exist notes: so it is possible to establish the extent of the events. Here we find the names of outstanding musicians, such as Victor Ullman, Hans Krasa, Pavel Haas, to name a few composers. For a number of reasons this was getting increasingly difficult. Jewish families were “resettled” – the rule was that a whole family was put into a single room. In an apartment consisting of three rooms, where originally three to four people lived, now twelve to fifteen persons were housed who had to share the use of a single kitchen, and one bathroom. Musical instruments radios and gramophones were confiscated. All Jews became paupers. Their accounts were frozen, their property confiscated. Jews were – at best – allowed to do menial work. My parents and I were deported to Theresienstadt in March 1942. My luggage consisted chiefly of books: School textbooks, a history of philosophy, a textbook on harmony, one on counterpoint and musical forms. I wanted to become a concert violinist.

Theresienstadt is a very complex, yet instructive example of the role culture played during the Holocaust. Culture in this context was a controversial phenomenon. It started as an act of defiance and resistance, and never lost this function. In 1943 the leading forces of State Security (RSHA) started utilizing culture as a means of propaganda. Thus the prisoners had to face the problem: Should we support cultural activities? In addition, if so, how should we select the programs? From the Nazi angle two events were of decisive character. The visit of Theresienstadt by a group delegated by the International Red Cross, (based in Switzerland), and the production of a propaganda movie known under the title “Der Fuehrer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt” – “The Fuehrer donates a city to the Jews”.

But back to the spring of 1942. When I arrived there, I was overwhelmed by two facts that seemed to be of contradictory nature: on one hand the terrifying physical conditions, and on the incredibly rich cultural program. The physical conditions were not our only problem: psychologically devastating were – at least until 1942 – the never ending victories of the German forces and the never ending fear of being put into one of the transports which left Theresienstadt. We did not know the destination of the transports, but the mere word “transport” was to us identical with destruction. Was it possible to develop an interest in culture under these conditions? Would it not have been natural to think of nothing else than one’s survival?

The answer is: the worse, the more humiliating the conditions are, the more imperative the longing for cultural values becomes. This only looks like a paradox. Man has physical needs, but his spiritual needs are as intense. Freud’s notion of compensatory mechanism was impressively verified in Theresienstadt. The prisoners’ most painful experience was hunger – as a permanent state of mind. People who have the good fortune of living in a civilized country are not familiar with this kind of hunger. But being hungry is not the situation of a person looking forward to a nice meal. Life threatening hunger is a never-ending torture, which suppresses all other contents of the human mind. This life threatening hunger may be compared with a deadly mental disease. But if you listen to J.S.Bach’s Chaconne in d-minor for violin solo, you have overcome hunger – while the music lasts. This is only one reason of the need of culture, which grows while the physical, conditions get worse and worse.

In terms of culture Theresienstadt was incredibly rich. In the years 1943 – 1944, when the number of prisoners was around 65,000, the place would have been able to compete with a city the size of Prague, or Boston. Culture of a magnificent variety was offered to the prisoners – from unassuming geography lessons up to very demanding courses of higher math, medical problems, philosophy, psychology. There was even a series of lectures on the psychology of music, e.g. “Symbolism in music”, or “The manifestations of the unconscious in the opera”. One of the triumphs was a lecture with the title “Psychological effects of being a prisoner in Theresienstadt” The lecturer was Prof. Dr. Utitz, the internationally known founder of Characterology. The Victim’s ability to precisely describe the effects of the conditions he was exposed to, was one of the many victories of the spirit over the mind … There was theater, opera, operetta, cabaret. A significant role played the fine arts. Most of the painters and draftsmen worked at the so-called “”Technical department” where they produced illustrations of the statistical data submitted to the SS-headquarters. These artists illegally produced pictures depicting everyday-life in Theresienstadt. Contacts between the prisoners and the outside world were strictly prohibited, but these artists had connections capable not only of smuggling the pictures out of Theresienstadt, but even abroad. This action was uncovered by the SS, the artists were murdered.

The field of music was of amazing variety. The prisoners had the choice of unassuming songs up to the most refined chamber music and recitals. There was even a “Studio of modern music’, the head of which was Victor Alumna. The prisoners were willing to make greater sacrifices for music than for other manifestations of culture. Today I think that I know the reason: According to the philosopher Schopenhauer, the music is everything the other arts are trying to achieve: the depiction of the whole reality, using material of one kind only – sound. And according to Rudolf Steiner music is the complete representation of the human mind, consisting of thinking, emotion, and willpower. Music consists of the elements melody, harmony and rhythm. Rhythm is the counterpart of will power, harmony of the emotions, melody of the cognitive abilities, – thinking.

In Theresienstadt there was a great number of amateurs, but also of professional musicians – instrumentalists and singers. There were two orchestras in Theresienstadt – the symphonic string orchestra, conducted by Karl Ancerl who became head of the Czech Philharmonic of Prague after the war, and the coffeehouse orchestra, conducted by Carlo Taube, a concert pianist who had studied with Feruccio Busoni. And there was the outstanding jazz-ensemble – the “Ghetto Swingers” who played chiefly American music. Sometimes caution had to be used. The medley from “Snow White”, music by Frank Churchill, appeared as “composed by Walt Disney”. The name “Churchill” could have irritated the SS-headquarters.

There was a good natured “Cold War” going on between the jazz musicians and the specialists of classical music. A typical dialogue: “You longhairs are too stupid to improvise. Even the cadenzas of your concertos are fully composed pieces where nothing is ever changed”. The Answer: “You are absolutely right. That’s because the harmonic and rhythmical structures of jazz music are so primitive that every halfwit can improvise. Just try it with the music of Brahms”. The jazz musicians of Theresienstadt were fanatics in the best sense of the word. A “normal” prisoner would ask a member of a new transport that had arrived in Theresienstadt: “What do you think? How long do we have to wait for the end of the war?” A jazz musician would ask: “How do the American groups use vibrato these days?”

Basically, any cultural achievement was an act of resistance, as it refuted the tyrant’s claim that Jews, being parasitical subhumans, are incapable of producing anything of cultural values. But there were cultural programs that opposed the oppressor quite openly. The most straightforward was the language of the cabaret. I would like to mention just one name: Kurt Gerron, a famous actor who played in approximately 70 German movies with people like Marlene Dietrich. Right now an American company is producing a documentary about him. But other forms of art were very clear in their choice of expressions too, e.g. the “Old Bohemian play Esther”, telling the story of Haman, the Jew-hater who is beaten and deprived of power by Esther. In the Theresienstadt production “historically” looking costumes were used. Only Haman appears in the typical Gestapo-look, wearing a modern leather coat. Among the productions which were easy to decipher should be mentioned the dramatization of the “Ballads of Francois Villon”, for which Victor Ullmann wrote the music. The “Buccaneer’s Song” was chemically pure rebellion – in a court of law the buccaneer accuses the leaders of the country of piracy. The song is highly expressive, its main ingredients being defiance, melancholy and well placed vulgarisms. In conversation, the director of the dramatization, Irena Dodalova, made her intention very clear: “Should anybody ask us after the war what we have done against Nazism, ‘we can say we performed the ballads’.”

In Theresienstadt not only the great performances could be heard, new works were there performed too. Among the prisoners there were outstanding composers whose works are now, more than a half century later, being performed in Europe, America, and Asia. To name just a few: Hans Krasa whose opera for children “Brundibar” was composed before the composer’s deportation, but had its premiere in Theresienstadt, Gideon Klein whose Sonata for piano is played in international piano-competitions, Pavel Haas whose opera “The Charlatan” is being performed in Germany, and finally Victor Ullmann whose opera “The Emperor of Atlantis” was completely written in Theresienstadt, from the first note to the last. There were rehearsals but the opera never was performed there. Up to the present day it is impossible to find our why – the SS-Headquarters could have forbidden the performance, or the so-called “Jewish Self-Administration” might have cancelled it. I am unable to prove it but I think that it was the “Self-Administration’s” decision, because the first impression is, that the “Kaiser” describes Nazi Germany, especially because of the slogans which anticipated some of the propaganda phrases used by the Nazis, e.g. “The total war”. In Theresienstadt the cultural programs were much freer than outside the camp. All the blacklisted works were freely performed because the SS were chiefly interested in the title of a program, not the contents. A series of lecture with the title “Jews in German literature” could be held only, only the title had to be changed into “Jews in the literature written in German” – a Jew could not contribute to German literature. The text did not have to be changed. But “The Emperor” probably posed too great a thread. The “Emperor” challenges all kinds of tyranny – so, naturally, Nazism is included. The fact that this opera is being performed today, more than half a century after the composed Victor Ullmann and the author of the libretto, Peter Kien, had been murdered, is a triumph of man’s free spirit over tyranny.

Herbert Th. Mandl

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