Remembering Behind the Silence

Of the countless symphony concerts I have attended in my lifetime, most have faded from memory. Behind the Silence, performed March 15 at the DuPont Chapel on the Hollins University campus, is one I will never forget. Sponsored in part by the Roanoke Jewish Foundation, this Holocaust Remembrance was directed by Maestro David Stewart Wiley, narrated by Judith Cline, the featured vocal soloist and chair of the Hollins music department; ten virtuosi of the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra completed the ensemble.

Originally produced by the Long Island Symphony under the baton of Maestro Wiley, it features music from the concerts performed in Nazi concentration camps. Of the millions of Jews imprisoned there were many talented musicians. Some had disassembled their instruments, smuggling them in to their encampments, and then putting them back together. They often played secretly, but soon their captors realized the talent could be used for evening entertainment of the officers and even the guards. Additionally, the musicians were made to play for their fellow prisoners as they marched to and from their daily work assignments. Photographs of the orchestra as well as healthy looking children were taken and then shown to inspectors from the Red Cross and to the German public to demonstrate how well the Jewish prisoners were being treated.

Most concentration camps had similar orchestras; Auschwitz had six. The camp at Terezin-Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia was the showcase of Nazi deception. Hitler even constructed an idyllic German village in Terezin to demonstrate the how well the Jews were living. Not until the liberation of the camps in the spring of 1945 did the horrible truth come to light.

What made this concert so poignant, to the point of tears, was its multimedia presentation. Behind the narration and the music a series of slides showed the artwork of the children of Theresienstadt. The selections played were all used by the prison symphonies and, in some cases, composed by the prisoners themselves. Most notable were two works by Viktor Ullman. His final opera, “The Tale of Love and Death of Coronet Christoph Rilke: A Day Among the Army Train,” was a brooding, dark piece which cast Hitler in an unflattering light. Two days after the performance at Theresienstadt Ullman was transported to Auschwitz where he was executed in the gas chambers; he was 46.

During this somber music were projected pictures drawn by prisoner children, many less than 10 years old. The month of their deaths were inscribed under the drawings. Some were quite simple; some were detailed, and all showed scenes of the camp and the harshness of their soon-to-be ended lives. Poems written by prisoners were also shown. “The Last Butterfly” caught the blackness of that terrible time and place.

The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing
against a white stone….. . . That butterfly was the last one.

Butterflies don’t live here, in the ghetto.


Pavel Friedman, June 4, 1942


Born in Prague on Jan. 7, 1921.
Deported to the Terezin Concentration Camp on April 26, 1942.
Died in Auschwitz on Sept. 29, 1944.

After the music was performed and the pictures projected, Jay M. Ipson, a childhood survivor of Theresienstadt and founder of the Virginia Holocaust Museum, spoke movingly of his personal experience. His remarks fit perfectly with the message of the unforgettable concert: We must never stand by and let such unspeakable injustice live unchallenged.

Hayden Hollingsworth
575 words
March 17, 2015