Emotional Tour de Force
Saturday, September 27, 2008
The setting was a former Nazi concentration camp in France, complete with barbed wire and crematorium. In the audience front row, survivors of the World War II horror watched and listened in profound appreciation as 200 singers and musicians from Minnesota delivered a blend of haunting and hopeful music and lyrics, backed by images of Jewish children who did not survive. When it was finished, there was silence. Then tears.
Students and faculty from St. Cloud State made up the majority of the performers and organizers involved in the European premier of the Holocaust oratorio, “To Be Certain of the Dawn.” They were joined by 40 children in the Cloud State Cantabile Girls Choir, as well as students and faculty from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University.
The group premiered “To Be Certain of the Dawn” at St. Cloud State and Saint John’s University in April, and while on tour performed several concerts in Germany, Switzerland and France. But it was the performance at Natzweiler-Struthof that left the indelible mark on their hearts.
The oratorio, by Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus and librettist Michael Dennis Browne, was premiered in 2005 by the Rev. Michael J. O’Connell of the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis to celebrate two important events – the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the death camps at the end of World War II and the 40th anniversary of the Vatican II document that condemned blaming Jews for the death of Christ. Rooted in themes and subjects of mutual interest to the Jewish and Christian faith communities, the oratorio pays tribute to those who lost their lives in the Holocaust and honors survivors and their descendants.
Throughout the tour, the St. Cloud Times chronicled the events with unprecedented coverage. Some of the hundreds of photos taken by Times photographer Dave Schwarz are shared on these pages. For those involved in the extraordinary death camp concert in France, emotions remain raw. Tears still flow easily. But they know that the story and the message they helped convey so beautifully never will die. What follows on these pages are the most vivid impressions of a representative few.
“It’s going to take a long time to unpack this experience and see how it’s going to play out in our lives.
“Back in fall of ’06 Joseph Edelheit told the music faculty his real dream was to take this oratorio to Germany as a gift of healing to the German people. When he showed me the score, I said ‘yes,’ we can do it. I didn’t let it go.”
“The audience was bussed in for the performance at the concentration camp. Survivors sat in the front row. The camp is at one of the most beautiful places in France. Prisoners would talk about hearing the horrific cries from the crematorium at night and then hearing the birds singing in the morning. When we got done with the piece, there was dead silence. It felt like three minutes before there was response. All you could hear was the birds singing. Then the choir members let their emotions go. The orchestra players had tears streaming down their faces. Steven Paulus, the composer, and Joseph said they’d never been more moved by anything in their lives.”
The girls’ choir wasn’t just an important part of the performance. It was THE element. The oratorio’s subtitle is “In memory of the children. They are our hope.” The centerpiece of the work is the images of children. Poet Michael Dennis Brown portrays the children first as Hebrew children singing simple blessings – thank you for the apples, thank you for the leaves, thank you for the grass, thank you for the sun – then, as the work progresses, they transform from singing simple blessings to singing the word of God, quoting Hebrew scriptures. The adult choir cries out, ‘How do you create healing?’ The children tell us how.
“It takes you on quite a roller coaster of emotions.”
“Before going to this camp and seeing this place, I had no idea of the extent of the concentration camps. I had known of Dachau and Auschwitz, but I didn’t realize there were thousands of camps in Europe and Russia. I didn’t realize either that the camps and experiments were for other groups besides Jews.
During this performance I looked over at the audience and the people who were brought there – survivors in the front row, some who couldn’t walk. I saw a man in his full French uniform from World War II standing in the audience.
“The French government just pulled out all the stops for us. I’d never played with such a great microphone on my violin.
“This camp had been a ski resort where people went for holidays. How awful to turn something so beautiful and joyful into something so horrendous.
“Because of this experience, I will have a deeper level of compassion and appreciation for my students and people in general. And a deeper level of appreciation for my instrument. Twice in the oratorio I played a single sustained plaintiff note – it starts with a nudge and continues. Composer Stephen Paulus told me that note sets the tone for the whole piece.
“The violin reflects the soul. I want to get my students to understand this, and now even more so. Given that role in the oratorio – to reflect the soul of what went on – was a huge responsibility.”
“I was the cynical journalist who thought some of the students would be on the trip to see Europe and have some fun. What I found was that all of the students internalized the reason they were there. Watching them you could just feel they knew they were carrying a very meaningful message.
“I hadn’t been one to always buy into the image of anti-Semitism that St. Cloud State carried. I know it doesn’t deserve that rap. There are a lot of people in this community who live the message these kids were bringing. This institution has helped them get to where they are, to prepare for this experience. They’ve been on a campus with a history of lawsuits and racism, of swastikas drawn on walls. It was the Times’ coverage of these swastika stories that in a weird way led me to this trip. I had heard criticisms that Times stories about swastikas last year were perpetuating the image of anti-Semitism and racism. This caused me to go to Joseph Edelheit and ask him his opinion. That conversation led to his suggestion that I write about students going to Europe.
“I came back different. There’s a whole different dynamic between me and members of my family.”
“Each one of our choir members wants to share this experience and pass this emotion down to the generations so that the Holocaust is never minimized.
“The most monumental piece for me was the children’s choir. Looking at those girls I would think about all their potential, of having their lives cut off and thrown away – imagine the world that existed and let that happen. One of the most influential lines of the piece to me was the very last line, sung by the mezzo soprano: ‘I have lived in a world with no children; I never want to live in a world with no children again.’
“I’m a person who’s usually smiling. I’m pretty positive. But this was uncontrollable. At those emotional times, every time I thought I could relax and stop crying, I would see one of the Cantabile girls and it would start over again. They worked so hard, and it amazed me how they understood what was going on. It took a lot of comprehension and maturity.
“This experience, it’s going to be a piece of me. I’m learning to value more deeply the potential of everyone because of seeing what happens when each individual’s future is not valued. My plans to be a teacher and to be a mother make this mean even more to me. My children will be the next generation.”
“What’s the impact of this experience on my life? I’ve been trying to figure that out since I got home. It’s really hard to put into words, but I do know that I feel incredibly proud of not only myself, but also of the people I went through this with. We truly have done something amazing for ourselves and for humanity. I’m proud of us as students, as artists and, above all, proud of us as human beings.
“I love writing about human interaction and how we treat each other. I think it’s fascinating. In that aspect this oratorio experience will affect how I tell stories and interpret relationships in those stories. We’re all different races, religions and creeds. It’s those differences that divide us, but they’re also what make us human. We have to work harder to understand each other.
“Because of this experience I’ve been looking at how I treat people and going through the daunting process of trying to figure out what I believe in.
“It seems so simple – just love everyone around you. But I have discovered there have been an amazing number of horrible things that have been done to people by people who decide to hate for a reason that has no real substance.”
“You all chose to be here, to bring a gift of your art. In order to fully understand the meaning of the art we needed to bring you to this place.
“It is truly unlike any other place. There are a few places still like it. The paradox is that they need to keep them going instead of let them fall apart.
“There were 1 million children under 10 that perished. You sing the words that were created by the poet who looked at the pictures. Now you’re in a place that destroyed lives.
“And if you feel that there are no words, that’s correct. There are no words. There are tears. There is a gasping for air. There is some sense of horror that human beings could not and would not do this to other human beings. But they did. That is why we need to bring you to this place.
“It is a place beyond meaning. Nothing good comes from this place. And yet, tomorrow you will come here with your extraordinary voices, your nimble fingers, your incredible hearts and your amazing lungs, and all you do is good. How can that be?
“Today we bear witness through resistance, not through passivity. As we sit on the lawn outside this death camp, genocide occurs in Darfur and elsewhere. And the world is as it was, silent.
“I have always had one goal in committing myself to interfaith dialogue: To make sure that my children’s world does not have the silence that my grandparents’ world had. I retired from the pulpit to teach, and I came to St. Cloud State because they were labeled a community and campus of anti-Semites. I came because of it, but that’s not why I’m staying. You are why I’m staying.
“Five years later here we are, sitting outside Natzweiler-Struthof. And tomorrow night you will sing words written by Michael Dennis Browne through the notes of Stephen Paulus. We will show photos of (Roman) Vishniac, and you will lift up the spirit that has been covered by silence.
“I’m sorry we brought you here. I’m sorry that as a teacher I am obligated to show you the darkest shadow that falls over your earth – human beings, not Germans, human beings just like all of us. Human beings are capable of tomorrow night, and what you saw inside. Your lives are about making those choices every day. Some day you will choose to be parents; you must help your children learn about those choices. Whenever you sing and play your instruments, I pray that your art will be making a choice, too.
“You will never sing more defiant words in your life than in this place.”