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2023 International Holocaust Remembrance Day Shabbat

This coming Friday evening, January 27th, join together with others in the community to recognize International Holocaust Remembrance Day. For the second year in a row, the spiritual leadership and professional choirs of Congregation Keneseth Israel (KI) in Elkins Park will host a very special program designed to honor both victims and survivors of the Nazi atrocity. With scheduled performances by the choirs of KI and Congregation Or Hadash in Fort Washington, as well as a personal recounting by local author Richard Bank of his mother’s and grandmother’s firsthand experience in the Theresienstadt internment camp, this event promises to educate and entertain. More than that, the presentations will serve to strengthen the collective resolve to work toward increased tolerance and greater respect for human rights.

Grounded in the rich tradition of cantorial excellence and high level of musicianship which continue at KI and Or Hadash to this day, the musical portion of the program will feature performances that leave the listener with a greater appreciation for the resilience and faith that resided in our ancestors, and which still live within all of us. Whether related to the need to confront pure evil directly during the Holocaust or our present-day concern for issues of Jewish survival and the eradication of baseless hatred in the world, the entire evening will be inspiring and thought-provoking.

The program begins at 7:00 PM with services welcoming the Shabbat, followed by Richard Bank’s heartfelt sharing of his family’s Holocaust experience and the vital role served by the Holocaust Awareness Museum Education Center (HAMEC), currently housed within KI. The program will then conclude with a 40 – 45 minute concert featuring KI’s teen and adult choirs, as well as the adult choir of Or Hadash. The pieces scheduled for performance are designed to highlight the atrocities and suffering inflicted by the Nazi regime but also to allow those present to hear a collection of voices raised in celebration of our survival as a people. Scheduled musical pieces include:

“Ani Maamin” – Maimonides Attributes of Faith – sung as people walked to the gas chambers.

“Zog Nit Keyn Mol” – An expression of ultimate faith and hope that this will not “be the final way” – sung by partisans who would attack Nazi soldiers and sympathizers.

“Es Brent”- Descriptive song of “My Little Town is Burning Up” – sung to recognize the devastation brought on by war.

Musical excerpts from “Brundibar” – a Children’s Opera written in Czech and performed at Theresienstadt.

Zachor, KI’s teen choir, is directed by Alyssa Davidson, daughter of Cantor Charles Davidson, Cantor Emeritus of Elkin Park’s Congregation Adath Jeshurun. The adult choir of KI, Shir KI, is in its eleventh year of direction under Hazzan David Tilman, Cantor Emeritus of Elkin Park’s Beth Sholom Congregation. Or Hadash’s adult choir, Or Hadash Makaylah, will perform under the expert direction of Josh McHugh.

Produced through a joint effort of KI, Or Hadash and the HAMEC, this year’s program will focus on the anomalous social and cultural environment of the Theresienstadt camp during the six-year period 1939-1945. Maintained by the SS as a façade to help allay any suspicion, locally or internationally, regarding the treatment of senior or infirmed Jews who did not logically fit the standard “deportation to work camps” narrative, or whose complete disappearance might provoke inquiry, Theresienstadt housed such individuals in what was presented externally as a safe and comfortable Jewish ghetto. Behind the fake store fronts, unused school buildings and flower gardens, however, Theresienstadt was, first and foremost, a collection/transit center where extreme overcrowding, terrible sanitary conditions and malnourishment led to approximately 33,500 prisoner deaths within the ghetto itself.  For roughly 84,000 other individuals, it was ultimately a stop on the way to their eventual death within a larger camp, like Auschwitz-Birkenau or Treblinka.

In light of the aforementioned statistics, it is extremely difficult to characterize existence within Theresienstadt as anything more than a struggle to survive under inhumane conditions. However, the false reality that the Nazis perpetuated in that unique camp setting inadvertently allowed for Nazi-sanctioned public expressions by Jewish prisoners of individual and communal strength and resilience. The essence of Friday evening’s event will be to recognize and draw some meaning from their example, and to use it as a way to re-focus our efforts on thriving as a Jewish community while bettering the world around us.

By way of clarification, the Nazi effort to deceive the world at Theresienstadt inadvertently created an environment where cultural production, by prisoners for prisoners, could flourish. As the detainment point for many Czech, Austrian, and German musicians, performers, writers, visual artisans and other cultural figures, there was a consistent presence of individuals within the camp who remained desirous of sharing their talent. And, because perpetuation of the arts was useful for propaganda purposes, the SS leadership not only tolerated, but welcomed, an active cultural life amongst the prisoners. Having said that, the dichotomy in purpose between the two entities cannot be overstated. For the SS, public performances by singers and musicians represented a means to bolster the deception outward, almost inviting interaction with the outside world. To the Jewish singers and musicians, the performances bolstered their ability to shut the outside world out (if only for a little while) and support the preservation of certain eternal truths, for themselves and their audiences. Two of the strongest truths are that artistic beauty can counter despair, and that goodness and fortitude can never fully be defeated.

Perhaps most relevant to the January 27th program, reflecting on the Jewish experience at Theresienstadt reminds us that artistic expression has the power to increase positivity in the world, Because that is as true today as it was for our ancestors, especially when we join our voices together in songs of remembrance and hope, the January 27th event is not to be missed.