Uhlfelder: TSO concert pays tribute to Terezín victims
Next Saturday night, the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra, joined by FAMU Concert Choir, will tell the inspiring story of the historic performances by Nazi prisoners of Verdi’s “Requiem” at Terezín concentration camp.
This event has special meaning to me, because Terezín is where my grandparents died. It was a terrible place where Jews from Europe were herded before being sent on to their death in other concentration camps. In Terezín itself, Jewish prisoners were killed or died of hunger, disease and despair.
This place of genocide is located in a beautiful region of the Czech Republic, surrounded by green hills and quiet rivers. My grandparents were among the first group of Jews to be transported there from western Germany.
Ultimately, 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, who were meticulous about recording how and when they killed their victims.
According to records I found, my grandmother survived about a month after arriving at Terezín. She died on Oct. 16, which also happens to be my daughter’s birthday. My grandfather, for whom I was named, lived a year and a half longer in unimaginable conditions.
My father, at age 16, was the only one in his family to escape Germany before the Holocaust. The loss of his parents and most of his family was too much to bear, and he never revisited his home country, nor was he able to visit the site of his parents’ deaths. I became the first in my family to see where and how my grandparents died.
On a trip to Eastern Europe several years ago, in my capacity as chairman of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, I visited Terezín. A Fulbright scholar from Minnesota, whose work and study in Terezín embodies the importance of foreign educational exchange, was my guide and companion.
The day we visited was cold, windy and gray. The gloomy weather stood in stark contrast with the green foliage and peaceful countryside in this area 35 miles north of Prague. It is difficult to reconcile the horrific murders committed here with the pastoral surroundings.
Passing row after row of headstones near the memorials and monuments, we entered the large crematorium where my grandparents’ bodies were incinerated. Against one wall was a series of ovens. Near one oven, I lit two candles in their memory.
After they were cremated, their ashes were placed in paper urns and were stored in a dark brick building nearby. As the war neared its end, the Nazis attempted to discard the ashes in the river near the camp, in an effort to conceal 35,000 or more murders at Terezín.
In Prague, I had met, by chance, an 84-year-old survivor of Terezín. She wept as she recounted to me how, when she was a young prisoner, she was forced by the Nazis to dispose of the Jewish ashes from the urns into the Ohre River. Near the site is a modest memorial. From there, the Ohre flows into a larger body, and then, appropriately, back into Germany.
As I stood at the river bank, it struck me that the Ohre is much like the rivers near my home thousands of miles away. The smell of the mud, the smoothness of the rocks at the shore, the graceful ripple of the slow-moving water – these things can all be found in North Florida rivers. It is a comfort to know that my grandparents found their repose in such serenity, and that a fellow prisoner, rather than a Nazi, may have seen to that.
My grandparents’ ashes have long since become one with that river, so at the riverbank, I crouched down, selected several small pebbles and slipped them in my pocket. As I turned and climbed on granite steps up from the riverside, the pebbles tumbling together in my pocket, I thought of my grandparents’ other two grandchildren.
My two first cousins, Peter and Sam, are among the youngest survivors of the Holocaust. I decided I would share a pebble with each of them. They might find a small measure of closure in our grandparents’ final resting place in the Ohre River, and how their ashes may have washed over these same pebbles 60 years ago.
Finally, I had been able to make the trip to Terezín that was too difficult for my father, and pay respects to his parents as he was never able to. My father would be comforted to know that the memory of his parents – and the lessons of the Holocaust – will never be forgotten.
Steve Uhlfelder, a Tallahassee attorney, was the chairman of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board and chairman of the Florida Board of Regents. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
What: Requiem of Resistance: A community event to remind us of our humanity and connectedness
The Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra, joined by the FAMU Concert Choir and other community chorus members, will tell the story of Verdi’s “Requiem” at Terezín. An opening narration by Jack Romberg and Laura Johnson, with powerful visuals from the concentration camp, will bring the Terezin story to life.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, March 25
Where: Ruby Diamond Concert Hall
Cost: $37-$80. Proceeds benefit the Holocaust Education Resource Council, the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra and Temple Israel.
Tickets: Visit TallahasseeSymphony.org
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