AN 2 8789

KAMP! Songs and Satire from Theresienstadt

Album information

Theresienstadt or Terezín, was built as an impressive fortress by the Austrian Empress Maria Teresa to solidify the Hapsburgs’ hold on Bohemia. It later proved a bulwark in their defense against Napoleon. In 1941, the Nazis decided to turn the fortress into a transit camp for Jews from the German-occupied Czech lands. The first transport to the camp arrived on November 24, 1941. Later, when Theresienstadt housed thousands of Jews, one of its inmates joked in a popular camp ditty “the irony is great. The Jews have taken the fortress without firing a shot.”

Theresienstadt was used to promote the illusion of comfortable living conditions in the camps of the Reich. In this guise, it had many names: “ghetto for the old,” “ghetto for the privileged”, at the end, even “the town the Führer gave to the Jews.”

Aware of the problem of explaining the disappearance of vast numbers of Jewish celebrities and intellectuals, the Nazis held them in Theresienstadt, the “model ghetto.”

Along with celebrities, the inmates included elderly Jews, gentiles married to Jews and disabled and distinguished Jewish veterans of World War One. Although the majority were Czech, there were also thousands of internees from Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Hungary and Slovakia. All told, 140,000 passed through the gates of the camp. Some 33,000 died there. Another 87,000 were transported to death camps.

Theresienstadt – The culture

Prisoners were housed in cramped basements, attics, barns and courtyards. The lack of food or decent sanitation led to outbreaks of typhus and dysentery. Always, there was the terror of transport to the death camps. In the midst of these intolerable conditions, the celebrity prisoners did what they did best: entertain. In attics and basements, at first in strict secrecy, some of Europe’s most famous cabaret stars, with the help of their fellow internees, wrote and performed satires about captors and inmates alike.

Before long, the Nazis incorporated this extraordinary artistic effort into their propaganda machine. They distributed musical instruments they had confiscated not long before. An orchestra and a jazz band, the Ghetto Swingers, were formed.

Adolf Eichmann was among the leading Nazis who journeyed to Theresienstadt to savor its art. He had a front-row seat at a concert of Verdi’s “Requiem” conducted by Rafael Schächter, a Prague Jew who was one of Theresienstadt’s first inmates and worked ceaselessly to perform such works as Mozart’s “Magic Flute.” If members of his choir or orchestra were deported east, Schächter tirelessly trained replacements. In October 1944, he was sent to Auschwitz on one of the last transports from Theresienstadt.

On July 23, 1944, fresh paint, last-minute landscaping and false smiles transformed Theresienstadt into something intended to imitate renowned nearby spas. The Nazis paraded inspectors from the International Red Cross through these apparently well-appointed facilities, where music rang out at street corners. Even jazz — the Ghetto Swingers belting out the St. Louis Blues!

The film was made to spread to decision and opinion makers around the world the impression of carefree Jews living at a special spa, or resort. Kurt Gerron, a famous German actor and director, was an inmate in Theresienstadt and was forced to complete the film before being sent to Auschwitz. His film survived, cruel proof of Nazi propaganda.

By fall of 1944, the inmates of Theresienstadt had outlived their propaganda value. The last transport to Auschwitz–Birkenau was completed on October 28 that year — nearly five months after D–Day. More than 18,000 inmates were sent east then, and all but 1,574 of them were killed. On May 3, 1945 the International Red Cross took over Theresienstadt. Five days later, the Red Army liberated the 19,000 survivors.

Theresienstadt becomes contemporary theater

The fall of Communism brought down the Iron Curtain that had kept Czechoslovakia and the other Soviet bloc nations cut off from the rest of Europe. The well–known Austrian actor and director Alexander Waechter was traveling from Vienna to Berlin, and his route took him through Terezin. Slowly, he realized this was the infamous Theresienstadt that he had heard about from childhood — the place where his great-uncle “Remy” had died. Alexander Waechter began to delve into the history of Theresienstadt, a history unknown to most Austrians, whose dual role as perpetrator and victim of Nazi crimes went largely unexamined for decades after the war.

In October 1992, Waechter told that story in Chansons und Satiren aus Theresienstadt, a tragic but also ironic production for three performers — man, woman and pianist. Opposite him was Tania Golden, a young Viennese actress and singer. Sergei Dreznin, a Russian Jewish pianist and composer, was the musical director. All the lyrics and poems came straight from Theresienstadt’s barracks, and original melodies written in the camp were carefully restored. In keeping with Viennese tradition, many of the numbers performed in the camp were well–known hits of the day, adapted to the grotesque realities of Terezin. Dreznin wrote several melodies to existing poems, as did Gerhard Bronner, the “patriarch” of Vienna cabaret after its near–decimation by the Nazis, who murdered or exiled nearly all the overwhelmingly Jewish cabaret stars.

English version

An English version called KAMP!, inspired by Bronner, was first produced and presented in December 1994 by Michael Maurer in Boca Raton, Florida, with Dreznin as musical director. The audience included survivors of the Holocaust. They gave the show a standing ovation. Later, when KAMP! featuring Amelia DeMayo and Curt Buchler (whom you hear on this recording) toured around New York and New Jersey, survivors in the audience brought the performers unpublished memoirs and on one occasion a missing verse or two!

This was a show that had to be created. The material would not allow itself to be forgotten or cast aside. When the lights go down, the audience soon finds that they are newly arrived inmates at Theresienstadt, attending one of the camp cabaret shows. And, like the actual camp audiences, they laugh, cry, tap their feet and are entertained. But, beneath this simple cabaret facade lurks the true, deeper appeal of the show: The voice of human perseverance. The spirit of hope.” — Thomas Neile, the author (together with his wife, Caren) of the English version.

Mr. Waechter’s original Vienna production inspired a wave of similar shows including Chansons und Satiren aus Theresienstadt in Memmingen, Germany, Hurray to Life in Tel–Aviv, Voices From Theresienstadt in Oslo and Just As If… at the 78th Street Theater Lab in Manhattan.

The French version Cabaret Terezín followed in 2008; directed by Isabelle Georges and produced by Josette Milgram, it enjoyed a successful run in Theatre Marigny in Paris, and is still touring in France.

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Amelia DeMayo
Curt Buckler

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