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A violist memorializes lost voices at Terezin concentration camp

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Music has shaped Mark Ludwig's life. He took up violin at the age of 4, switched to the viola as a teen and eventually played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1988, after a performance at Carnegie Hall, Mark Ludwig stopped by a bookshop, and he began to thumb through a biography of Rabbi Leo Baeck. The rabbi was a survivor of the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Amid the horrors, he wrote of music written and performed by Jewish musicians who were imprisoned there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This piece by the Austrian composer and conductor Viktor Ullmann, who wrote of his time at Terezin, we in no way sat around lamenting. Our desire for culture was equal to our will to live. Viktor Ullmann was sent to Auschwitz and was put to death there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: The music and these stories set Mark Ludwig on a path to uncover, preserve and share the music of Terezin. Mark Ludwig joins us now from Brookline, Mass. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARK LUDWIG: My pleasure.

SIMON: You could have easily just read that passage from Rabbi Baeck, nodded and said, boy, that's sad and put the book back on the shelf. What led you to change your life the way you did?

LUDWIG: Well, I think it resonated with me on two levels. First, as a musician, if there is music composed and here are names of composers that I've never heard of - and mind you, at that point, I already was a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. My colleagues, none of them had heard of Ullmann or Gideon Klein or Pavel Haas, to name a few. So I'm intrigued, not only that this music - I don't know about it, but the idea that it was created in a concentration camp where over 33,000 people died of overcrowding, starvation and lack of adequate medical care. So I also was intrigued by the idea of this desire to create.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUDWIG: And this music has a wide palette of emotions. Some of it is very sad, as one would expect, or a depressing nature. Some of it has the flavor, if you will, of - or the spirit of resistance. Some of it is very uplifting or driving and passionate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Tell us, please, about a musician named Gideon Klein. You came across some of his sheet music.

LUDWIG: Well, Gideon was such a special talent. You know, he's in his early 20s, composer, pianist, conductor, and then he's teaching literature to the children, and he has to do it secretly because children were not allowed to be educated in the camp. So this a true Renaissance person. The survivors who were lucky enough to have known him or to have heard him perform in Terezin - they refer to him as our young Leonard Bernstein.

SIMON: We have some of his music, the sonata for piano that he wrote for his sister Lisa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUDWIG: Now, there's one other that I'll just mention for your consideration. His very last piece was the "String Trio." And the second movement...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUDWIG: ...It's a theme and variation. The theme is from a Czech folk song, a Moravian folk song, that his nanny sang to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUDWIG: First of all, the song - it's heartbreaking 'cause the Mother Goose is flying down, and she's shot, and she worries about what will happen to her goslings.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUDWIG: This was one of the extraordinary talents, the richness of sonorities in the "String Trio," the driving rhythms, the lyricism of the second movement. His imagination is spellbinding. And this trio, he completed just six days before he was sent to Auschwitz, the very last completed composition.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUDWIG: Could you have thought the decades ahead of him or the music he could have written, the people he could have mentored and the people he could have performed for?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: How did so many musicians wind up at the Terezin camp?

LUDWIG: Well, in Terezin, this was a collection point to send Jews primarily from Germany, Czechoslovakia and Austria, then later Denmark and Holland, on to Auschwitz for annihilation. So these were people that were coming from the major cultural centers, Berlin and Vienna, just to name a couple. Many of them were already established. And then you had a whole new generation of up-and-coming composers, artists. If you didn't know the history and just saw the repertoire, the programs that were being performed and what was composed, you would think that you were in a major metropolitan area.

SIMON: And how did they get hold of instruments?

LUDWIG: So at first, they were smuggling them in. And I want to preface one other thing - under the Nuremberg racial laws, Jews were no longer permitted to own instruments. So to have kept an instrument and then to go and, say, cut up a cello - imagine cutting up a cello and putting it into the lining of your clothing - and to take the risk to go and smuggle it in and then glue it back together, it's rather audacious. And it also shows an incredible commitment to one's art. And, you know, the other thing I'd like to put into the equation for our listeners - imagine that you are now being sent to this uncertain destination. You're allowed to take up to 50 kilos of goods with you. You know, immediately we think of the real essentials - clothing, food, right?

SIMON: Yeah.

LUDWIG: But a lot of people were thinking - bringing art supplies, books, music, instruments. So it shows us these incredibly hard decisions, but maybe not so hard for some people to say, you know, I also need that spiritual - I need that artistic or cultural sustenance.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANS KRASA'S "PASSACAGLIA AND FUGUE FOR STRING TRIO")

SIMON: Mark, you've performed this music, too, over the years. What's that like emotionally for you?

LUDWIG: There are moments - like, for example, there's an opening to a string trio. It's the last work written by Hans Krasa. And it's this heartbreaking lamentation.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANS KRASA'S "PASSACAGLIA AND FUGUE FOR STRING TRIO")

LUDWIG: I think he knows he's near the end, but what he's gone through, the sadness of it...

(SOUNDBITE OF HANS KRASA'S "PASSACAGLIA AND FUGUE FOR STRING TRIO")

LUDWIG: And then I think of the driving finale of Viktor Ullmann's "String Quartet," which is a real shrieking cry of - I find, my interpretation, of resistance.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIKTOR ULLMANN'S "STRING QUARTET NO. 3")

LUDWIG: But the thing that overall - with any of these compositions, I'm struck by the talent and beauty. There's a part of it that's painful in what was lost, the potential lost. But I also take heart in the inspirational qualities of this music, and maybe the thing that's most transcendent - what's inspiring about human resilience, and it's the better part of our human nature, and how important it is for us to create that art and music. It's like breathing. We all need it.

SIMON: It's inescapable to ask in these times what the music has to say to people all over the world at this time, following the October 7 attacks by Hamas and the Israeli reprisal. What do you think this music holds in this moment?

LUDWIG: In chamber music, it's not like we're calling out commands to each other. We have body language. We look at each other, eye contact. We listen to each other. Playing this music opens the door to experiencing the richness of this art, this music. And when we participate in performing it, we're in a collective moment, and hopefully that leads to dialogue.

SIMON: Mark Ludwig, violist and executive director of the Terezin Music Foundation. Thank you so much for being with us.

LUDWIG: My pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAWTHORNE STRING QUARTET PERFORMANCE OF ZIKMUND SCHUL'S "IN THE SHADOW OF YOUR WINGS")

SIMON: And this is "In The Shadow Of Your Wings" by Zikmund Schul and performed by the Hawthorne String Quartet. Zikmund Schul died in Terezin concentration camp in 1944.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAWTHORNE STRING QUARTET PERFORMANCE OF ZIKMUND SCHUL'S "IN THE SHADOW OF YOUR WINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.