In commemorating the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass, a vicious pogrom carried out by the Nazis in Austria and Germany against their Jewish neighbors – Congregation Beth El in Bethesda turned to music.
In a program of opera excerpts and art songs – some written by Jewish composers who perished at Theresienstadt, the notorious “model” concentration camp outside of Prague – congregants and guests found both solace and hope.
The Conservative synagogue has had a long interest in and commitment to art and music programs, noted Hazzan Asa Fradkin: “We have a full calendar of musical programs throughout the year, including a Broadway composers’ concert, the American songbook and cantorial music.” Reflecting on Kristallnacht and events from the Holocaust has taken on more profound meaning in the shadow of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on kibbutzim and villages in southern Israel, he said.
For the Nov. 9 concert, “Music of Resilience and Hope,” the sweet innocence of 40 children’s and teen’s voices were heard from the Beth El Youth Choir singing excerpts from Czech composer Hans Krasa’s children’s opera “Brundibar,” which was performed by children in Terezin in 1943.
“It’s not lost on me,” Fradkin said, “that these children are the same age as those who sang it in Terezin. Our [Beth El] children are performing the music of composers whose dreams were never realized in their lifetime … but their music is still with us to be sung.”
The second part of the program included excerpts from Cantor Gerald Cohen’s opera “Steal a Pencil for Me.” Cohen, of Shaarei Tikvah in Scarsdale, NY, composed the opera based on the love affair of two congregants, who as young adults were Dutch prisoners in Westerbork in Netherlands.
The narrated excerpts tell the touching story of these two lovers, Jaap and Ina Polak, both married to others, and their resilient survival story. Pianist George Peachy accompanied baritones Fradkin and Cohen, soprano Ilana Davidson and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Shammash in this moving account.
Program chairperson Marsha Rehns contributed a heartfelt song written by her great uncle, Ludwig Rindskopf, to the program. The manuscript was discovered in some old paperwork in 2008. “Mein Letzter Gruss (My Last Greeting),” was sung by Washington National Opera chorus member and soprano Alizon Hull. The song shares the feelings of one brother saying farewell to another brother: “When flowers fade it is over between us; my heart beats only for you.”
Fradkin considered the question of why music, particularly art songs and opera, are an appropriate, even necessary, means to commemorate events as incomprehensible as the Holocaust. His response: “Because we don’t have words to contain our emotions, our feelings … the idea that music can not only express beauty but it also expresses our [experiences in our] darkest hours shows that the Jewish people will continue to survive and thrive and come together to celebrate life.”
Beth El congregant Robert Blumenthal, 85, shared that he had three grandparents who were deported from Holland and murdered after Kristallnacht. “To have this event here at Beth El is tremendously meaningful to me at this time,” he said.
Cohen, the composer and guest cantor, noted that his opera was written a decade ago to acknowledge and remember the evil that happened during the period of the Nazis and the Holocaust. It is meant to give hope, even in times of trauma, like the Jewish people around the world are now experiencing. “Hope,” he said, “carries on.”
The evening concluded with Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah” – “The Hope” – sung by the children’s choirs and the audience.
Lisa Traiger is the arts correspondent for Washington Jewish Week.