Hearing Ghosts

Mark Ludwig has dedicated his life to preserving the music of a generation of world-class composers lost to the Holocaust.

He’s about to unveil his most ambitious effort yet to honor their memory.

Will anybody be listening?

There aren’t many Dada enthusiasts around these days, but it makes sense that Mark Ludwig is one. That cultural movement from the early 20th century, unfairly remembered for its radical use of urinals, is just the sort of subject that would engage the 49-year-old Boston Symphony Orchestra violist: cerebral, modernist, and belonging to another century. Ludwig, too, is cerebral and modernist, and gives the impression of belonging to an earlier time. He grew up in a musical family and joined the BSO before he’d turned 30. He studied painting for a while in art school, did a Fulbright, and once delivered musical instruments to postwar Sarajevo; he’s planning to climb Mount Kilimanjaro for fun. It’s impossible to imagine the man watching network television. But it’s easy to think of him building shrines to dead musicians, especially ones who wrote challenging, often atonal works.

Ludwig found his calling the day he finished reading the memoir of Rabbi Leo Baeck, who had been incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. Baeck’s experience was different from that of many other incarcerated Jews. One difference was that he survived. Another was that he happened to be locked away in the company of an extraordinary number of artists, writers, classical musicians, and composers. They had been shuttled into the Terezín camp in Czechoslovakia, and, slated for execution, they did what artists do: They made art.

Until Ludwig read the rabbi’s account, he had never heard of the Terezín composers. He realized that these men had studied under the masters of the 20th century, and would have become masters themselves. “When they died, we lost an entire branch of the tree,” Ludwig says. “Rabbi Baeck wrote about hearing the works they had composed at Terezín. I had hopes that a few works had survived, but it was a shot in the dark.”

At the time Ludwig finished reading the book, he was performing on the side with a rompingly successful chamber music group he’d founded, and looking for new works to stage. He decided to fly to Czechoslovakia to seek out the lost Terezín compositions. This was 1988, before the Velvet Revolution had simplified travel through the Iron Curtain to the point where it was merely a matter of typing out credit card digits. The trip required navigating a bureaucratic maze of stamps and official papers, but Ludwig persevered, finally arriving in Prague, where, in museums and archives, he was permitted to view the buried compositions.

The sight of these pages was a thunderclap. “Imagine!” Ludwig says. “Looking at a manuscript from a composer you’d never heard of, and then seeing a work of absolute beauty and power. It became the defining moment of my life.”

Ludwig brought copies of the scores back home with him to Boston. Over the next few years he would record them and print them in liner notes and teaching manuals. He founded the Terezín Chamber Music Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to preserving the memory of the murdered composers and keeping their music alive on the playlists of classical ensembles throughout the world. Under the aegis of the foundation, he’s written a teacher’s guide to Terezín that’s been given to about 900,000 students. He has lectured and performed and chatted up donors from London to Japan. Classical music luminaries like Seiji Ozawa, John Williams, and Yo-Yo Ma sit on his advisory board.

But Ludwig felt compelled to do even more. This month his foundation will announce its first commissioned work, a piece of music inspired by the Terezín victims. It’s Ludwig’s strategy for looking ahead, for telling the Terezín story to future generations by hiring a modern composer to summon up the ghosts of the ghetto. The job will go to a rising talent—one who’s laid the foundations of a reputation but who needs the work—while a well-known musician will actually perform the premiere. Of course, the chosen composer won’t be a celebrity. What contemporary classical musician is? Even the most successful composers have a knack for remaining obscure. How many Bostonians, for example, would know Newton’s Osvaldo Golijov, a guest speaker at the Terezín announcement, and the essence of a celebrated modern composer? He’s written a slew of acclaimed pieces and has even had a festival of his works at the Lincoln Center. But he’s not exactly a household name in Peoria. Or even in Cambridge.

And therein lies the problem. Golijov is a master of his art, but even Americans with a lively interest in classical music might not have heard of him. The question arises, then: Is classical music, an art form considered by many people to be entering its second century of decay, the best way to preserve the dead?

Even in the summertime, the sunlight in Prague is threaded with a wintry glint. This crispness draws out the flush in the Old Town’s red tiles and washes clean the pale, classical face of Prague Castle. The Czech Republic is studded with castles. Palaces, chateaus, fortifications, and battlements beetle across Bohemia’s grassy roll, through the strategic valley called the Moravian Gate, and into the hill country beyond. At a crossroads in the Elbe basin lie the scraped brick walls of Terezín—a ring of ramparts and squat houses, unspectacular in architecture, dull with earthen weight.

On October 16, 1944, a train with the designation “Er” pulled out of the railroad sidings there. It was one of the last trains to leave Terezín with prisoners during the war, and it was heading east. The 1,500 people crowded into the cars knew that east was a bad direction. Among them was a young man named Gideon Klein. He was a distinguished composer, and a Jew. At 24, Klein had once been the darling of the Prague Conservatory, as famous for his lustrous touch on the piano as for his skill with the cryptic beauties of modern composition. In the early years of the war he continued to give public recitals under a pseudonym, but by the end of 1941 he had been bundled away to Terezín, which had grown during the war from an obscure provincial jail into a Gestapo prison, and then into the largest Jewish ghetto in Czechoslovakia. Unlike Auschwitz or Treblinka, it was a transit camp, a place where people stayed for days or years before being crowded into the railcars that took them to their fates. Even so, 33,000 people died there.

Terezín was where the Nazis imprisoned artists and composers, the practitioners of “degenerate” arts like jazz and modern orchestral music. The ghetto was meant to stifle these displays, but, like air in a balloon, creativity will find a way out, no matter how small the pinhole. “Some people smuggled musical instruments into Terezín,” says Edgar Krasa, 85, a survivor of the camp who now lives in Newton. “They practiced in the evening in cellars and attics.”
The guards found out before long, setting off panic among the artists. The head of the council of elders hurried to defuse the situation, Krasa recalls. “He said to the camp commander, ‘You have artists, scholars, musicians from everywhere. Why don’t you use this to show the world how well you treat the Jews?’”

The Nazis took the advice. They allowed the inmates to build a cultural life in the evenings after gray days spent hunched at forced labor. The prisoners organized chamber music groups, performed operas, and wrote sonatas. Krasa remembers being part of a staging of the popular Czech opera The Bartered Bride. “It occupied our minds so we didn’t brood on our misery. It gave us some oomph! It was a tremendous spiritual uplift.” But it was all in the service of a lie. The Nazis had built a Potemkin village with gardens and whitewash, then paraded frolicking, doomed prisoners before the Red Cross observers. They even brought in a film crew.

“What’s fascinating about the movie is that these are healthy-looking Jews,” says Ludmilla Leibman, an assistant professor at Boston University who teaches a class called “The Holocaust and Music.” “They’re not sick or exhausted. People are playing volleyball. They’re watching kids perform opera. But what the viewer doesn’t know is that the moment this scene ended, those people were sent to the east by train.”

The Nazis used the music for propaganda, but it was still music. It was still art, and it allowed Klein to escape his wretched predicament by organizing performances among the prisoners and penning compositions, first on lined paper, then, once the guards cut the supply, on bits of scrap. One of his creations from this time is a string trio called “Variations on a Moravian Folk Song.” By any judgment it’s a masterly piece of music, a young and clever work that hops between emotions like a frustrated child who pouts, then bursts into tears, then smiles and wanders away chasing after something pretty. Mostly, though, it’s mercilessly sad. A line of silver melancholy runs under every bar.

As Klein’s train pulled out of the Terezín railroad sidings that day in October, he almost certainly knew he was heading east. Eighty-eight thousand people ultimately left the camp in trains going that direction. Only 19,000 of them survived. Klein was not among these. The next day, three of his fellow composers on the train were killed with hydrogen cyanide gas. Klein survived for a few months longer in a labor camp.

When the extermination chamber swallowed the Terezín composers, their music died, too. Their compositions were lost among the bones. Then the world forgot about them in the crash as the Third Reich came tumbling apart. “Klein was an unbelievable talent,” says Krasa, who got to know the composers by smuggling food to them. “He would have been one of the Mozarts of the future.”

The Holocaust is arguably the most memorialized chapter of 20th-century history. Apart from the bald fact of Israel’s existence, there are hundreds of educational institutes, memorial foundations, scholarships, university posts, museums, parks, and monuments dedicated to permanently enshrining it within the human consciousness. Typing the word “Holocaust” on Amazon.com turns up more than 47,000 books and four magazine subscriptions. Even the Holocaust’s substrata are deeply mined. The topic of music in the concentration camps is already a trope: We know it from films like Roman Polanski’s The Pianist and plays such as Arthur Miller’s Playing for Time, to say nothing of television dramas. Regardless of whether you agree with Norman Finkelstein that there’s a “Holocaust industry,” it’s very difficult to think that the genocide of Europe’s Jews could ever be overlooked.

Memory, though, is a slippery fish.

“I’m a psychoanalyst, and the question of how memory is preserved is one we have to face in my profession,” says Anna Ornstein, 79, a lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and member of the Terezín Chamber Music Foundation’s board of directors. Ornstein isn’t taking any chances with memory. She has too much invested in it—she lived through Auschwitz. “Once we survived all these horrible experiences and lost our families, the question would arise: How will people remember what hatred can produce? It was not clear to me.”

Ludwig tries to answer that question this month with his announcement of the foundation’s first piece of commissioned music. He’s aiming to create a “living memorial,” something that people can “hold inside themselves.” Namely, new music.

When Ornstein heard his plan, she was delighted. “For me, the work of the Terezín Chamber Music Foundation is exactly what we survivors have been hoping for,” she says. “We don’t need another monument. But when we commission a piece of new music, and you tell a young composer that you’re paying him to deal with the memory of the Holocaust, then he has to study that history. He has to find ways to interpret that event. Art transforms that memory, and, if I may say as an analyst, in transformation there is healing.”

Healing is admirable, of course, but Ludwig knows it will go only so far. “We’re living in a period where one day there won’t be anyone left to testify.” Before that day arrives, Ludwig wants to “connect to generations” by promoting the music and its story to schoolchildren as well as to concert audiences—hence the textbooks, the lectures, the elite donors. Ornstein marvels at his dedication. “When I first met Mark, I was amazed,” she says. “A young American Jew! Why would he want to be burdened with these memories?”

For all its emotional power, classical music may not be the best way to tell a story. Ornstein describes an audience listening to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. That musical work, she points out, is a way of remembering the Napoleonic Wars, yet she figures that out of 100 people listening, only 30 will catch the title’s reference to La Grand Armée’s invasion of Russia. She’s being generous. When the cannons boom at the annual Fourth of July Boston Pops concert on the Esplanade, Napoleon stands in the crowd’s collective consciousness at about the same level as, say, Osvaldo Golijov.

Though Ludwig and the symphony set may not see it, the truth is that classical music is in trouble. It’s easy to miss this point if you live in Boston. Here the BSO will perform four world premieres this season alone. Soloists like Massachusetts pianist Peter Serkin make a point of including new music in their repertoires. Working composers like Tan Dun and André Previn are very big fish within the quiet blue pond of Tanglewood, while attendance at our dozens of chamber groups, chorales, and conservatory performances remains high. Yet even in our enlightened city, it’s impossible to miss the sweep of gray hair on the orchestra floor. The audience for classical music stopped growing a long time ago. Today it is fading. While the future of classical radio station WCRB-FM looks secure, it’s never going to scale the dizzying ratings heights of, say, a Christian rock station.

Ludwig wants to use classical music to make a public statement, but we live in a world where public statements are typically preceded by the words “attention, shoppers.” As befits a professional musician, Ludwig wants his commissions to be original and eloquent. To be good art. But art doesn’t exist comfortably in a marketplace. Justin Timberlake does. If Ludwig gets exactly what he wants, if his commissions produce inspired, timeless music, they will carry a message of survival and hope that only a few people—students, other musicians, and the outlandish souls who cling to an ideal of artistic refinement contra mundum—will hear.

Ludwig is not discouraged. He does what artists do. He makes art. Regardless of the number of ears these compositions reach, he is committed to passing on his grail to the people who care. To the next Klein.

“When your life is wrecked and you have a yellow star on your clothes, and yet you risk your life to smuggle an instrument…” Ludwig shakes his head. Perhaps he’s imagining the severe young Klein bent in his ghetto attic, scratching out a last note of beauty before the trains creaked into the east. “The power of music.”

  • Pete McNally

    I realize that this article was written some years ago, however, i feel the need to respond.

    Willi Durra, my wife’s Great Grandfather, was on that same transport (Er) on 16.10.1944. He was murdered upon arrval in Auschwitz. Willi, from Breslau, was a choir conductor, and formed the Durra-chor whilst in Theresienstadt.

    I am currently reading a book named “As if it were life”, a diarry written in Theresienstadt by Philip Manes, detailing the incredible cultural output of those men like Gideon Klein and Willi Durra. Just 12 days later, Manes and his wife were sent on the last ever transport from Terezin to Auschwitz, sharing a similar fate.

    May there memories be blessed