- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 10, 2000

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was noisily alive Sunday afternoon. Chatter filled the sun-soaked space and children scampered up its wide stairways along the museum's interior brick walls, as single-bulb lampposts eerily captured the bleakness of Nazi concentration camps.

Such irreverent energy seemed appropriate in this sobering shrine, as did the rhapsodic music downstairs in the museum's Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Theatre. The voice of mezzo-soprano Ronit Widmann-Levy soared to the tops of the theater's angled glass panels. Daniel Akiva, who backed Miss Widmann-Levy on a crisp acoustic guitar, and narrator Avner Perez created the 90-minute program, "Siniza I Fumo" ("Smoke and Ashes").

Filled with prayers, liturgical songs, romances and lamentations of Sephardic Jews, the program, co-sponsored by the Embassy of Israel, honored Jews of Salonika, Greece, killed during the Holocaust. On the cover of the tan-colored show program was a drawing of a songbird perched on barbed wire.

While music could not soothe the savage Nazis, it helped Adolf Hitler's victims both during and since World War II reaffirm life in spite of unspeakable horror.

Donald McCullough discovered this as he sifted through the Aleksander Kulisiewicz Collection at the Holocaust Museum's archives. His research led to "The Holocaust Cantata: Songs From Camps," featuring 13 songs about camp life based on compositions written on the sly by prisoners, intermixed with staged readings of survivors' recollections.

"What happens here is statistics are turned into real people," Mr. McCullough says. "You start feeling like you're getting to know, even though these are snapshots, individual people.

"It's easier for you to say, 'That could have been me.' I think it's harder to do that when you're looking at the big picture. If you put yourself in their place, then it's easy for you to say, 'What have I ever done to be a part of making that possible? What should I be doing to make sure that it doesn't happen again?' "

The Master Chorale of Washington Chamber Singers, for which Mr. McCullough is music director, premiered "The Holocaust Cantata" at the Kennedy Center in March 1998. It is also available on CD by Albany Records.

"When my mother sat in the audience when the cantata was performed, which included her story," says Laura Grazyna Kafka, a Prince George's County teacher and Greenbelt resident whose mother spent five years in a Nazi labor camp, "it was an amazing catharsis for her, and she got swept up in all of this emotion.

"It was helpful. It helped a little to heal the pain from the indelible scars to hear her story being told, coupled with the music, which was so incredibly wonderful."

Life affirmation hardly seems compatible with the Holocaust. True, the Nazis organized an orchestra of classically trained musicians, often to perform for prisoners headed to the gas chambers.

Yet Mr. McCullough was more interested in the songs of the "common man": untrained musicians who created words and music about immediate prison life as well as their personal hope, fear and despair.

"Within the camp, the power of music could be life-affirming," Mr. McCullough says. "To me, the whole cantata was a spiritual resistance, which becomes, really, a way of saving your life.

"Because you can't resist in any other way. You would be absolutely killed. And there's something about song that is so communal."

Kulisiewicz, whom Mr. McCullough calls "camp troubadour," survived five years at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin and dictated 700 pages of poems and songs and then collected music from other camp survivors.

In 1942, 18-year-old Irena Augustynska Kafka worked at a forced-labor camp in Faligbostel, Germany, which is now Wroclaw, Poland, for 3 and 1/2 years. Now a resident of Monterey, Calif., Mrs. Kafka let Mr. McCullough tell her story in the cantata.

Seated next to Mr. McCullough in the museum's archives is her daughter, who also happened to sing soprano for the Washington Chamber Singers. Her parents met while incarcerated; Mieczyslaw Kafka, a reserve officer in the Polish army, was imprisoned across the street from his future wife's camp.

"As a matter of fact, I'm wearing this ring that my dad traded a pack of cigarettes for," she says, showing the silver ring with a tiny diamond. "That's my mother's first engagement/wedding ring."

On a low table before Mr. McCullough and Laura Kafka lies the tattered remains of a Nov. 9, 1942, telegram typed in Polish, the basis for Mrs. Kafka's story in the cantata in her own words:

It stated that if I did not appear, my family would be evacuated from the town and shot. My mother [begged] me not to go but I knew what I must do. There were 19 other teenaged girls from my town in the military. Once we were declared healthy, SS soldiers escorted us to a waiting train and crammed into a cattle car.

In the song that follows, "The Train," a woman describes the train's clatter as her lover runs after the locomotive "in fool's futility." Both know they will never see each other again.

Mr. McCullough likens the music to the spirituals sung by slaves in the United States and, not surprisingly, the treatment was similar.

"We didn't give [slaves] names, we took them from their mothers," Mr. McCullough says.

Indeed, Mrs. Kafka was corralled into a market as German farmers picked free labor from among the group. Laura Kafka says by the time the British liberated Faligbostel in May 1945, her mother weighed 90 pounds and most of her teeth had fallen out.

Yet Mrs. Kafka survived four bouts of cancer in the past 25 years.

Mr. McCullough says his cantata reflects that sense of survival, but he hopes it also urges "the American Joes" not to be complacent and to ask themselves the hard questions about bigotry and hate.

"It's relevant because of Sarajevo, Kosovo, all of that," Mr. McCullough says. "I'll tell you, having written this, I see these happening because of TV and I think to myself, 'I'm one of those people that's just standing by, like they talk about during the Holocaust.' What is it that we can do? It's very, very frustrating.

"Then on a more real, local level, there's Columbine High School, Matthew Shepard, the Oklahoma City bombings. It all is the same exact disease, which is close-minded ignorance. So that's why it's relevant."

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