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Carnegie Hall concert showcases music composed by victims of the Holocaust

'We Are Here: Songs From the Holocaust,' brings together Grammy- and Tony-winning artists for a performance of pieces taken from 14 Shoah songbooks

They are songs in the key of life — and death. Culled from 14 songbooks written by Jewish composers in concentration camps and ghettos, the songs — a requiem, Yiddish ballads, poems set to music, popular tunes — formed the backbone of last night’s sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall, “We Are Here: Songs From the Holocaust,” on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

In an auditorium that has hosted the likes of The Beatles, Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald, Holocaust survivors received applause rivaling Broadway stars, and the voices of victims long gone were given a second chance to tell their stories. The songs spoke of an orphaned boy trading music for money in the Warsaw ghetto; widowed women in Bialystok waiting futilely for their husbands to return home; and children whose last thoughts were of the lullaby comforting them as they walked to the gas chambers.

The second piece performed, “Filing,” composed by Shmerke Kaczerginski, was a heartbreaking duet about Kaczerginski’s first spring without his wife, who was killed in April 1943. Cantors Dan Mutlu and Rachel Brook performed the piece in eerie harmony, standing next to each other at center stage amid a six-piece ensemble. 

“Springtime,” they sang, to the bated breath of the audience. “I’m drowning in my sorrow. There’s no tomorrow, since you’ve gone away.”

In contrast, “Zog Nit Keyn Mol,” which came directly after intermission, played like a pop anthem. A “battlesong for peace” written by Hirsh Glik as a protest song after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the performance showcased 12 singers displaying the very best of their talent, with trills and vocal runs at every turn.

The room’s mood lifted immediately, not only because of the jovial atmosphere, but because of the camaraderie clearly present on stage. Whenever one of the group gave a particularly impressive show of vocal acrobatics, which was often, those around them would send them a smile or a quick nudge on the shoulder.

*****

Last night’s concert at Carnegie Hall was years in the making, with its origins in 2016, following the death of Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel in his Manhattan home. Nearly 800 miles away in Chicago, the news hit music producer and composer Ira Antelis, who was struck by the magnitude of Wiesel’s impact.

“He was really the voice for all of us growing up that kept the Holocaust alive and relevant, and the whole idea about never forgetting,” Antelis recounted to Jewish Insider. “I just started reading about him…he loved music, it said, and he wrote the foreword for this songbook [compiled by Eleanor Moltek and Malke Gottlieb] called ‘We Are Here’ — which is music from the ghettos and the camps.”

Surprised that he was unaware of the compositions despite a lifetime in music, Antelis dove into the book, determined to share the last words of its songwriters; they may have been doomed, but they wouldn’t be silenced.

“To me, being able to bring [the original composers’] music back at a place like Carnegie Hall and honor their memory, aside from my family, my kids, I think it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever been involved with,” Antelis said — a feat which could not have been achieved without show host Rabbi Charles Savenor.

“When the people wrote this music, whether or not they knew that they were going to die, what they wrote about…much of it is uplifting. It’s about family, it’s about relationships, it’s about love, it’s about hope. And again, I think that’s a message that the world needs today,” Savenor said.

Antelis and Savenor first met when Antelis was a member of Savenor’s congregation at the Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago in the late 1990s. The two became friendly but didn’t stay in regular contact until a chance encounter back in 2017, a year after Wiesel’s death.

Antelis, who grew up in Brooklyn, was visiting family when he ran into Savenor on the streets of Manhattan, where Savenor had moved after leaving Anshe Emet in 2001.

“​​I said, “I’m doing this concert with music from the Holocaust and I want to do it in New York, so if I do it, I want you to do it with me,’” Antelis recalled. Savenor, who at the time was teaching a class on Holocaust memoirs at Park Avenue Synagogue, where he was director of congregational education, jumped at the opportunity.

“I had family that was murdered during the Holocaust, and only a couple of years ago did we discover testimony online… about what happened to our family in Lithuania,” Savenor said. “So in some small way, this is a memorial to my family as well, and to anybody else who lost anyone in the Holocaust. This concert gave the opportunity to say, not just what they were thinking as they marched to their deaths, but what were they singing? What was in their hearts?”

If Carnegie Hall was not enough of an undertaking, Antelis was determined to sell out the venue’s nearly 3,000-seat Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage.

“I’m Ira’s friend, and I thought he was crazy,” Savenor laughed. “He’s like, ‘This music deserves to be played on the most prestigious stage in the world.’ It’s hard to argue with someone who was so convinced by what this music represented, even if it was just a commemoration. But now, it’s a statement of something that’s not about history, but it’s a statement about our moment that we’re living in, and the challenges that we face as a society here in America and around the world.” 

Antelis’ determination to fill as many seats as possible was not about clout, but about wanting a space where as many people as possible could come together.

“During the Holocaust, when the United States was turning a blind eye to the Holocaust and what was happening, even Jews in this country were not wanting other Jews to come in,” Antelis said. “I thought, we need to take a stand about all the hate and things that are going on”

A large part of that step forward included choosing a diverse cast of performers and presenters, which included stars such as Harvey Fierstein, Chita Rivera, Andrew Lippa, Shoshana Bean and Brenda Russell, among others. New York Archbishop Cardinal Timothy Dolan and German Consul General David Gill both presented.

“The fact that performers from diverse backgrounds and presenters from different backgrounds said, ‘I want in, I want to participate,’” Savenor said, “is actually the exact statement that we want to make; that the Holocaust, yes, was a war against the Jews, but hatred is a war against everybody and we’re all on the frontlines today.”

*****

The concert was initially to focus solely on Wiesel’s songbook, but after coming across an article by U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum musicologist Bret Werb detailing the 14 others, Antelis reformatted the program. He later partnered with the Illinois Holocaust Museum to help get the show off the ground.

Choosing to highlight one song from each book, alongside a few other wartime compositions, Antelis made sure each piece was by a different songwriter with a different presenter to tell their story. Though the songs have been performed outside of “We Are Here,” they’ve never been set to Antelis’ vision.

One such piece given Antelis’ unique touch was Martin Rosenberg’s “Ten Brothers” requiem. Rosenberg, a Jewish Polish conductor, secretly put on choirs with Jewish inmates during his time in Sachsenhausen. After learning he would be transferred to Auschwitz, Rosenberg wrote “Jüdischer Todessang” or “Jewish death song” inspired by “Tsen Brider,” a Yiddish folk song meaning “Ten Brothers.” Aleksander Kulisiewicz, a non-Jewish prisoner who had befriended Rosenberg, promised to keep the piece alive.

“Kulisiewicz would go and sing a lot of songs on the Holocaust…he literally performed music concerts doing all this, and that was one of the songs,” Antelis said. “In Rosenberg’s mind, he wanted it to be a requiem…so, because of what I do, I’m like, ‘Oh, great, we’re going to take his voice, the actual Kulisiewicz recording, and I’m going to set a choir to it.’ So in the concert, [you] actually hear Kulisiewicz’s voice from 1972.”

“The whole meaning is that Rosenberg wanted this piece never to be forgotten. And here we are, 80 years later, doing this piece at Carnegie Hall, arguably the most historic venue in the country,” he added.

Acting as the show’s finale, LaGuardia High School’s 120-person choir performed “Jüdischer Todessang” alongside an a cappella recording of Kulisiewicz. Their voices melted together into a symphony of survival, highlighting and harmonizing before finishing to the audience’s resounding applause.

Another distinct part to the concert was Antelis’ take on “Ani Ma’amin,” which Antelis noted as one of Wiesel’s favorites. His version incorporates Wiesel’s “Never Shall I Forget” poem from “Night,” which was recited by Steven Skybell as the song was sung.

“This music, this concert, represents today standing up, speaking out, singing, against hatred and embracing love, inclusion and acceptance,” Savenor said.

*****

This is not Antelis’ first altruistic work. During the pandemic, he created the digital music platform “We Have Loved,” as a way to honor the lives that were lost. Even more recently, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Antelis composed “We Sing For Ukraine” to raise relief funds.

“I try to do stuff that works for me in a world that I know,” Antelis said. “I knew I could really put the right pieces in place to do this Carnegie Hall thing.” 

In the future, Antelis and Savenor hope to bring “We Are Here” to Lithuania for the 80th anniversary of the Vilna ghetto’s destruction — some of the songs featured in the show were created during the ghetto’s operation. The Lithuanian general counsel will be at tonight’s performance.

For now, the pair hopes audiences left the show “inspired to stand up against hate.”

“We thought it was a concert, we thought it was an event, and it’s becoming an experience that’s larger than itself,” Savenor said. “I feel privileged and humbled to be a part of it.”

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