This is a review I really wish I didn’t have to write. Not because the concert was bad, far from it, but Thursday, 27th January 2022 was Holocaust Memorial Day which marks the most barbaric event in the history of mankind. If only there had been nothing to remember.
Leeds has more reason than most places to stage a memorial concert as it was one of the few places in the country where the Jewish immigrants and refugees from Germany and Eastern Europe settled between the end of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th. The number of Jews in Leeds rose from 60 in 1840 to 29,000 in 1950 when it hit the peak and meant that Leeds had the largest Jewish community, by proportion, of any other city in the UK. By 2011 the number had shrunk to under 7,000.
The early Jewish settlers were largely accommodated in the slums of Leylands where more than 6,000 were squeezed into 50 acres. Leylands covered the area between North Street and Regent Street from Eastgate to Skinner Lane. It is now industrialised with few residential properties other than new apartment blocks. As the inhabitants became more affluent they moved out to Chapeltown and then Moortown and Alwoodley.
Leeds owes its prosperity in no little part to the Jewish community who provided the city with a huge amount of employment. Burton’s had the largest tailoring factory in the world on Hudson Road where there were 10,000 employees with a canteen which could seat 8,000! There were also the jobs in the retail branches. Stylo Shoes were owned by the Ziff family who built The Merrion Centre, and all of that is before we get to Michael Marks who joined up with Thomas Spencer and did quite well for himself and the people of Leeds in the retail clothing and food sector. Let us also not forget Manny Cousins who was chairman of the furnishing chain Waring and Gillow but is owed a huge debt of gratitude by the people of Leeds for joining the board of directors of Leeds United in 1961 and, along with Harry Reynolds, turning the club from being the lower Second Division team they were, into the major force in the sport it then became.
I had always been under the impression that the Jewish influx to Leeds came from Russia and Germany, my dad had a lot of Jewish friends and they would pepper their conversation with Yiddish words, a language which seemed to be a cross between Hebrew and German, but in fact most came from Lithuania, something I only discovered five years ago when I went for a break to Vilnius and noticed the Jewish Ghetto. I had a walk round and saw a notice saying that the former residents had relocated mainly to Leeds in order to escape the pogroms. A long way to go to find out about your home city’s history.
My dad grew up in a less than salubrious part of Leeds quite near Leylands hence his Jewish friends, some of whom who we would meet on Saturday mornings in the Kardomah Coffee House. I still find myself slipping the odd Yiddish word I picked up in their company into my conversation even after all these years. My friends at Park Lane College, which in the 1960s was merely half a dozen Portakabins in the yard of a Victorian primary school rather than the monolith it is now, were mostly Jewish and were much impressed by my linguistic abilities. Because of the nature of the Kardomah meetings, the expressions I know are of the more colourful variety.
All of this rambling is to highlight the devastation caused to the people of Leeds, whose families had not been fortunate enough to have been able to take refuge in out great city and so were exterminated for no other reason than their religious belief.
I had imagined that the concert at Howard Assembly Room would be downbeat and I would end up in floods of tears but it was actually uplifting in its content which, ironically, made it even more poignant. It focused on composers and artists who were interned at Theresienstadt concentration camp.
The music included works by Hans Krása, Gideon Klein and Viktor Ullman who were all murdered at Auschwitz after being transported from Terezín, the ghetto connected to the camp. There were also readings from the journals and poetry of Holocaust victims.
Before the concert began Dominic Gray, Opera North’s Project Director, told us a little about what to expect and that there had been a change to the programme. It was due to end with ‘Lullaby’ by Gideon Klein sung by Katie Bird and this was still the case, but it would also begin with the same piece played on piano by Philip Voldman in order to illustrate the beauty of the simple melody. Mr Voldman duly obliged and the piece was, indeed, captivating.
There followed a reading by Howard Croft of an excerpt from ‘An Artist’s Journal of the Holocaust’ by Alfred Kantor. His experience was written in the past tense so I looked him up to see what became of him. He was a Czech artist who painted daily life in Theresienstadt and his journal was published in 1971. He died in 2003 in Maine, USA in 2003.
As an aside, yes, another one, whilst looking him up it seems that Theresienstadt Concentration Camp was made for the public to see that concentration camps were not so bad, although 33,000 Jews died there. In 1944 it was inspected by the Danish and International Red Cross but before they arrived, the Nazis completely changed the look of the route on which the inspectors were taken, by installing new shops and shipping out inmates who were ill and replacing them with healthy ones. After the visitors left the camp reverted to normal.
The third piece was a Trio by Hans Krása played by Hannah Perowne – violin, Alex Mitchell – viola and Richard Jenkinson – cello. It began with the cello doing an imitation of a train hurtling at some speed down the tracks. The others played the melody over the top of this at a similar pace. It indicated that being incarcerated in the camp, the only sounds that the inmates heard were those of the constant ferrying of the new internees both to the camp and from it to destinations unknown. The violin and viola evoked the hurry with which the guards would get the passengers to alight and board so as not to waste any time. The work ended with a touchingly beautiful chorale.
There followed a reading from a piece called ‘Musica Prohibita’ by Ilse Weber describing the joy of hearing live music, no matter how basic the performance.
Ilse Weber was born in Austria/Hungary and wrote poetry mainly for children. When she was sent to Theresienstadt she worked as a night nurse in the children’s hospital, not an easy job as she had to care for them without access to medicine, which was denied to Jewish inmates. She also wrote poetry and songs whilst confined there. When her husband was transferred to Auschwitz she volunteered to join him with their son so as not to break up the family. On arrival, mother and son were sent straight to the gas chamber. Her husband survived the war and died 30 years later.
The next piece was by Viktor Ullman, ‘A Mejdel in die Johren’, performed by soprano Katie Bird accompanied by Philip Voldman on piano. This was a short piece but beautifully sung and was, once again, quite upbeat for a song written in captivity.
A Trio by Gideon Klein was the next work and I thought that I detected echoes of the railway in its violin part. The work was very intricate and wonderfully performed by the trio.
Tenor, Anthony Flaum, took to the stage next to sing ‘Deux Mélodies Hébraïques’. Mr Flaum introduced the songs by saying that, unlike the others we had heard, they were composed by a gentile, Maurice Ravel. He opined that Ravel captured the Yiddish spirit in these songs as well as, if not better than, any other composer. He said that his great grandfather had fled Eastern Europe in 1890 and settled in the East End of London where he became a cantor at the local synagogue. Once again, Philip Voldman provided piano accompaniment.
The final reading, by Howard Croft, was ‘The Last Lullaby’ written by Freidl Trofimov. It was perhaps the most moving piece of the evening, or at least I found it so. I was not able to find any information on this author, which I hope to be a good sign.
To end the concert Katie Bird sang Gideon Klein’s Lullaby which was a fitting way to end the evening, and added so much to the instrumental version we had heard at the beginning.
I said that the concert was not as downbeat as I thought it was going to be and, on reflection, it occurred to me that, as it was written by the internees of this camp, it wouldn’t be. The human spirit is very good at helping us deal with adversity on top of which I don’t believe that the prisoners would be aware of what lay in store for them. Because of the film of the camps taken when they were liberated we know of the horrors within, but nothing like that would have ever been seen by the German people at the time. Added to this, the fact that Theresienstadt was designed to present the acceptable face of concentration camps with musical instruments allowed, the atmosphere would probably have been less doom-laden.
As a final footnote, a friend of mine recently told me that his grandparents, who were Jewish and had both survived the war, had met and fallen in love in a German concentration camp. The taste of teardrops in your beer does absolutely nothing for the flavour!
One Day: Music and the Holocaust was a DARE presentation in association with the University of Leeds.
All photographs by Stan Graham