If the idea that Jewish prisoners in the Terezin concentration camp would rehearse and perform Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem Mass as an act of defiance against their Nazi captors seems incongruous, imagine observing non-Jewish students, at Iona College in New Rochelle, watch a film about an almost unimaginable Holocaust experience.
These students, who sat transfixed, some wiping tears from their eyes, were members of professor Elena Procario-Foley’s course, “Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Holocaust.” In addition to the classroom presentation, which also featured an introduction and discussion by conductor Murry Sidlin, who has made it a mission to share this story as widely as possible, these students, with help from UJA-Federation of New York, will also attend the performance of “Defiant Requiem” at Lincoln Center on March 9.
“These people were imprisoned for being Jewish,” Sidlin told the students in his introduction to the film. “Why would they devote themselves to singing a Catholic Mass? It’s one of the great mysteries.”
Given the powerful story, which illuminates an unusual and little-known aspect of the Holocaust, UJA-Federation’s Kerry Newman said it was especially important to bring the story to the next generation, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.
“We need to bring this not just to Jewish students, or Jewish day school students,” she said. The charity distributes free tickets to survivors, and to 150 students in the metropolitan area (including, of course, Jewish schools like Ramaz, Solomon Schechter of Long Island and Abraham Heschel) through corporate sponsorships. The concert, which is also presented by The Defiant Requiem Foundation and Selfhelp Community Services, benefits UJA-Federation of New York’s Community Initiative for Holocaust Survivors.
The opportunity to share “Defiant Requiem” with her students was eagerly welcomed by Procario-Foley, who is the Brother Driscoll Professor of Jewish-Catholic Studies at Iona. “This just landed in my lap through a friend of mine who is involved with UJA,” she said. “Whatever extras I can get I will put [my teaching]. I want [the students] to understand the dimensions of the Holocaust. Things like the ‘Defiant Requiem’ show how the Holocaust was an equal opportunity discriminator.”
The college’s commitment to serious scholarship and teaching about Jewish studies is long-standing. Iona, which was founded as a Catholic College by an order of Irish Christian Brothers and is now officially non-sectarian, has had a program in Jewish-Catholic Studies since 1999. The college has also had a Yom HaShoah commemoration for about 30 years.
Most of the students in this class are non-Jewish, although Procario-Foley said she often has a student from a Jewish-Christian background.
“We deal with the historical roots of Christian anti-Judaism and problematic texts,” said Procario-Foley. “For some students, it’s quite a shock. We discuss Christian anti-Judaism to explain the Holocaust, and why there were bystanders.” Students take a trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau during their spring break as part of their exploration of the Holocaust; they also visit Krakow and the Jewish Quarter, with a Kabbalat Shabbat service with the Jewish community there.
For several of the students, watching the film was a powerful and unsettling experience. “I get immersed in it,” said Ashley Hubaykah, a junior from Tampa, Fla., who is Catholic, and also interns at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan. “I’m interested in Holocaust studies, and the whole process of learning about it. This [“Defiant Requiem”] is a way of allowing voiceless victims to be heard.”
Louis Ramos, a senior religious studies and sociology major from the Bronx, said in an email, “While I knew that Terezin existed and that there had been cultural activities, I did not know that there was such a great amount occurring. Particularly inspiring was the way that these activities helped those who were at Terezin express themselves. These cultural expressions made them feel human, when so much was done to dehumanize them.”
His classmate, Jordan Darling, a junior from California who is a religious studies and English major, said in an email, “The most inspiring thing about the film is that wondrous sliver of divinity that is present from the individuals kept at the Terezin Camp. … Even in the face of starvation, abuse, and back-breaking work days these very special individuals, at this very particular place in time were in their own way fighting in the war against the most malevolent evil.”
Communicating that complicated sense of the Holocaust is part of Procario-Foley’s pedagogical mission.
“We’re trying to combat the myth of Jewish passivity [during the war],” she said. “This shows artistic resistance in the camps, and how they maintained religious observance in the camps. Terezin was such a diabolical piece of the landscape that was the epitome of Nazi deceptiveness.”