Music Conquers Silence
The man who wrote these words, Henry Oertelt, is an 81 year-old survivor of one of the most devastating events in the history of humankind: the Holocaust. Survivors of those tragic twelve years describe the Holocaust as "painful to remember, but difficult to forget" (Survivors). Henry directly confronted this pain when he wrote his autobiography, An Unbroken Chain. At the time he wrote, the events of September 11 had not yet taken place. Then, "hatred" and "bigotry" were just words to most Americans - we were safe, we were strong, we were sure. However, for Henry, the words "hatred" and "bigotry" have carried meaning since he was a child. He has seen humanity at its worst and September 11 served only to re-establish the lengths people will go in order to victimize others.
Just after Henry turned twelve, Hitler ascended to power. Despite the burgeoning Nazi movement, the Jewish people remained doubtful that Hitler's threats would ever become reality. "The world would certainly not stand idly by if [Hitler] did anything drastic," they said to one another (Oertelt 16). "This is the twentieth century. They wouldn't kill us!" (Survivors).
Yet before long, it became clear that the world would indeed "stand idly by" as little by little, Nazi "ideals" were converted into Nazi directives. Mein Kampf, Hitler's propaganda book, became required reading in Henry's class. Because he was Jewish, Henry was dismissed from all extracurricular activities. At the age of 14, Henry was forced to quit school. The dehumanization of the Jewish people was in full motion, yet their struggle had only just begun. For in the progression of hate, ideology affects attitudes, which influence words, which, ultimately, control actions.
In 1943, Henry was transported to the concentration camp of Terezin (Theresienstadt), the camp where many of Europe's finest artists, musicians, and scholars were sent. The next year he was transferred to Auschwitz/Birkenau, which, he said, "proved to be even more terrifying than I had imagined" (Oertelt 82). He later endured Camps Golleschau and Flossenburg.
Last spring, I met Henry Oertelt when he came to speak for our school choir concert, "Never Again: A Tribute to the Children of the Holocaust." The songs we were singing -"Butterfly Songs" - were actually a collection of poems written by children during their incarceration in Terezin. In the book, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, all nine poems that became "Butterfly Songs" can be found. Most of the children who wrote these poems perished at the camp, for out of the 15,000 children who were imprisoned at Terezin, less than 100 survived (Oertelt 74).
This year, for Yom HaShoah, our choir performed the "Butterfly Songs" for a commemoration service. For most of us, it was our first time in a synagogue. By the time we sang the final words of "On a Sunny Evening," the entire congregation was weeping. The words resound, "If in barbed wire, things can bloom/why couldn't I?/I will not die!" (Volavkova 77). The survivors in the audience were especially moved by our music, as the words could just as easily have been their own.
Though most of the children of Terezin died, singing their words assures that their voices will not. By immortalizing the voices of the Holocaust through the universal language of music, we are able to touch persons of all races, religions, and nationalities. This is how I propose we combat prejudice, discrimination and violence in our world today: music.
Henry's message is compelling. "I am a survivor of the Holocaust," he says, "one who has been destined to bear witness for its millions of murdered victims. Our numbers are slowly diminishing, but our will to survive and our remaining voices are still powerful. The Nazi system, created to perpetuate inhumanity has tragically silenced so many. Our pointed accusations still ring clear and true and our outcries for justice remain as strong as ever" (Oertelt 12).
Even though we are removed from the Holocaust in terms of time and distance, we can still continue to bear witness for its victims. By channeling their voices through the universal language of music, we can bridge this chasm of time and distance. We can become their voices.
Oertelt, Henry. An Unbroken Chain. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 2000.
Survivors of the Holocaust. Videotape. Turner Home Entertainment. 1996. 70 min.
Volavkova, Hana, ed. I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children's Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944. New York: Schoken Books, Inc. 1993.
The opinions, comments, and sentiments expressed by
the participants are not necessarily those of Holland & Knight LLP or the
Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation, Inc.