The Man Who Did Not Die

The Last Jew in Vinnitsa (1941)

Last night I went to my first, full symphony. It was part of The Phoenix Symphony’s Rediscovered Masters series, celebrating the works of brilliant men who survived or lost their lives during the horrors of war.

That evening’s official headliner was violin virtuoso Concertmaster Steven Moeckel. He conducted the third and final piece by Mozart. You can read about his perfect performance here. Before that was the evening’s titled piece Suite for Threepenny Opera, composed by Kurt Weill, a German Jew who fled to America to avoid Nazi persecution. However, the best piece of the evening was the first, Study for Strings by Pavel Haas.

As of late, I’ve been listening to a lot classical music. Going to a symphony has been something I’ve always wanted to do and that morning I received an e-mail that that evening’s performance had tickets available for only $18. Without giving it a second thought, I paid the 18-bucks and went about my day. After seeing the United States draw against Argentina I quickly made it home from the bar for a quick change and proceeded to the symphony.

I went by myself. Whenever I go on one of my solo adventures, there’s a mix excitement and nervousness.

As I picked-up my ticket from will call, I knew full well that I was going to be in the nose bleeds since I bought the least expensive ticket possible, in the D price range. To my pleasant surprise, I was placed in the fourth row. Later I realized, that being that close to the musicians is considered a bad thing, but not to me! The acoustics were great and being able to see the ensemble at that close a range was wonderful. I even had the opportunity to make eye-contact with some cute violinists. Excellent.

Sitting there, taking in the new sights and the sounds of the musicians tuning their instruments was overwhelming, in a great way! That’s when I read my program and first learned of Haas’ story.

A Czech Jew, he suffered under Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia. As the situation worsened for the Jewish community in his country, he saved his wife’s life… by divorcing her. You see, she was not Jewish and to save her from the growing oppression of Jews he had no choice. The closest thing he ever did for her was let her go.

Eventually he was arrested and taken to Theresienstadt, the Nazi’s propaganda ghetto that they regularly showed film of to display to the world how “well” they treated their prisoners. While there in the the prison, now named Terezin, he wrote the piece Study for Strings. Nazis even had film of one of the performances to show their “humanity”.

Shortly after that film, he was transferred to Auschwitz and promptly killed in a gas chamber.

Reading about this before the performance only heightened my nerves. I was a ball of energy, filled with conflicting emotions of excitement and sadness; joy, at my external surroundings and internal reflection, on learning his story.

Then the concert began.

I was expecting a sad, somber piece, considering the conditions he lived in. It wasn’t. Neither was it an over-joyous Nazi contrived propaganda piece. When you listen to it, you get the sense of anxiety and confusion. It was, and is, a work of perseverance. Although tomorrow is uncertain, one can also take away it’s fighting spirit. The work is a fight, no question, and does not claim victory. But it neither concedes defeat.

In October of 1944 he was murdered inside a gas chamber. A death too cruel for an animal, and yet that’s how he met his end. Naked, choking to death with others, surprised at the cruel deception, clawing at doors that would not open. But he really didn’t die that night.

For one night, nearly 70-years after his death, he shared his joy and love for life with me and thousands others. His hands were at work once again through the fingers of musicians. He smiled again through the faces in the crowd. And at the end, we thanked and celebrated him with applause. Celebrating not only his masterpiece of music, but also the masterpiece that was his life.

His life was taken away by an act of evil and cruelty. But his spirit and legacy will live on forever. And that, no one can kill.

Pavel Haas (June 21st, 1899 – October 17th 1944)

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