Song of the Murdered

By Frank Santarpia and Ilya Galak

From Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Bantam, 1982), p. 32. This quote also appears in the Permanent Exhibition of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.


Part I: Song of the Murdered

The Holocaust is not of my lifetime. It is out of the realm of my personal experience.

The horror and shame, the terror and disgust, the tragedy and the guilt belong to the generation that came before mine. In camps throughout Europe, after insanity blanketed the continent, a group of men under the banner of a twisted cross descended to unexplored depths of hatred, depravity and indifference. There they summoned demons with faces so distorted and grotesque that good men could not even look upon their countenance, and sadly – catastrophically – turned away.

In those camps, armed with the technology of their generation, they honed the craft of warfare and perfected the art of human destruction – and there, whispered to by their demons, these men with a palpable lust for power and a secret love of death systematically murdered six million human beings.

The words are chosen carefully. I do not speak of genocide, a catch-all phrase that is political and impersonal. I do not speak of the death of six million as an abstract concept, part of the collateral damage of war. No. The word I use, and deliberately so, is murder.

The holocaust was the murder of a single human being, an individual with hopes and dreams, aspirations and talent, a family, a home, a job, a passion, a life – repeated six million times.

It is virtually impossible for us to comprehend; the human mind cannot process its terrible scale. Words fail us. To cope with the magnitude of the tragedy we need to learn a new vocabulary, we need a method of communication beyond textbooks and novels and movies.

I have found it. I have found it in the music of Zlata Razdolina, a Russian-born Jew who is now a citizen of Israel.
Her piece is entitled HOLOCAUST REQUIEM: Song of the Murdered Jewish People. In 48 minutes, this St. Petersburg native has captured the essence of the holocaust in a way that can be done in no other medium. Through her music, we are offered a glimpse at the souls of the victims, we are haunted by their wails of terror and pain, we are comforted and enveloped by their love of the religious faith and heritage they shared. And because we are made to feel these emotions so deeply, we are brought to new heights of determination that this will never, never happen again.

Requiem is classical music in its highest form, but unlike a typical musical composition which speaks to us in chords and harmonies; it reaches even more dizzying heights accompanied by the words of Itzhak Katzenelson, the man known as the holocaust poet.

Katzenelson, who had been trapped in the Warsaw ghetto and participated in the uprising, wrote the poem Song of the Murdered Jewish People while in an internment camp in Vittel, France. Sadly and ironically, he himself became one of those murdered Jewish people after being sent to Auschwitz in 1944.

The words and music of Katzenelson and Razdolina merge to form a composition of incredible power and soaring eloquence; and when combined with a grainy photographic montage of scenes from the ghetto and the camps, assembled by Shlomo Blumberg for the DVD version of the piece, we recognize that a new vocabulary, a new medium, has indeed been offered.
But it is the music that sets Requiem apart. It is uplifting and towering in some movements, dirge-like and funereal in others, and martial when accompanying the story of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. So on point is the orchestration that even if it were not accompanied by the poem or the imagery, it would foster a deeper understanding of that heartbreaking episode in human history.

Part II: Mother Russia

Ms. Razdolina began her musical education early. “I sat at the piano at the age of four,” she said in a recent interview, “and my mother showed me the correct way to position my fingers.” Fearful, however, that Zlata would learn improper techniques, her mother sent the precocious child to music school. A true prodigy, she wrote her first composition by the time she was five.

As a youngster, she won many amateur music competitions, and first stood on a professional stage at the tender age of 16. By 17, her music was being recorded by other artists and was getting radio play, and by 18, she was accepted into the highly prestigious Leningrad Union of Artists.

“When I was 21, one of my compositions was recognized as the best new song of the year in a nationwide competition,” admits Razdolina, with a mixture of humility and pride. “I was even decorated by the military for composing the musical accompaniment to a cycle of poems about the Second World War.”

At the suggestion of a television producer, Zlata began to write musical scores to accompany the verses of Russia’s “Silver Age” poets, who wrote in the period spanning the first two decades of the 20th century – known in other parts of the world as the “Belle Epoque.” As the first modern composer to attempt this, Zlata found that these poems opened up for her a brave new world, and would soon prove to be the vehicle that launched her to stardom. Though Zlata was already successfully composing for the stage and screen, and many performers were covering her modern work – usually romantic tunes – her classical compositions would cause her fame to skyrocket. In particular, Zlata was drawn to the work of a beloved Russian female poet named Anna Akhmatova.
The Silver Age marked the beginning of the career of Odessa-native Akhmatova, who would write a poetic cycle called Rekviem in the period from 1935 to 1940. A powerful work based on the Stalinist purges, it was thought to be too dangerous to write down on paper, so from its conception until it was finally published in the mid-60’s, Rekviem existed only as memorized verses in the minds of Anna and her closest, most trusted, friends.

Its evocative and mournful style matched perfectly with Razdolina’s burgeoning talents. So powerful was the musical score Zlata created for Rekviem that it won several international competitions, and in 1989, it was chosen over dozens of others to be performed at the Kremlin during the celebration of the 100th birthday of the beloved Akhmatova. Zlata Razdolina, a Jew from St. Petersburg, went to Moscow to perform before Soviet heads of state. It was a high point in her life – but her elation would be short-lived. Her world would soon come crashing down.She had just gotten back to her home in St. Petersburg after her triumphal performance of Akhmatova’s Rekviem in Moscow. Upheaval would come in the form of a simple phone call; at the other end was an unknown voice, deep and terrifying. “He threatened me with death,” remembered Zlata, “and not just me – he threatened to kill my three children.”

“He” was a member of Pamyat, an ultra-nationalist, racist and anti-Semitic group that billed itself as the People’s National-Patriotic Orthodox Christian Movement. “He said ‘if you, a dirty Jew, ever dare to perform the works of our Anna in our Kremlin, we will kill you and your children.’ I was terrified. He told me to leave Russia; he told me that I belonged in Israel.”

Times were hard for Jews in Russia. If they dared to practice their religion openly, doors were closed to them; Zlata herself had to change her original name, Rosenfeld, to the Russian name Razdolina – both of which mean “field of roses” – in order to work without interference.

Once, when she was a young schoolgirl, she disguised herself as an old woman in order to go to the synagogue to hear the cantor sing. Sharp-eyed agents spotted her, and the next day a schoolmate passed her a note asking if, by some mistake, she was in or around the synagogue yesterday.

She was in the synagogue, wrote Zlata, “but not by mistake.” Such bravado is the province of the young – being the mother of three young children changes everything, and calms the most combative spirits.

On the night of the telephone call, Zlata Razdolina was at the peak of her career. She was known throughout the Soviet Union, her compositions were being performed by many famous artists – leaving her home, and her success, to emigrate to a foreign land was simply not in her plans. She didn’t even speak Hebrew – she spoke and composed in Russian and Yiddish. Two events convinced her to change her mind.

The first was the death of a high-profile, female Jewish attorney who lived in Moscow – she was killed when her house was torched and burned to the ground. She, too, had gotten a phone call from Pamyat.

The second event, the final straw, was perpetrated on her own child, who was accosted by two men while playing basketball in a neighbor’s backyard. After being beaten and bloodied, he was sent home with a foreboding message: “Tell your mama we said ‘Hello.’”

Enough was enough. The lives of her children superseded the good life Zlata had built for herself in St. Petersburg, and she knew that she needed to say goodbye to her home in Russia. Her creativity would be stifled if she had to look over her shoulder constantly, wary of anyone who might be a threat to her or her family.

She cancelled all her scheduled concerts and started to make preparations to leave, but the sheer volume of Soviet Jews attempting to emigrate created almost insurmountable bureaucratic obstacles. Whether the destination was Israel or the United States, the opportunity to leave Russia – legally – would take more than a year, maybe two. Zlata simply did not have that kind of time – but what she did have was a fierce determination to keep her family safe, and a burning desire to perform and create. She would find a way out.

Part III: Flight

St. Petersburg, Russia, sits on an arm of the Baltic Sea called the Gulf of Finland; it’s a ferry-ride away from Helsinki, where Zlata had many fans – and many contacts. It was not surprising that she received an invitation to perform there, an invitation that she readily accepted at the urging of her Finnish friends. But she put a condition on her appearance.

“I told them I would perform, but that I would expect a favor in return,” remembered Zlata. “I told them I wanted them to use their connections to get me from Finland to Israel.”

She would rather take her chances in Israel illegally than live in Russia too frightened to work, and living under the threat of death. They put the wheels in motion, they put the plan in place – but what she was going to attempt was a serious crime with serious consequences if she were caught. Every effort was being made to cover her tracks, but despite all the planning she was putting herself at serious risk.

At that time, Soviet laws were designed to tamp down the rate of disaffected individuals fleeing to the West to seek asylum. While citizens could visit the neighboring country of Finland to see friends and relatives, the Soviet government tried to keep them tethered to their Russian homes by forbidding people to travel with either of two important things: their passports or their precious metals and jewels. Without the former they could not cross international borders; without the latter they could not transport their wealth.

Zlata had shipped her grand piano ahead in preparation for the concert, and began the journey with her children and parents in tow – and her papers concealed on her body. The risk was enormous.

“I didn’t take gold, silver or jewels, knowing that they would be a red flag to inspectors,” said Zlata. “My passport and other documents were concealed on my body.” She could pass only the most cursory of inspections – anything more thorough than a superficial pat-down would result in discovery…and immediate incarceration.

Zlata: “I knew we would be stopped at the border, but my hope was that when the metal detectors showed that I had no precious metals or other jewelry, we would be passed through.”

What Zlata hadn’t counted on came as a shock: there was no metal detector at the checkpoint. The inspectors said they would have to do a full body search, especially since she was traveling with her children, her parents and enough baggage for an extended stay – perhaps for years. Her heart stopped beating in her chest. Discovery of her documents – hidden on her person – would mean jail.

“As the inspector approached me I screamed ‘Don’t touch me’ ” recalled Zlata, “What else could I do?”
“I told them, ‘I have no gold, no jewelry! Where is your metal detector? That will show you that what I say is true! Take me to your superior!’ ”

Even as she spoke the words, she knew she was courting disaster. She was relying on intimidating the female inspector before her.

It worked. To the enormous relief of Zlata and her family, the ensuing pat-down was quick and superficial. They passed through, boarded the ferry for Helsinki, and began the next step in the fascinating journey of their lives.

Part IV: Israel, America and the World

“You have to go back – back to Russia, back to Leningrad.’ That’s what they told me.”

In disbelief, Zlata stared silently at the Israeli Embassy worker in Helsinki. When she found her voice, she told him that she could do no such thing, desperately trying to make him understand that not just her life, that even the lives of her children were in jeopardy. But with the Soviet Union in chaos, Israel was in the process of establishing better relations and preparing to deal with an incredible influx of Russian Jews. They were not inclined to aggravate the Soviets during a period in which they were being cooperative about allowing Jewish emigration.

Zlata once again called upon her friends in the arts and entertainment community, who descended en masse on the Israeli Embassy.

“Basically they threatened the Israelis with bad publicity and world-wide embarrassment. They said they would make broadcast my plight on radio, and make a documentary television program about the case, and shame Israel for not granting asylum to a famous Jewish composer whose life was in jeopardy in Russia.”

So effective was the ploy that within three days, Zlata and her family had all the documents, visas and permissions they needed. And tickets to the Holy Land. God had smiled on Zlata Razdolina yet again.

The trip to Israel was uneventful, and upon arrival they stayed with variety of Russian immigrant friends. Within three months, Zlata Razdolina was back on the stage.

“I had many fans in Israel who had emigrated from Russia, and they supported my career almost immediately. By 1991, I was performing before Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. I was humbled by his words of praise.”

So impressed was Shamir that he offered Zlata and her family a place to live – a house they could call their own. They settled into life in Israel, and Zlata continued to compose her music and perform before delighted audiences throughout the country. Eventually, the Razdolina family landed in the northern city of Nahariya.

She caught the eyes and ears of the famous and influential Israeli entertainer and producer Dudu Fisher, and it wasn’t long before they were performing and recording together. Along with the Tel Aviv Symphonic Orchestra, they sang and played Akhmatova’s Rekviem on Israeli television. “Her mastery blends together emotional expressiveness, exclusive artistry, masterful piano accompaniment, exceptional poetic feeling, and vocal freedom,” said Dudu, when asked about Razdolina. “This combination forms Ms. Razdolina’s unique talent, which is second to none…”
In 1994, she composed the musical score of a television movie based on the famous Kastner trial. Yuri Barbash, who directed the movie, wrote about Zlata: “Her music struck me with its melodic color and lyricism. I consider her to be a genius in her field…”
The show won the Israeli version of an Emmy.

All of Zlata’s works were eventually translated into Hebrew, including her signature piece. It was at a concert in which Zlata was performing Akhmatova’s Rekviem that she met the man who would soon become her husband: Shlomo Blumberg.
“He said to me ‘If you can write such powerful music for Anna’s Rekviem, you must write the music for this.’ Then he handed me the poem Song of the Murdered Jewish People.”

She began to compose what would become the piece that would soon eclipse her treatment of the Akhmatova Rekviem, and would eventually become her introduction to a world-wide audience – she was writing the music to accompany the holocaust poem of Itzhak Katzenelson.

It was completed in 1997. That year, Zlata went to the Czech Republic to record Requiem with the Moravska Filarmonia conducted by maestro Victor Feldbrill, a Canadian who is himself a Jew and a holocaust survivor. The CD produced from this concert would be played in more than 20 countries around the world; in each country the speaking parts would be translated into the native language.

Requiem was performed throughout Israel to great acclaim, both live and on classical radio broadcasts, including a triumphal performance at holocaust museums Yad-Vashem and The House of the Ghetto Fighters Museum.

In 2002, Zlata Razdolina performed it for the first time in the United States with the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra at the ICOR annual concert, held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. The show was produced by Jerry Jacob, the orchestra was conducted by maestro Arkady Leytush, the narration was by actor Fritz Weaver, and Zlata herself played and sang in Hebrew.

Later, when reflecting upon Zlata’s unique abilities, Leytush would write: “Ms. Razdolina’s talent has gained her world acclaim. She has utilized her musical genius to advance social and historical causes, and she has touched people’s hearts with unforgettable music.”

In 2003, Zlata made a triumphal return to Russia – she had not set foot on her native soil since her narrow escape – performing in concerts celebrating the 300th Anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg. While there in February and March of that year, she also performed to adoring audiences in Moscow.

In 2004, she received a letter of appreciation from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

During the past few years, Zlata has toured the United States, Canada, Israel, Europe – and even Russia – to great critical acclaim. At the time of this writing, preparations are being made for a concert in Moscow, dedicated to her incredible body of work. There, in an ironic turn of fate, Zlata Razdolina will perform Akhmatova’s Rekviem once again – the same composition that set in motion a chain of events that caused her to flee Russia 20 years earlier.

That Zlata Razdolina was blessed by God with talent, determination, courage and beauty is evident. But what one realizes only after spending time with her, listening to the passion in her voice, watching her eyes as she thinks and remembers, is that perhaps her greatest gift is her sensitivity. She has been given an uncanny ability to enter the mind, and convey the emotions, of another human being, to be transported to a higher plane of understanding by a line of poetry hastily scratched onto a piece of paper, or by a glance at a faded photograph, or by seeing in her mind’s eye the face of a long-gone casualty of war – not as it would appear in death, but as it would appear in the fullness and glory of life.

Part V: Zlata Razdolina:

“As I was composing the music for Katzenelson’s Requiem, I saw the faces of my murdered relatives – my father was the youngest of 11 children, and only he and his two sisters survived. The rest were wiped out. My grandmother was burned to death when her synagogue was torched in Minsk and my only brother was killed during the war”.

“I often dreamt that I was myself in the ghetto, and I recalled the vivid images that haunted my sleep. I thought about the title of the poem; I thought about the murdered Jewish people”.

“I have two performance goals, now. I want to see Requiem performed exactly as it is written: for orchestra, cantor and choir – it has never been done that way. And I want to perform it in New York, at Ground Zero, in honor of those that died on 9/11/01. In many, many ways, their deaths speak to me of the holocaust, and I wish to commemorate the tragedy that befell those innocents. I would like to do it next year, on the tenth anniversary of the attacks”.

“Finally, I want people to know that this elegy – this requiem – bears witness to the millions of Jews murdered by the Nazis, and I wish it to be an eternal warning to those generations born after the holocaust. We must never forget.”


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