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More than a number



"The soul cannot believe that we will die, so we make beauty to delay our death." — David Mason, VEDEM

It has been 66 years since the end of the Holocaust, and 29 years since Congress established the Days of Remembrance as America's official commemoration of the Nazi extermination program that murdered two out of every three European Jews. For an event that took place far from American soil and that did not involve the U.S. government (except in the act of ending it), it may be unparalleled in its impact on the American people.

That impact endures today, says Ofer Ben-Amots, faculty sponsor of the Days of Remembrance at Colorado College, even if past generations' acute awareness of the event itself is fading.

"I think that for the young people, they see it as one in a series of atrocities that's happening all the time," he says. "[There are] many other atrocities and pogroms and wars in the world — they seem to never stop — but the Holocaust stands out because it was such an organized machinery by people who you'd never think capable of that. ... And that's why it is just so important to keep reminding of what even good people are capable of."

Many remembrance events seek to remedy this by exhibiting letters and photographs of Holocaust victims, reading the names of the dead, or inviting eyewitnesses to speak. Ben-Amots, however, is a professor of music. "The best way to connect emotionally is through music," he says. "Suddenly it becomes so real."

He also happens to be a colleague of Colorado poet laureate David Mason and a friend of composer Lori Laitman, who in 2008 were commissioned by the Seattle-based memorial project Music of Remembrance to write a piece of choral music inspired by poems written by children who experienced the Holocaust.

Their product was the oratorio VEDEM, which premiered last year in Seattle to critical acclaim. But as the CC departments of music and English and the Colorado Springs Children's Chorale prepare for VEDEM's May 3 debut in Colorado Springs, Ben-Amots says he hopes its greatest impact will be on ordinary people just like the boys who inspired it.

Leaders in the shadows

"Remember us. Remember us. We were no different than you."

The closing lines of Mason's text for VEDEM echo the voices of 100 young boys interned at Terezin, the "model ghetto" built by the Third Reich to house Jews forcibly removed from their homes in Prague. Most of them were dead by the age of 15, gassed in Auschwitz. What Mason asks listeners to remember, however, is not the deaths of the boys but their grip on life.

"It's not a statement about the Nazis," he says of the libretto. "It's a statement about the human spirit in the face of utter darkness."

In 15 movements, Mason's writing tells how the boys of Terezin were separated from their families and installed in a freezing barracks in the wilderness of northern Poland. What happens next, however, defies belief.

The third movement introduces "Vedem," Czech for "We lead." It's a word that expresses all the ambition and passion poured by the boys of Barrack #1, Room 417 into creating for themselves a magazine of poems, essays and artwork, which they succeeded in hiding from their captors throughout the years of their internment. Between 1942 and 1944, they created weekly, hand-copied editions.

"Vedem was the home for what we wrote and read aloud on evenings when we gathered," Mason's lines read. "Vedem was our poetry and prose. Vedem was how we weathered life inside the walls."

Throughout the work, Mason's words are interspersed with those of the children themselves. Five poems originally published in Vedem serve as dramatic punctuation in his libretto. The poems, which describe what Mason calls "the dailiness of life in the concentration camp" as well as heartbreaking loss, were then scored as arias by Laitman.

"I knew immediately that these were poems that would translate very, very well to music," she says. "They have a lot of depth and they were touching, and they had wisdom in them that was far beyond what one would normally find in poetry of teenage boys.

She adds, "It's not surprising, because their childhoods were taken from them."

To inspire

Of the hundred-odd original creators of Vedem, 15 boys survived the war and only six remain alive today. However, about 800 pages of their magazines survive. The creators of the oratorio VEDEM hope that their effort will allow the passion of the boys of Terezin to remain alive in the consciousness of the people who hear it. Like the newspaper before it, Laitman and Mason see their VEDEM as an affirmation of the vitality of purpose and creation born of adversity.

"That's what Music of Remembrance is all about," says Mason. "It's not a work about death, it's about life and the imagination and love and delight and craziness and hunger and hope and loneliness and all of those things."

Under the weight of 66 years of retrospect, some might wonder what VEDEM can say about the Holocaust that has not already been said. But Laitman and Mason believe that the passion that brought Vedem into being, the vitality that Ben-Amots hopes will make 2011's remembrance of the Holocaust more than a litany of atrocities, must be felt to be understood.

"Music can describe things that go beyond regular speech," says Ben-Amots. "This is a very hard topic to deal with. Now it's given to you, almost like on a silver platter, and you have the time and the capacity to digest the material, so it goes much deeper."

Days of tribute

— Compiled by Claire Swinford

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