Music of hope

Published: March 2008

Last summer, Creating Harmony: the Displaced Persons’ Orchestra at St. Ottilien, by veteran filmmaker and professor of fine arts John Michalczyk with coproducer Ronald Marsh of the Burns Library, premiered at the New York Museum of Jewish Heritage. The film is Michalczyk’s sequel to Displaced: Miracle at St. Ottilien, released in 2002. Both films portray events that took place in World War II’s aftermath at a Benedictine monastery, in Bavaria, that was used by the Allies as a hospital for concentration camp survivors—events of which Michalczyk became aware through army veteran Robert Hilliard.

Some eight years ago, by “sheer coincidence,” according to Michalczyk, he met Hilliard through a mutual colleague, and invited the World War II veteran, who had been stationed in postwar Germany, to speak to his “Holocaust and the Arts” class. Hilliard is author of Surviving the Americans (Seven Stories Press, 1996), which Library Journal called “an important corrective to the popular perception that beneficent liberators attended to the needs of Holocaust victims from the moment of their liberation.”

The veteran was, in Michalczyk’s words, “an incredible speaker,” and he had a story to tell: As a 19-year old army private, Hilliard teamed up with fellow GI Edward Herman in a letter-writing campaign to raise awareness of the deplorable conditions at St. Ottilien. The impassioned letter accused the allied occupiers of “continued genocide,” declaring that by failing to provide the minimal sanitary, medical, and nutritional needs of St. Ottilien’s patients, Americans were unwitting accomplices in “carrying out Hitler’s plan of destruction of the Jews.” The young GIs’ letter came to the attention of President Harry S. Truman, who ordered the army to provide more resources to the camp, as reported on the front page of the September 30, 1945, New York Times. Michalczyk’s 2002 Displaced: Miracle at St. Ottilien tells this story. It was screened at numerous festivals and broadcast on Boston’s public television station WGBH.

Serendipity continued to lead Michalczyk to new material. With the help of Edward Herman he obtained photos, audio recordings, and other materials from Sonia Beker, daughter of violinist Max Beker and his wife, pianist Fania Durmashkin-Beker, accomplished musicians from Vilna who were among the Holocaust survivors at St. Ottilien. The Bekers organized a concert of musicians who had survived Nazi internment at St. Ottilien on May 27, 1945, which Hilliard attended and described as “a liberation concert at which most of the liberated people were too weak to stand.” The St. Ottilien musicians then traveled throughout Bavaria, performing in their concentration camp clothing for audiences at displaced persons camps. They attracted international attention and were invited to play for David Ben Gurion, soon to be Israel’s first prime minister, and the Nuremburg Tribunal. Leonard Bernstein came to conduct them. Sonia Beker became a consultant to Michalczyk for his latest film, which tells the orchestra’s story, and published her own account of her parents’ lives, Symphony on Fire: A Story of Music and Spiritual Resistance During the Holocaust (Wordsmithy, 2007), in conjunction with the release of the new documentary.

@BC presents an excerpt from Creating Harmony, which contains a reenactment of St. Ottilien musicians in performance. “I want viewers to understand the beauty of the music that uplifted survivors’ spirits after the tragedy of the Holocaust,” said Michalczyk. Creating such footage was among the most challenging aspects of crafting the film, he says, because it required extensive research and expense to stage the event with verisimilitude. He had the assistance of Hilliard’s son Mark, who has produced reenactments of historical events for A&E and the History Channel and who recreated the costuming for the liberation concert scenes. The concentration camp clothing the musicians wear in the postwar orchestra scenes was obtained from the Virginia Holocaust Museum. In the excerpt, “V’lirushalyaim” (To Jerusalem), by Vilem Zrzavy, is performed by members of the Terezin Chamber Music Ensemble and the Hawthorne String Quartet, the University’s resident string quartet. The Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline will screen the hour-long film in its entirety on May 1.

This feature was posted on Thursday, March 27, 2008 and is filed under Videos.
Writer: Dan Soyer, Producer: Miles Benson