Mark Ludwig’s book “Our Will to Live”

Mark Ludwig’s book Our Will to Live has been on my desk for several months now. It’s a book that is so much more than a book, that one might describe it as a monument, a headstone, an exhibition, an archive, a living flame. Every page startles and often for the most mundane of reasons. Of course, Ludwig has been a champion of the music to come out of Theresienstadt, or Terezín, for more than three decades; but what still comes as a shock is the high standard and diversity of artistic life in the ghetto, evocatively and liberally illustrated in this volume.

Theresienstadt drawing by Joseph Spier, 1943 “Spier places several identifiable Theresienstadt landmarks – the central square, barracks (Magdeburg and Hannover), and church- within the walls of the large fortress. In shaping the fortress walls into a Jewish star, Spier states the purpose of Theresienstadt as a Jewish ghetto/concentration camp” (P.16)

Hans Gál when writing about composition in British internment camp on the Isle of Man wrote that his music was meant as an escape, to remind internees of another life, or of a previous life.  Our Will to Live goes much further. It shows that surviving required more than just mental escape, it required aspiring to higher standards than even before. Therefore, what we find is not just a collection of Viktor Ullmann’s outstanding essays on musical life in the Ghetto, but a reminder of extraordinary creativity on every level. The sheer brilliance of graphic designs used in posters and advertising makes it even more difficult to comprehend the situations in which they were produced. Even a portrait of Gideon Klein, done only months before his death shows a robust young man in jacket and tie. Yet another drawing of Klein conducting Bach in 1936 when he was only seventeen show the slight young man who wouldn’t survive the four months slave labour from October 1944 to January 1945, tragically succumbing only months before liberation.

Drawing on right of Klein by Charlotte Buresová; on right Gideon Klein conducting Bach in Teplice-Šanov, March 1, 1936 from the collection of his sister Elisak Kleinová
From Ullmann’s Gideon Klein Piano Evening: “…Gideon Klein is without doubt a very important talent. His style is that of the new youth – cool and objective…” p. 119

At this point, I have to come clean and say that I have known Mark Ludwig almost as long as he’s been engaged in recovering the legacy of Terezín. His Hawthorne Quartet recorded the quartets of Hans Krása and Pavel Haas for the Decca series “Entartete Musik” which I initiated and for ten years, could direct as producer and dramaturg. When I lived in Hamburg, I discovered a senior, retired colleague of mine was Mark’s Godfather, somehow bringing us together on a personal rather than just professional level. But my admiration for this publication is genuinely not prejudiced by friendship and acquaintance. It is an incredible accomplishment that brings international attention to a subject that linguistically has been limited to German speakers who knew where to find the Ullmann essays published by the tiny German academic publishing house of von Bockel Verlag.

Transport of Jewish deportees walking six kilometres from Bohušovice to Terezín – after June 1943, a rail spur was completed into Terezín. P. 23

Mark Ludwig offers his own account of stumbling on the composers of Terezín in 1988 – really about the time it was starting to occur to me that despite encountering copious information on the literature and artworks banned by the Nazis, not many people had addressed the question of music. The only way in which I stumbled on this anomaly was while researching Kurt Weill and reading name after name of composers of equal prominence who appeared to have vanished after 1933, some in exile, others simply murdered as was the case of most of the composers in Terezín.

Pavel Haas’s Quartet no. 2 “From the Monkey Mountains” (Z opičích hor); Recording of Hawthorne Quartet on Decca’s “Entartete Musik” series

The story of musical survival – indeed, cultural survival in Terezín is unique. Of course, some of it was known already.  Franz Waxman had written a work called Song of Terezín in the 1960s. One could argue about the merits of the work but its importance was highlighting the fate of the ghetto’s children.  At this point, it’s worth emphasising that Theresienstadt was not a concentration camp in the sense that we think of Dachau or Auschwitz. It was a camp that was uniquely limited to Jewish internees.  It was not a slave labour camp or a camp that served as a death factory, though few managed to survive. It was seen as something of a miracle that the children of Terezín were even given the opportunity to write poetry and draw pictures.

Ludwig’s research uncovered for the wider world something perhaps more important than even he imagined at the time. The composers of Terezín, along with the death of Erwin Schulhoff in the internment camp Wülzburg represented a generation of Czech music that could have stood equal to the composers coming out of Berlin’s New Objectivity movement or Vienna’s so-called Second School. These were the children of Janáček, the only significant survivor of this generation being Bohuslav Martinů. They shared a love of the absurd and the surrealistic that had come out of the Devĕtsil movement founded in 1920. This was a movement that sought out the “magic realism” we still find in the writing of Milan Kundera, but was apparent in the operas of Hans Krása, Pavel Haas, Viktor Ullmann and Erwin Schulhoff. Dream and reality clashed and synthesised into a new reality that we could recognise in Emillia Marty aka Elina Makropulos. It was a movement that would even inspire the likes of Mikail Bulgakov later in Stalinist Russia with his novel The Master and Margarita. But in addition to “magic realism” the composers expressed musical ideas in polyrhythms, broken lyricism and bi- and polytonality. To all of this was added just a pinch of French Impressionism – just enough to create a bridge from Prague and Brno to Paris and completely bypass Berlin and Vienna.

Hans Krása’s treatment of Casta Diva in his opera Verlobung im Traum – Betrothal in a Dream. An example of Czech “Magic Realism”
Drawing of Hans Krása by an unknown artist, from Our Will to Live, p. 214

This shared musical/cultural identity has come to light with the rediscover of Hans Winterberg who represents something of what these composers might have become had they been allowed to live. Of course, there were many other prominent Czech composers – many of whom went on to compose in the same manner, but never made the international breakthrough I believe would have taken place had Krása,  Ullmann, Schulhoff and Haas been permitted to live.  Even Gideon Klein, who with Hans Winterberg was a student of Alois Hába, might be added, though much of his work reflects more than a passing influence of Alban Berg which places him into a slightly different category. Indeed, Ullmann even implies he’s part of the present movement of “New Objectivity” as stated in the quote above. Klein was also a full generation younger than the others, including Winterberg, and may have been pointing towards yet another development.

Our Will to Live is full of the incredible artwork to come out of Terezín, the posters the portraits, the sketches and the impressions. It includes programmes and the ephemera of tickets, ration sheets, money and stamps.  It offers a play list at the end full of recordings that complement the essays of Viktor Ullmann, who is our compere, guide and commentator throughout.  

examples of graphic design at Terezín in various posters along with tickets for entry to events on lower right

Do I have critical comments? It’s always hard when judging other people’s translations and the only thing I have translated that can be compared one-to-one is Ullmann’s essay Goethe und Ghetto. Ludwig is more literal, often pushing him into using concepts that simply do not exist in English, such as “transient-ness”. My view of translation – indeed, the translation of any language –  is to find the thought behind the original and translate the thought as if it were expressed in English.  If we just take the opening line of Goethe und Ghetto as a comparison:

Bedeutende Vorbilder prägen den folgenden Generationen ihren “Habitus”, ihren Lebensduktus auf.

Ludwig translates this as “Meaningful models shape the “habitus“ –  one’s way of being in the world, the character of life – for generation to follow.”

My own translation: “The role models, whom we take as examples, influence our ‘habitus’ by reaching into the very life-ducts of subsequent generations.

Ludwig adds the additional translation of “habitus” which I don’t and I see the argument for including it in this context. It’s difficult for English speakers to comprehend what Ullmann means by citing “meaningful models”. What Ullmann meant is, “our world is shaped by the thoughts and words handed down to us by those we acknowledge as role models.” This splits hairs and in offering translations, it’s necessary to give as accurate a representation as possible, though sometimes, it obscures meanings rather than illuminates as style, syntax and vocabulary are used differently. These are more crucial than the word-for-word translations demanded in language classes. Where Ludwig has reached for the word “transient-ness”, in the sentence, “…or the significant historical moment of transient-ness.” I’ve chosen to circumnavigate by writing: “… or capturing the fleeting historical event.” Every translation is a compromise and whatever comes out is read through the lens of an intermediary. Ludwig’s translations are true and accurate. I often miss the sheer elegance of Ullmann’s prose, but this is the most difficult aspect of any translation, and even the best cannot reproduce the feel of the writing.

Viktor Ullmann’s last work before deportation to Auschwitz: Piano Sonata no. 7 performed in a recording made by Christophe Sirodeau on BIS records: It’s a work that is nearly autobiographical, quotes from liturgical music, Mahler and Bach. It’s dedicated to his children Max, Jean and Felice.
Drawing of Ullmann by Petr Kien, librettist of Ullmann’s opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis

In the translation notes, there’s a statement that multi-clause sentences were not unravelled but left in their original complexity. Ludwig suggests the convolution of such sentences was due to lack of paper and an attempt to cram as much extraneous information into one sentence as possible. I would take issue with that: Ullmann was an elegant writer and a child of his time.  Mark Ludwig is no doubt referring to what in German is called a “Schachtelsatz” (Pl. Schachtelsätze)– a “sentence of boxes”, which does exactly what Ludwig puts down to lack of paper. Nevertheless, the “Schachtelsatz”, is, or was, considered enormously elegant and used by some of the greatest writers in German.  Thomas Mann’s Schachtelsätze are legendary, some of which extend over a single page. In addition, and in the best tradition of all German Schachtelsätze, they rarely start with anything so self-serving as the nominative case – or what in English, we call “the subject”. The elegant “Schachtelsatz” starts with the dative, genitive or even the accusative cases, leaving the subject much further down the line. This can force the inattentive reader (both native German and non-native German speaker) to return to the beginning of the sentence in order to follow who did what to whom, how and when.

The absurdity of this overly complex syntax is occasionally parodied by German writers themselves. As an example, the Austrian novelist, Heimito von Doderer’s opening “Schachtelsatz” in his novel, Die Strudlhofstiege is so legendary that Doderer fans have memorised it for recitation at drunken parties: Als Mary K’s Gatte noch lebte, Oskar hieß er, und sie selbst noch auf zweit sehr schönen Beinen ging (das rechte hat ihr, unweit ihrer Wohnung, am 21. September 1925 die Straßenban über dem Knie abgefahren), tauchte ein gewisser Doktor Negria auf, ein junger rumänischer Arzt, der hier zu Wien an der berühmten Fakultät sich fortbildete und im Allgemeinen Krankenhaus seine Jahre machte. 

In journalistic English, these are run-on, multi-clause sentences and are justifiably frowned upon. To offer non-German speakers a flavour of the very anti-journalistic style of elegant German prose composition: When Mary K’s husband was still alive – Oskar was his name – and she still had two lovely legs in use, (the one on the right having been severed just above the knee, not far from her flat by a tram on 21. September 1925) A certain Dr Negria popped up, a young Romanian medic, who was in Vienna extending his education and carrying out an internship under the auspices of the General Hospital’s renowned faculty. (In fact, Die Strudlhofstiege has just come out as the Strudlhof Steps in English, and I have not checked the “official” translation of its notoriously wordy opening.) Doderer had no worries about paper shortages, and this is only one of countless such sentences in the book’s 850 pages.

Viktor Ullmann’s Type written transcript of Goethe und Ghetto

To sum up, Our Will to Live is an important book – indeed, an indispensable book for anyone interested in twentieth-century music, the Holocaust or Jewish Studies. There is a listening list at the back that can be accessed by PR Code with appropriate mentions of the composers or performances cited in Ullmann’s writings. Perhaps something more of comparative situations could have been made.  What was unique about Terezín was the fact that it was exclusively Jewish.  The internment camps set up by the British on the Isle of Man were not exclusively Jewish, though it would be fair to say they were predominantly Jewish. The British interned all people they viewed as Germans, even second-generation émigrés. It meant that refugee Jews were interned with visiting Nazi businessmen, non-Jewish political refugees or just tourists who happened to be in Great Britain at the wrong time. Jewish refugees, however, were the overwhelming majority and interestingly, similar to Terezín, artistic and intellectual life took off despite the hardships. (Three members of the Amadeus Quartet met in one of Britain’s internment camps) It was no holiday camp, despite any propaganda the British government put out at the time. Hans Gál’s memoirs of his six months in such a camp make for sobering reading and remind us that a concentration camp could have been placed anywhere in any country and efficiently run by the locals. I don’t think great compositions came out of Britain’s internment camps; certainly not in comparison with the treasures that came out of Terezín. Nevertheless much of Britain’s post-war musical and artistic life came together in these camps. It was a phenomenon that wasn’t repeated in say the internment camps for Italians, who were also detained as “enemy aliens”. But such speculation perhaps moves toward stereotyping and opens up questionable arguments regarding ethnicity and culture.  Suffice it to say, Our Will to Live demonstrates the will to do more than just survive.