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When George Deutsch from the Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra approached me about performing Elena Kats-Chernin’s Night and Now Flute Concerto with them again, I was delighted. This time, the concert would have an extra significance. Firstly, the overarching theme of the concert is the commemoration of the victims and survivors of the Babi Yar massacre 75 years later and secondly, it is one of flautist/conductor Mark Shiell’s last performances as Zelman’s Artistic Director. I felt very honoured to have been asked and it is an extraordinary privilege to be involved in this enormous undertaking.
Night and Now is to precede Shostakovich’s seldom performed, masterly Thirteenth Symphony Op. 113, subtitled “Babi Yar" and to follow a new work by young Australian composer Harry Sdraulig, who wrote in Resonate: “my grandmother was active in the Polish underground resistance movement, while my grandfather was held as a prisoner of war.”
Flautist Sally Walker. Photo © Steven Godbee
In preparation, I visited the Melbourne Holocaust Museum, which is one of the supporters of the concert. When I was on tour with the Australian Chamber Orchestra for its Weimar Cabaret production, I recall Barry Humphries saying that Melbourne has the largest number of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel. This was news to me. I wanted to learn more about the Melbourne Jewish community and also about the Babi Yar massacre.
George’s wife Kathy kindly accompanied me and we were able to view one devastatingly cadaverous photo of the Babi Yar forest ravine in Kiev. The black and white diminution did not shield the sheer magnitude of the atrocity of the murdering of 33,000 Jews in two days, and 70,000 homosexuals, political non-conformists, Roma as well as Jews over the next two years. The photo reduced us to a necessary silence.
Every day, the museum has a Holocaust survivor speak to school groups and we were able to sit at the back and listen. The vibrant and intellectually formidable Lusia Haberfeld, author of The Runner of Birkenau, told her story. It was from the guileless perspective of the child she was, when as a 12-year-old her childhood ended abruptly, as indeed her life nearly did on several occasions. She had encountered Mengele. She had nearly starved. She had done death marches. She had been in a gas chamber, only to have the “elimination” postponed because the weather was too hot. As she spoke, there was not a dry eye in the room.
She had two messages to the school students: 1. Don't be racist and 2. If you meet a Holocaust denier, please say you have seen this: she then moved her sleeve up to reveal a gruesomely neat tattoo, displaying her Auschwitz prisoner number etched deeply into her skin. This would have been done at the age where other children may have only a vaccination scar.
As I bought her book, she approached me and asked me why I was so affected. I said that although I am not Jewish, I have a number of close Jewish friends and the enormity of what their parents and grandparents had experienced reached me viscerally. Yevgeni Yevtushenko's 1961 poem, Babi Yar, opens with: “No monument stands over Babi Yar.” I recall one friend saying he had no ancestors remaining in his birth country nor a graveyard to visit.
Lusia then was kind enough to offer to answer any questions I had. I had learned about the Holocaust through survivors’ children and grandchildren, but I had never had the chance to speak directly to someone who was actually there and I knew this was a precious moment. She told me unspeakable things, which she couldn’t put into her book. The limit of what I could bear to hear was just where her experiences began. She also told me about the strength she found to survive and her belief in angels, also beautifully described in her book. One reads about survivor guilt. What I had was "never had to personally suffer these atrocities" guilt. What can you do? You can listen.
Ironically, I had learned most of what I know about the Holocaust in Germany, where I lived for ten years. I attended the Goethe Institute language school where there was a whole section of the library devoted to the Holocaust. To my surprise, my German friends desperately wanted to talk about it, saying it was important to remember so it never happens again. Friends a generation older than me are burdened with guilty feelings of “why didn’t I say something, why didn’t I do more?”
Having read moving articles by Bass-Baritone soloist Adrian Tamburini and Harry Sdraulig about this concert and in conversations with Elena and the Deutschs, I realise how each of us is being very deeply moved by the process of preparing for this concert. In a Radio National interview George Deutsch described Elena’s Concerto as “one of the most beautiful pieces I have ever heard”. Both Elena and I were concerned about how this ultimately celebratory concerto would fit into the sombre acknowledgement of Babi Yar, for which many Holocaust survivors would be present.
Born in the former Soviet Union, Elena – herself a Russian Jew – experienced what Tamburini described as part of the subject matter of the third movement of the symphony: “It just breaks my heart because I think of the lines of peasant Russian ladies, in the dead of winter, trudging through the snow just to buy a jar pickles and a loaf of bread or something.”
The exit of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. Photo © Sally Walker
When Elena wrote her concerto at my request, she told me of her childhood, which held a similar sort of hardship. In her composer notes to Night and Now, she writes: “One of my overriding memories of childhood in Russia is of lining up for hours and hours for one loaf of bread or piece of cheese, and the perseverance and sometimes, the ultimate disappointment that had to be faced when food just ran out.”
As Tamburini wrote, Babi Yar is still relevant today. What has been learned? There is still so much persecution and oppression many decades later. Still, we can honour those who were slain by never forgetting. To again quote Yevtushenko’s poem, “No fibre of my body will forget this.” But we can hope. The fifth movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony opens and closes in a major key, offering some hope. I am reminded about the exit of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, where the exit opens out into a forest of trees, representing new life. Night and Now is, simply put, a journey from darkness to light. From despair to hope. We all need hope.
Sally Walker will perform Elena Kats-Chernin's flute concerto Night and Now on a programme with Harry Sdraulig's Crossway and Shostakovich's Symphony No 13 Babi Yar at Arts Centre Melbourne September 17.