Teaching songs of the Holocaust

Teaching songs of the Holocaust

Dr. Tamara Freeman to perform in Teaneck

The Hillsboro Comprehensive High School Choir of Nashville performs “Zol Shoyn Kumen de Ge-uleh” — “Salvation will Come” — by Holocaust poet Schmerke Kaczerginski, with Dr. Tamara Freeman accompanying on her Holocaust-era viola.
The Hillsboro Comprehensive High School Choir of Nashville performs “Zol Shoyn Kumen de Ge-uleh” — “Salvation will Come” — by Holocaust poet Schmerke Kaczerginski, with Dr. Tamara Freeman accompanying on her Holocaust-era viola.

Tauba Botzel didn’t survive the Holocaust. She died in Theresienstadt. But her viola made it out of Germany.

Next Saturday night, you can hear Dr. Tamara Reps Freeman play that viola in Teaneck, as part of a fundraiser for the Holocaust memorial planned for the town green.

The first time Dr. Freeman played Ms. Botzel’s viola at Cafe Europa, at least two dozen Holocaust survivors lined up to give her their phone numbers so they could tell her their stories.

That was about 20 years ago. Dr. Freeman, who lives in Saddle River, was then a music educator in the Ridgewood public schools. She had been playing viola at Cafe Europa — the Jewish Family Service of North Jersey’s program for Holocaust survivors — for some time. And she had tried to start conversations with the survivors for whom she played, but with little success.

But that changed when she was able to tell her audience at Cafe Europe about her viola, and about Tauba Botzel. Ms. Botzel was born in Hungary in 1865. She moved to Berlin, where she had the viola built to her specifications in 1935. Its small size fitted her small hands — and those of Dr. Freeman. Ms. Botzel died in 1942, 77 years old, in Theresienstadt.

But immediately after Ms. Botzel was taken away by the Nazis, “a righteous gentile neighbor snuck into her apartment and took the viola and discreetly shipped it to her sister, who was living in New Jersey,” Dr. Freeman said.

The sister, Senta Botzel, “saved the viola for a long time,” Dr. Freeman said, but after learning of her sister’s death, “she realized the viola needed to be played. It couldn’t just sit in her closet for sentimental value.”

(“String instruments are like people,” Dr. Freeman explained. “They need fresh air, they need exercise, they need to be loved. The more a string instrument is played, the better the tone gets over the decades.”)

So Senta Botzel sold the viola to a professional musician. It was sold a couple more times. And then, when Dr. Freeman went to a bow-maker’s shop in Maywood to get her bows re-haired, she decided to trade in her viola and buy a better one. The luthier recommended Ms. Botzel’s viola.

Dr. Freeman started playing piano when she was 4 and learned the violin at 9. In college, the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, she studied music education and learned to play every band and orchestra instrument.

She started teaching music in the Ridgewood schools in 1982. She taught there for 30 years, until, after getting “more and more requests to teach and perform Holocaust music across the United States, I realized that God had given me a calling to do something more with my music education training, and that was to impart the lessons and legacies of Holocaust music to adults and children.”

Dr. Freeman entered the field of Holocaust education thanks to the State of New Jersey, which in 1994 mandated that Holocaust and genocide studies become part of the curriculum.

“The mandate said that all grades needed to include Holocaust and genocide studies,” Ms. Freeman said. “At the time, I couldn’t imagine music was even possible for the Jewish people in the Holocaust, but I decided to start some research.”

She discovered that Holocaust music was a field. There was the music of partisans, the music composed in concentration camps, the songs sung by the inmates. There were works that were published during the war, and after. She began collecting books of such music, and then began arranging some of the music for her students in the Ridgewood schools.

“The children loved learning the history and playing the music,” she said.

In 2000, she started working for her doctorate in music education. “Rutgers agreed to my vision of creating a dissertation that would include a Holocaust music education curriculum guide,” she said. “New Jersey’s general Holocaust curriculum has been exquisitely crafted but there was very little about music in it.”

So what does Holocaust music education in kindergarten sound like?

“The kindergarten level takes some of the lullabies and children’s songs of the Holocaust. I’ll either teach the children the Yiddish lyrics — children are so quick at picking up languages — or very often I will create lyrics that adhere to the general Holocaust curriculum, which at that grade level is about friendship and peace and treating people with respect, and being good citizens in your community and being fair.

“In Holocaust education, the younger grades focus on character education. It’s not really until middle school and high school that the historical underpinnings come into the curriculum.

“It’s okay to tell little children that music helps people with their lives in happy times and in difficult times. In peace and in war, people need music,” she added.

Now, Dr. Freeman trains teachers and teaches students across the county. In February she will be an artist- and scholar-in-residence at Adelphi University on Long Island; last month she went to Tennessee, where three schools had used her lesson plans and music to teach the Holocaust.

“There were three choirs,” she said. “One was the Saint Edward’s Catholic middle school choir. The Catholic children stood on the bimah of The Temple in Nashville, a Reform synagogue. They sang two Holocaust songs. The Hillsboro High School sang a Holocaust song. Those children were all African-American teenagers. The third school was the Blair School of Music Choir from Vanderbilt University.

“They all sang in Yiddish. These children were just fantastic. We rehearsed using Facetime.”

Her Teaneck presentation is called “Inspiring Songs From the Holocaust Ghettos and Lagern.”

“I will be telling the stories of the composers,” Dr. Freeman said. “Why they composed the music. What was the purpose of all the compositions. How did it help the people cope with what was gong on? How did it give them feelings of hope and spiritual resistance?

“The composers and lyricists in both settings were children as well as adults. There are some really beautiful examples of children and adults collaborating on creating some of the most poignant and emblematic music to come from the Shoah,” she said.

“The purpose of my presentation is to bring the music alive, to honor the lessons and legacies of the composers, to help people understand that music was not just a historic reflection of what was happening politically or personally to the Jewish people, but was actually a form of spiritual resistance.

“While the Germans took away people’s heritage and citizenship and families and belongings and careers, the one thing they could not take away from the Jewish people was their sense of imagination and creativity. That inner spark of artistic expression in the Jewish people can never ever be squelched. That inner spark of creativity gives the Jewish people the will to live and fight back,” she said.

“A lot of the most famous songs are partisan songs that were purposely created to inspire not just spiritual resistance but physical resistance.”

Who: Dr. Tamara Reps Freeman

What: Musical performance, playing and expounding on the songs of the Shoah

Why: Inaugural capital campaign event for the creation of the Northern New Jersey Holocaust memorial and education center in Teaneck

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, December 10

Where: Congregation Keter Torah, 600 Roemer Ave., Teaneck

How much: No charge, but donations are invited

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