Song of the Murdered

Zlata Razdolina composes a stunning requiem in memory of Holocaust victims.

“I have two performance goals, now. I want to see Requiem performed exactly as it is written: for orchestra, cantor and choir – it has never been done that way. And I want to perform it in New York, at Ground Zero, in honor of those that died on 9/11/01. In many, many ways, their deaths speak to me of the holocaust, and I wish to commemorate the tragedy that befell those innocents. I would like to do it next year, on the tenth anniversary of the attacks” – Zlata Razdolina

The Holocaust is not of my lifetime. It is out of the realm of my personal experience.

The horror and shame, the terror and disgust, the tragedy and the guilt belong to the generation that came before mine. In camps throughout Europe, after insanity blanketed the continent, a group of men under a twisted banner descended to unexplored depths of hatred, depravity and indifference. There they summoned demons with faces so distorted and grotesque that good men could not even look upon their countenance, and sadly – catastrophically – turned away.

In those camps, armed with the technology of their generation, they honed the craft of warfare and perfected the art of human destruction – and there, whispered to by their demons, these men with a palpable lust for power and a secret love of death systematically murdered six million human beings.

The words are chosen carefully. I do not speak of genocide, a catch-all phrase that is political and impersonal. I do not speak of the death of six million as an abstract concept, part of the collateral damage of war. No. The word I use, and deliberately so, is murder.

The Holocaust was the murder of a single human being, an individual with hopes and dreams, aspirations and talent, a family, a home, a job, a passion, a life – repeated six million times.

It is virtually impossible for us to comprehend; the human mind cannot process its terrible scale. Words fail us. To cope with the magnitude of the tragedy we need to learn a new vocabulary, we need a method of communication beyond textbooks and novels and movies.

I have found it. I have found it in the music of Zlata Razdolina, a Russian-born Jew who is now a citizen of Israel.

Her piece is entitled "Holocaust Requiem: Song of the Murdered Jewish People." In 48 minutes, this St. Petersburg native has captured the essence of the Holocaust in a way that can be done in no other medium. Through her music, we are offered a glimpse at the souls of the victims, we are haunted by their wails of terror and pain, we are comforted and enveloped by their love of the religious faith and heritage they shared. And because we are made to feel these emotions so deeply, we are brought to new heights of determination that this will never, never happen again.

"Requiem" is classical music in its highest form, but unlike a typical musical composition which speaks to us in chords and harmonies, it reaches even more dizzying heights accompanied by the words of Itzhak Katzenelson, the man known as the Holocaust poet.

Katzenelson, who had been trapped in the Warsaw ghetto and participated in the uprising, wrote the poem "Song of the Murdered Jewish People" while in an internment camp in Vittel, France. Sadly and ironically, he himself became one of those murdered Jewish people after being sent to Auschwitz in 1944.

The words and music of Katzenelson and Razdolina merge to form a composition of incredible power and soaring eloquence; and when combined with a grainy photographic montage of scenes from the ghetto and the camps, assembled by Shlomo Blumberg for the DVD version of the piece, we recognize that a new vocabulary, a new medium, has indeed been offered.

But it is the music that sets "Requiem" apart. It is uplifting and towering in some movements, dirge-like and funereal in others, and martial when accompanying the story of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. So on point is the orchestration that even if it were not accompanied by the poem or the imagery, it would foster a deeper understanding of that heartbreaking episode in human history.
Mother Russia

Ms. Razdolina began her musical education early. “I sat at the piano at the age of four,” she said in a recent interview, “and my mother showed me the correct way to position my fingers.” Fearful, however, that Zlata would learn improper techniques, her mother sent the precocious child to music school. A true prodigy, she wrote her first composition by the time she was five.

As a youngster, she won many amateur music competitions, and first stood on a professional stage at the tender age of 16. By 17, her music was being recorded by other artists and was getting radio play, and by 18, she was accepted into the highly prestigious Leningrad Union of Artists.

"When I was 21, one of my compositions was recognized as the best new song of the year in a nationwide competition,” admits Razdolina, with a mixture of humility and pride. “I was even decorated by the military for composing the musical accompaniment to a cycle of poems about the Second World War."

Israel, America and the World

“I had many fans in Israel who had emigrated from Russia, and they supported my career almost immediately. By 1991, I was performing before Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. I was humbled by his words of praise.”

So impressed was Shamir that he offered Zlata and her family a place to live – a house they could call their own. They settled into life in Israel, and Zlata continued to compose her music and perform before delighted audiences throughout the country. Eventually, the Razdolina family landed in the northern city of Nahariya.

She caught the eyes and ears of the famous and influential Israeli entertainer and producer Dudu Fisher, and it wasn’t long before they were performing and recording together. Along with the Tel Aviv Symphonic Orchestra, they sang and played Akhmatova’s "Rekviem" on Israeli television. “Her mastery blends together emotional expressiveness, exclusive artistry, masterful piano accompaniment, exceptional poetic feeling, and vocal freedom,” said Dudu, when asked about Razdolina. “This combination forms Ms. Razdolina’s unique talent, which is second to none…”

She began to compose what would become the piece that would soon eclipse her treatment of the Akhmatova Rekviem, and would eventually become her introduction to a world-wide audience – she was writing the music to accompany the Holocaust poem of Itzhak Katzenelson.

It was completed in 1997. That year, Zlata went to the Czech Republic to record "Requiem" with the Moravska Filarmonia conducted by maestro Victor Feldbrill, a Canadian who is himself a Jew and a Holocaust survivor. The CD produced from this concert would be played in more than 20 countries around the world; in each country the speaking parts would be translated into the native language.

"Requiem" was performed throughout Israel to great acclaim, both live and on classical radio broadcasts, including a triumphal performance at Holocaust museums Yad-Vashem and The House of the Ghetto Fighters Museum.

In 2002, Zlata Razdolina performed it for the first time in the United States with the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra at the ICOR annual concert, held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. The show was produced by Jerry Jacob, the orchestra was conducted by maestro Arkady Leytush, the narration was by actor Fritz Weaver, and Zlata herself played and sang in Hebrew.

Later, when reflecting upon Zlata’s unique abilities, Leytush would write: “Ms. Razdolina’s talent has gained her world acclaim. She has utilized her musical genius to advance social and historical causes, and she has touched people’s hearts with unforgettable music.”

In 2004, she received a letter of appreciation from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

That Zlata Razdolina was blessed by God with talent, determination, courage and beauty is evident. But what one realizes only after spending time with her, listening to the passion in her voice, watching her eyes as she thinks and remembers, is that perhaps her greatest gift is her sensitivity. She has been given an uncanny ability to enter the mind, and convey the emotions, of another human being, to be transported to a higher plane of understanding by a line of poetry hastily scratched onto a piece of paper, or by a glance at a faded photograph, or by seeing in her mind’s eye the face of a long-gone casualty of war – not as it would appear in death, but as it would appear in the fullness and glory of life.

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