Times Will Tell Podcast

Podcast: Secret Holocaust poems set to haunting music by survivor’s granddaughter

Czech-born musician Lenka Lichtenberg speaks about her new album, ‘Thieves of Dreams,’ based on poetry written in Theresienstadt and hidden in Prague. NEW: Full transcript included

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

While cleaning out her recently deceased mother’s apartment in Prague a few years ago, musician Lenka Lichtenberg discovered hidden in a drawer two notebooks of poems that were composed by her grandmother at during the Holocaust at Theresienstadt.

Lichtenberg immediately realized these yellowed and aging notebooks penned in her grandmother’s hand were priceless historical artifacts, but she didn’t want the poetry — written while being held prisoner by the Nazis — to continue to lay silent in a museum. So she set it free and set it to music.

Czech-born Lichtenberg is a classically trained musician who, before eventually settling in Canada, moved around Europe and dipped her toes in a variety of musical genres, including jazz, rock and, later in life, Yiddish tunes.

A decade ago, she completed a previous project, “Songs for the Breathing Walls,” is a collection of mainly Jewish liturgical pieces she recorded in 12 Czech synagogues. At the time, she called it “the most important thing I will ever do.”

Until now.

This week on the Times Will Tell weekly podcast, Lichtenberg talks about and shares songs from her new album “Thieves of Dreams: Songs of Theresienstadt’s Secret Poetess,” which is based on poems that her grandmother Anna Hana Friesova wrote in impossible conditions during the Holocaust — before, during and after her years spent in the concentration camp.

The cover of musician Lenka Lichtenberg’s new album, ‘Thieves of Dreams: Songs of Theresienstadt’s Secret Poetess.’ (Courtesy)

Lichtenberg’s eclectic musical background comes through in her new project in which 16 of the poems were turned into songs, eight of which Lichtenberg composed and eight others that were commissioned from Czech and Canadian composers. The arrangements feature 19 recording artists from Canada, the Czech Republic and Germany. The album was recorded and produced by Lichtenberg at her Melody Meadows barn studio in eastern Ontario.

In this slightly longer episode this week, we learn about Lichtenberg and her family and hear excerpts from her remarkable album “Thieves of Dreams.”

The following is a slightly edited transcript of our podcast conversation.

Times of Israel: Hi, Lenka. Thank you so much for joining me today. Where am I finding you?

Lenka Lichtenberg: Hello, Amanda. I am in eastern Ontario in Canada on a farm that we have about an hour’s drive from Toronto. We’re basically in the middle of the field surrounded by coyotes and lots of various animals, and we just love it out here.

It sounds like a utopia to me. That’s wonderful. I’m so jealous.

Yeah, it is special.

We are here, of course, to discuss your new album, “Thieves of Dreams: Songs of Theresienstadt’s Secret Poetess,” and it’s just shatteringly beautiful. I have been listening to it nonstop and it’s based on poetry that your grandmother wrote. Your life, your musical background, everything is so rich. But we’re going to begin with the impetus for this particular album.

Poetry written by her grandmother in Theresienstadt serves as the lyrics for musician Lenka Lichtenberg’s new album, ‘Thieves of Dreams: Songs of Theresienstadt’s Secret Poetess.’ (Courtesy)

I found two little notebooks in my mom’s desk when she passed away and I didn’t know what to do with those because it was clear to me it was something of a historic record. There’s not that much poetry that would have been written in a concentration camp. And so when I saw that, I realized it was something very special. But apart from that fact I was so surprised by what was actually in it: Poems that my grandmother wrote. Clearly it was in her handwriting and it was labeled as such.

I was not sure how to deal with this because it was a very special thing. And the choice I had was, somebody suggested, well, you have to give this to Yad Vashem. Or to a Holocaust education museum or somewhere, because it’s a historic document. But I felt that these little treasures were in fact already silent for so many decades, and it was not giving them any justice at all to put them in a silent place. And as a musician, I felt that the best way for me to honor this was through music, because that’s what I relate to the most. And it took me a while to come to that conclusion, but once I decided, it was pretty clear how I would do this.

We will discuss the songs themselves and their words a little bit later in the program. But let’s back up a little bit in terms of the timeline and your story to give a little more context to this particular project, which, as you said, is taking your grandmother’s poetry that she wrote in Theresienstadt. So all our listeners can hear that you have a bit of an accent. Where are you from originally?

I think I have a lot of an accent! Thank you. I’m from Czech Republic. When I was born, it was Czechoslovakia. I spent my formative years there. I went to school to study music, classical music, opera and so on, and also spent my childhood as a singer in a musical theater. So I was very much very deeply involved with the musical scene, even as a child there. And when I was 18, I left the country and eventually ended up in Canada as a landed immigrant.

I didn’t know much about my Jewish roots because I didn’t actually even know I was Jewish until it was about 10 when my mother told me — because she had to. I was invited to sing at a Jewish community center. So she had to explain to me what this place was and what Jewish is. I didn’t know anything at all. So I wasn’t brought up as a Jew — and you couldn’t be in a communist country, not very strongly. There was a strong degree of assimilation, so I didn’t know any of those things.

Musician Lenka Lichtenberg. (Bo Huang)

And only as an adult, after being a tourist coming to Israel, I connected very deeply with my Jewish roots and started asking questions of my mother, what actually happened and what she has been through; what my grandmother went through. And until then, all I really knew was that they were in a concentration camp and that they survived and the rest of their family didn’t. And then my mom wrote a book about it called “The Fortress of My Youth.” By then I was already living in Canada as an adult and I was really quite moved by her stories.

So all this came new to me as an adult, really. And so when my mom passed away, I found these booklets of my grandmother’s poetry in her desk. All of that was even a further surprise because I had no idea that my grandmother wrote poems or wrote anything whatsoever. I knew her very differently.

She was a very light-hearted, chain-smoking, tennis-playing grandmother and very untraditional, should I say. She was not one to bake or anything like that or knit! No, she was an avid reader that I knew and very knowledgeable, but very very light and laughing all the time. So I would have never connected, rightly or wrong, any depth of thought to her.

So when I read these poems, it didn’t really connect to the image I had of my grandmother; all that was a deep surprise, and it moved me very deeply. Once I started reading the poems, I realized they’re actually really beautiful, beautiful, moving poetry that she created. And I had no idea.

For some strange reason, they were tucked away and never mentioned by my mother either. And that, I think, has something to do with their own relationship, which was complicated. And so my mother, for some reason, didn’t feel that she wanted to honor those creations of her own mother. But for me, the situation was very different. Once I found it, I knew I had to do something with this.

Now, the fact that you didn’t know that you were Jewish until you were 10 is not the first time that this has happened in your family. In fact, your own mother didn’t know she was Jewish until what age?

Yes. Until I think 13. Even later. Yes. It’s really quite an ironic repetition. History does repeat itself so many times, and this is definitely a case in point.

My mom was brought up as a Catholic in an effort of many, I think, Jews in Czech Republic and maybe in some other places in eastern Europe, at least maybe in Germany, I don’t know, but definitely in Czechoslovakia. The effort was to save… Some families when they saw what was coming in the 30s, they felt that if they assimilate and even take on Christianity as a faith, that would somehow save them from the pograms that were happening here and there. And my grandfather, Richard Fries, he was from an area that had experienced programs. And so from what I understand, he was the motivator, mainly, behind my grandmother and grandfather’s efforts to keep the family — even though they were both 100% Jewish — to keep them as far from being Jewish as possible. And so when my mother was born, she was actually baptized and taken to church. So she grew up as a full-fledged Catholic, and so she had no idea about any of her roots whatsoever and didn’t know what was Jewish either, just as myself.

Illustrative: A contemporary illustration of Theresienstadt ghetto from the journals of Philipp Manes 1942-1944. (Wiener Holocaust Library Collections)

You’re right that there’s an interesting parallel right there. It really is quite astounding. But the way I remember my mother, she loved many aspects of Christianity, and she liked churches. She really did. She loved going there for their somber atmosphere. She would sit in a beautiful church and just meditate there. And so, I don’t know, it’s still connected with her until her death, that she saw herself as Christian in many ways.

So to her to have lost her family, all her extended family, including her beloved grandparents and her father, to the fact that she was Jewish, was really so brutal, as it was to everybody, of course. But to her, it just really made no sense because she didn’t think she was Jewish.

And in an ironic turn of events, she and her mother were taken on Christmas Day, correct? To the camp?

Yes. I think they actually departed few days before Christmas from their house. And then they were in, I think you could call it a holding tank, where there were thousands of Jewish families from the area in eastern Bohemia, and there they waited for the trains. And I do believe that you’re right, on Christmas Day, they were actually taken from that holding tank by train to continue to Terezin.

So we know that your grandmother had a very rich private life as we read in her poetry and in the booklet to your album, which is, again, it’s called Thieves of Dreams. It is so beautifully done. You have laid out there your grandmother’s handwriting, which is just pristine and beautiful, and there’s no mistakes there. Everything is clear and clean.

Poetry written by her grandmother in Theresienstadt serves as the lyrics for musician Lenka Lichtenberg’s new album, ‘Thieves of Dreams: Songs of Theresienstadt’s Secret Poetess.’ (Courtesy)

You’re right. I didn’t even think of that. It’s true, actually. It’s like writing the Torah. You can’t make a mistake.

Wow, that’s beautiful. You have to wonder, did she compose the poem so completely in her head and all she needed to do was to write them down when she had a chance? I could just imagine her muttering them to herself, trying to keep them, to capture them in her memory and then writing them down. And you have that juxtaposed, of course, with the English translations which you’ve set and other composers have set to music.

I’d like to talk with you about four of the songs that — they’re all beautiful, they’re just gorgeous songs — but I’d like to discuss four of them in more depth, beginning with, “Run, Run You Little Human.” When I heard it, it’s just haunting in terms of your vocalization and you said it in a kind of a capella-type way, but it almost sounds like a game. Was that your intention?

I think I was inspired here by a dog chasing its tail kind of idea. When you’re running and you’re getting nowhere, that is the point of it, because that is what it says at the very end of the poem. It actually says, basically, the more you run, the more you realize that you’re just turning around your own axis and you’re getting absolutely nowhere.

And I think this song, I absolutely love this poetry, it really is so unusual and fascinating to me as well. It is, I think, a metaphor both for the human condition and for their particular situation, being in the concentration camp.

The human condition, in the sense that she says you can run as far as you want, but you can never run away from yourself, So that being one aspect of it. And all the things that are bad in humans, she says, running from your own betrayals, from your fears and from that, so you just cannot run away from that.

And the other one is literal, where being, of course, where they were in a prison, basically, that you can try all you want, but you can’t get away from there either.

So, yeah, I did try in this one to make it kind of circular, you know, how it’s running around, as I said, about the dog and the tail, that kind of thing. And also playful in a way. And I thought that the a cappella treatment of that would provide that focus on just the movement in it.

Theresienstadt concentration camp, in Terezin, Czech Republic. (Colm Rice/Wikimedia Commons/File)

It definitely comes through. The next song we’ll discuss is called “Wild Beastly Water Came,” and it begins with a trumpet-bass intro, which sounds kind of like marching. And the words of the poem are incredibly harsh, but you’re singing it so sweetly and also in a jazzy kind of way, that it’s this horribly stark depiction, but it’s turned into kind of a song of hope by the end.

Yes, that song has definitely a surprise ending, but I’ll start from the beginning. This wild beastly water is a metaphor, I imagine anyway, for a flood that, in fact, means the Nazi occupation that in this case destroys everything in its path. So it describes how people’s lives and everything they were dreaming about, they were building. It’s very literal, describing all the things that were completely destroyed by this flood.

And then in the second half of the song, it kind of comes to terms with it. And I have musically also changed. I’ve gone from like minor keys to major keys, kind of the obvious movement. You’re going from the disaster to the hopeful place.

And so now this is after the flood and there is just mud, but in the mud, there is a little sign of new growth and of new developments for humans. And it puts out this, as I said, surprising idea that maybe this is all okay if humanity, if our world, is destroyed, because God will not really take that as nothing, just as a little blitz because next time humanity and the human world will perhaps be much better because it has learned from its mistakes that were committed in the past.

So it kind of has this lightness about it saying, well, it’s no big deal that we get destroyed because we’re going to start all over again. And after all, it’s just a good lesson to have.

This idea of perspective and hope. It definitely comes through in another song, “What is this Place?” which is contemplative. There are lots of questions here, questions anyone would ask themselves. What do you think that this particular poem showed of your grandmother’s character?

Lenka Lichtenberg recorded "Songs for the Breathing Walls" at a dozen Jewish prayer houses in the Czech Republic, including the Jeruzalemska synagogue in Prague. (Courtesy of Romana Rysava)
Lenka Lichtenberg recorded ‘Songs for the Breathing Walls’ at a dozen Jewish prayer houses in the Czech Republic, including the Jeruzalemska synagogue in Prague. (Courtesy of Romana Rysava)

I think this song captures really beautifully the two sides. You have the sadness and the realization that their lives are changed forever. And at the same time, the strength to not see everything black, the strength to find hope even in the bleakest of places, is there as well. And another beautiful aspect of this song, or of the poem, is the fact that it’s both very personal and very general, or universal, should we say, because it’s about her relationship with what I assume with her husband, my grandfather, because she does say, “Where are we at? What happened to the way you used to look at me?” And so this is very personal, and we already know that actually, unfortunately, their relationship was in trouble. And so she addresses that.

And at the same time, she’s talking in general terms about how love will basically, to use a cliche, conquer all, and that it is the ultimate spring of hope that you can look around and find and do remember that the sun will still come out tomorrow. So it’s both universal and very personal about the situation in the camp and about the state of her marriage.

And I think that is the beautiful art of poetry that in very few words, really, you can say so much. I can talk about it for five minutes, but she says it in like 40 words in total, probably at the most. So that’s, I think, the real sign of good poetry that I can do that.

The next poem that we’ll discuss is, again, this kind of universal-particular situation. It’s a love poem, but just like the biblical “Song of Songs” can be interpreted in so many different ways, this poem “Miracles” is also way open to interpretation. How do you see it?

I find it interesting that you find it also universal. I actually found that one extremely personal, but who knows? We don’t have my grandma to ask the question. But I found that it was some sort of a memory of a most romantic situation that happened in the past. That maybe she is reminiscing about something that no longer exists in the camp. There certainly was no space, I don’t think, to have a new experience. So she’s describing the magic of nights past and everything that each person gives to the other. And it’s about love.

But I see it very much that there is a longing, there is an appreciation for the love relationship, and for all the beauty that came with it. But I do see it as personal and nostalgic and maybe a little melancholy in it, even though it doesn’t actually complain about having lost it. It just kind of lays it out like this was how it was. I find that poetry really quite extraordinary to be written in a concentration camp, of all places.

If you were to read the same words in a mystical kind of way, you could interpret it as God’s love and the passion with God. I personally think that anyone who reads it will take his own interpretation of the words. But it’s just beautifully written and your setting of it is so, I don’t know, celestial in a way. How did you decide to create this composition?

I spent quite some time setting the poems. I didn’t want to do them too quickly one after the other because each one had to live in me for a while. So they get their own little space and their own attention and musical understanding and depth. So this one, I lived with it for some weeks before the melodies started forming and my musical heart and I wanted to make it just beautiful. That, to me, was the one and only criteria actually used on this song. I want this to be as beautiful as I am able to produce. And because I’m a singer and I guess because I am a professionally trained singer and a musician, I understand music in terms of its harmonic progressions, but also vocally in terms of harmonies. Harmonies, to me, are everything. So this song expresses itself through a lot of harmonies. And I think that’s what gives it what you describe as a celestial sound, I think that comes with that because there are a cappella parts that is just maybe ten voices stacked on top of each other and it gives us that choral feeling.

Poetry written by her grandmother in Theresienstadt serves as the lyrics for musician Lenka Lichtenberg’s new album, ‘Thieves of Dreams: Songs of Theresienstadt’s Secret Poetess.’ (Courtesy)

Now, I said we’d only discussed four songs, but I told you before we started recording that there’s another song that just made me cry every time I heard it. And that is, of course, “I Have My Own Grief” — fitting titled. It is, of course, the combination of your mother’s voice with the darbuka, with the singing, with everything together. Tell us a little bit about this song in particular.

This is just a four-line poem, and I read it and it was probably the one that impacted me the most when I read it, because it was just so solemn, so honest, so vulnerable. Do you mind if I actually say it because it’s just four short lines. It says, “I have my own grief, but perhaps I can carry yours as well. And should I fall under the weight of the two, I will fall down in silence.”

That, to me, is just so powerful because I just imagine her talking to her husband, my grandmother to my grandfather, where he already was a little bit of a lost soul before they went to the concentration camp because he was taken by the Gestapo based on a betrayal by a colleague. So he spent six months in prison where he was tortured and came back a broken man.

The following months before they were actually transported to the concentration camp were fraught with heavy arguments and despair between my grandparents, according to my mother, who describes that in her book. I think this was an expression of that my grandmother was trying to make her husband feel somehow better, but he completely lost control and knew he had lost control over the fate of his family. He couldn’t do anything. He saw what was coming.

And so that was his heaviness and his despair and her as a wife trying to make him feel better or lighter in some way. Because, as I said, she was a very light kind of person. But I think those four lines express that exactly.

It’s so interesting because you read it as a wife speaking to her husband. I read it as a mother speaking to her child.

Oh, wow. Okay. You see, I think that’s the beauty of really nice or good quality poetry is when you can have your own understanding of the words and they speak to you. Because I know the history for my mom’s book between my grandparents. And so I immediately understood it as her talking to her husband because he is just so unhappy and she wants to make him feel better. And so that’s what I saw. But of course, it could totally be about mother to her child, anything like that. Everybody was trying to help somebody else, I think, emotionally at least. So that makes a lot of sense.

So, as I mentioned in the beginning, when I read those four lines, I was so strongly impacted, I knew this one was very special. But because it’s only four lines, what do you do with it? What do you do? How do you create a whole song unless you start adding things to it that are not really there?

So, therefore, I came up with the idea of including my mother in it because I wanted to give it even more depth and more context. So this is the one song which really connects on the deepest level the three of us as generations. It’s my grandmother and her poetry. It’s my mother who, in this case, talks about the departure from their home, where they were before the transport to the concentration camp.

And those words, I was very lucky: I found them on a Czech TV documentary that was done. My mother was actually a few times on Czech TV and Czech programs, so she was quite prominent in many ways. And so she was asked to talk about her experiences in this documentary that was done towards the 60th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz. And so that was from 2005. And that documentary, somebody made a recording of it for me and I was able to use the words that she is saying there in the song. So that particular clip is from that. So it’s her genuinely standing in front of their old door and talking about it, reading from a diary that she wrote when she was 14, before they departed.

So there’s such a strong backstory there from her diary to her, now an adult, six years after Auschwitz, to my grandmother and then me taking all this and adding my voice and my musical interpretation to this.

That’s why, Amanda, you’re crying when you listen to it. And I’m crying as well. So this song, when I heard it on radio, because it has been picked a few times on radio programs in Canada that I listen to and hearing my mother’s voice coming from the radio stations, the radio waves reading her own words from her 1942 diary. It’s really, truly unbelievable. So I understand that it would make you cry, and it certainly does the same thing to me as well.

Lenka, thank you so much for sharing time with us and sharing your music.

It’s my greatest pleasure and honor. Thank you so much.

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