Paris, the Sorbonne and eventually a doctorate from Columbia University Teachers' College followed, and most of us know at least some of the rest. It is the little-known chapter of how Westheimer survived the Holocaust, however, that resonated with Ars Choralis, the not-for-profit choral group that draws its membership from throughout the Hudson Valley.
On Saturday, March 28 at 8 p.m. at the 1,800-seat Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, Ars Choralis will perform its program "Music in Desperate Times: Remembering the Women's Orchestra of Birkenau," which recounts the story of the all-female orchestra comprised of concentration camp inmates who were required to perform at Birkenau (the death camp of Auschwitz). Westheimer will introduce the program.
Founded in the spring of 1943, the Women's Orchestra of Birkenau played as trains filled with Jews and other prisoners destined for the crematoria arrived. Sometimes learning an instrument in just hours, the members endured by playing marches and foxtrots as their fellow prisoners were sent off to forced labor. They performed the SS guards' favorite musical compositions and arias and played as new arrivals of prisoners were chosen for either mass murder or work details.
By the war's end, approximately one-and-a-quarter million people had been killed at Birkenau, more than 90 percent of them Jewish. All of the 54 women in the Orchestra except for its conductor, who is believed to have died of food poisoning, survived, according to a variety of historians.
"Music in Desperate Times" recounts the story of the Orchestra through specially chosen choral music, a recreation of the music played by the original Orchestra on the same types of instruments and readings in the voices of three of the Birkenau musicians. The choral group has performed the program four times to wide acclaim in Ulster County in 2006 and 2007, and is preparing to take it to Germany in April for performances in Berlin and on the grounds of the Ravensbr?ck Concentration Camp in F?rstenberg. Rabbi Jonathan Kligler of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation is leading a tour of Jewish Berlin in connection with the German performances.
"She is very funny and lively, and the last thing you would think about is that she has this past," Alice Radosh, a Woodstock resident and the coordinator of fundraising for the St. John the Divine and German performances of "Music in Desperate Times," said of Dr. Ruth. Among Westheimer's numerous book credits on sex therapy is a 1993 volume titled Musically Speaking: A Life through Song (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006). In that book she writes, "I lost everything that was dear and important to me in my childhood, and in order not to live in a vacuum, in order to feel the ground beneath my feet, I have to keep these memories alive...Family life ended abruptly for me at the age of ten. The melodies and the words of the songs I knew provide a link with the past forever."
It was only after contacting Westheimer and having her agree to introduce the "Music in Desperate Times" performance on March 28 in New York City that Radosh learned about her deep association with music. "It was all so perfect for what we were doing," said Radosh, who has also been in contact with Anita Lasker Wallfisch, who had been a cellist in the Birkenau Orchestra. Lasker Wallfisch, who is now in her mid-80s and lives in London, is believed to be one of only three members still alive. The survivor will attend the German performances.
The St. John the Divine concert and the German performance schedule came about after Radosh, a former board member of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, saw a 2006 performance of "Music in Desperate Times" at Temple Emanuel in Kingston. "I have been to a lot of concerts, but never had a reaction like this to a concert before," said Radosh, a Woodstock author and retired research psychologist. She discussed her response the following week with her piano teacher, Barbara Pickhardt, the conductor of Ars Choralis, who had spent years researching the memoirs of Birkenau survivors, conducting interviews and reading other related materials to create "Music in Desperate Times."
Pickhardt first learned of the Birkenau Women's Orchestra in 1993 and recalled thinking, "I had a moment where I said to myself, 'There's a concert in this.'" She said that the public's response to the March 2006 performance at Temple Emanuel in Kingston was "unlike any other" that she has experienced in her career.
The composition of the Birkenau Women's Orchestra was unique, partly because many of the musicians didn't arrive with their instruments and had to play what was available in a desperate attempt to save their lives. The Ars Choralis orchestra incorporates three violins, three mandolins, one accordion, one flute, one recorder, a guitar, one cello, one percussion instrument and two soloists. All of the musicians wear lavender scarves to simulate the scarves worn by the Birkenau women to cover their shaved heads.
The choral music was selected because it "illuminates the message of the readings," according to Pickhardt. Most but not all of the composers were Jews who lived through the Holocaust. One composer in the program is a Yugoslavian musician who had been working at a children's hospital in Bosnia. He returned from getting supplies one day to find that the hospital had been obliterated. In other cases, Pickhardt included music that is reminiscent of the original orchestra's defiant selection of the works of banned composers.
"People have said to me it meant a lot to them to think their ancestors might have heard that music," said Pickhardt of the response to "Music in Desperate Times." No recordings survived. "When it was over, everyone wanted to forget that part of their lives," she noted.
The St. John the Divine concert is a fundraiser to offset the cost of taking Ars Choralis to Germany for the performances there. Tickets are $25 to $150 and can be purchased at the Ars Choralis website, www.arschoralis.org. Individuals who are unable to attend are invited to make a donation there to help underwrite the effort.