In the mid-1990s, the American conductor Murry Sidlin first heard about the performances of Verdi's Requiem at Theresienstadt Concentration Camp. In this Czech fortified city, the Jewish prisoners lived in appalling conditions. In this inhumane world, the Czech conductor and pianist Rafael Schächter created an island of civilization by rehearsing Verdi's Requiem with 150 fellow prisoners. In the presence of the Nazis, the Requiem was sung as a metaphor, as an act of resistance. 'Verdi's music is very powerful and threatening. It was a huge challenge to have the Germans right in front of us and to send them this message,' one survivor told later.
The story of the Verdi performances in Theresienstadt can be retold today as some choir members survived the horrors. Yet it took more than half a century before the story became known in a wider circle. Murry Sidlin, conductor and dean of the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., heard of Schächter's Requiem and sought out for the survivors. Deeply impressed by the history he heard from them first-hand, he decided to make a special performance about the story. His concert drama was first performed in Portland, Oregon in 2002 and was titled Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín (Theresienstadt's Czech name). In this performance Sidlin combines the music with video fragments of interviews with survivors and film images from, among others, the Nazi propaganda film Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt. Between the parts, Sidlin and two actors recite quotations from Rafael Schächter and other prisoners. The impressive performance is at the same time an indictment of the persecution of the Jews and a demonstration of the power of music, which helped prisoners to maintain their dignity and spirit in degrading and hellish conditions.
In 2008, Sidlin founded the Defiant Requiem Foundation, which aims to make Schächter's story known worldwide by organising performances. The concert has now been performed some fifty times at numerous locations.