Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Summer 2011 (August 4, 2011 at 12:00 am)

Song of Survival


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July 22, 2011 at 12:00 am
By Katherine Leveling’09
Women's choral groups and singing societies have been sources of pride and empowerment, even in the darkest days.

Barbed wire fences. Striped, tattered uniforms. Starvation and disease. Smoke rising from gas chambers. Singing.

That last word probably seems out of place. Most people, when they think about the concentration camps of World War II, envision suffering and death. That vision is accurate, and one we go to great lengths to remember. But the women who enrolled in a Beloit College class called “Vox Feminae” learned that singing indeed existed in Nazi and other World War II-era internment camps, and it empowered those in captivity even as they faced the most dire situations imaginable.

Latin for “female voices,” Vox Feminae is Assistant Professor of Music Susan Rice’s part-choir, part-research class, offered each spring. Drawing on women’s and gender studies, musicology, and primary sources, the course explores female singing societies. “Vox,” as students call it, reaches beyond historical survey and strives to help students forge connections with a specific place and time. They read memoirs, stories, and poetry by women in the period and sing the period’s music. This spring, the course delved into the musical groups of World War II internment camps—whose sheer existence surprised many of the students who enrolled.

“Before taking Vox, I had never thought about what people did in the Nazi camps and ghettos,” says Sally Jaffray’12. “I just knew it was horrible. I never realized there was a whole life there. For some people, it was a really creative time.”

Susan Rice 

Students learned that artistic life flourished in concentration camps, especially in Terezín, the Czech ghetto-camp. This quarter of the city was where many Jewish academics and artists were held captive by the Nazis before they were transported to the Auschwitz gas chambers. Prisoners sometimes attended lectures and performed in full-scale operas and plays, composing original works and collaborating with other artists. These privileges had a catch, as Grace Smith’14 discovered during her independent research project.

“My title was ‘The Two Faces of Terezí́n,’” she says, explaining that Nazis encouraged creative activity to present a humane façade during an International Red Cross visit. “The propaganda was problematic, and people realized that. I compared artistic freedoms and propaganda to decide which triumphed. I want to say it was art: Art was an expression of hope, and it helped people survive.”  

Singing for hope and survival

Smith’s conclusion reflects an idea that surfaced in the course again and again. Singing was not an idle pastime. Instead, it fueled prisoners’ survival. As Miriam Harel, a Lødz ghetto composer who inspired the class, wrote, “Singing is a manifestation of hope. The song is a cry, and afterward you feel free.”

This theme stretched beyond European camps to a lesser-known history: Japanese internment camps in Sumatra, Indonesia. Students learned about them through Song of Survival, a woman’s first-hand account of imprisonment. While the Sumatran prisons weren’t intended as death camps, scores died from malnutrition, the harsh tropical climate, and no medical care. Still, students learned, the conditions gave rise to stunning creativity. Interned women formed what they called a vocal orchestra. They transcribed familiar orchestral melodies, such as Dvorak’s Largo, using their voices in the place of instruments. Performances were simple, but the audience and singers reported them as almost supernaturally inspiring. “I thought I had never heard anything so beautiful before,” the memoir’s author wrote.

Hearing about these experiences made the vocal orchestra repertoire—which the students sang—take on richer significance. “I’ve had a connection to choir music before, but nothing as strong as this,” says Jaffray, who has been a member of the college’s Chamber Singers for three years. “The more you know about music, the more you can connect to it. The structure of Vox really lent itself to that. We knew the circumstances of the song and the context of the whole time period.”

Women’s choruses in history

When Rice arrived at Beloit in 2006, she found no history of an interest in women’s chorus. She wasn’t surprised. Her master’s degree work had encompassed women’s choruses, and she knew that they often become “training choirs” for less-developed singers who aren’t selected into mixed choruses. “There’s this gender perception that you’re more valued if you’re singing with men than if you’re singing with just women,” Rice says.

But her research also showed a way beyond this perception. She knew that all-female singing societies existed in many periods in history, when they were sources of pride. “Women don’t understand the heritage of women singing together,” she says. “I started wondering, ‘What if we thought of a women’s chorus in a different way? What if we focused on one time and place where women were excited to sing together?’” She realized this would mean more than a choir, but also a research class in which students “make a pointed effort to embody a time and place. Then, when we sing the music, it will resonate in a way that allows us to connect with women who came before,” she says.

And this is exactly what Vox Feminae has done. Students say they felt the power of the historical connections, and their understanding of the music in its context was also evident in their culminating performance. Their concert, part of Beloit’s Holocaust Remembrance Day event, wove together songs from European and Indonesian camps with spoken interludes that students wrote, giving the pieces context and meaning. “We tried to convey something beyond the basic facts about the Holocaust. We wanted to highlight the anomalies that really stuck with us,” Jaffray says. Students worked to balance presenting the harsh realities of the camps alongside a powerful message: People found hope in the most trying contexts.

“I hope the audience understood that while it was such a horrible time, people were still able to produce wonderful works of art,” reflects Jeanne Mrugacz’13. “In grade school, you just hear about what camps there were. It’s important to look at other things that happened, too.” Mrugacz feels certain the message hit home with the audience that day. “So many times during the concert, I got goose bumps all over. Something was going on in the room.”

Audience members agreed. Dean of the College Ann Davies thought the students’ spoken interludes helped people connect with the music more than at a typical concert. Director of Spiritual Life Bill Conover observed that Vox’s performance helped the audience “taste the courage, creativity, and community through which the interned women survived and resisted their captors.”

This music-as-resilience theme, Vox showed, stretched beyond one set of circumstances. The group sang repertoire in Yiddish, English, Hebrew, and Czech. “We were able to identify this one thread that acted in a similar way for all these different people,” Rice says. “Music allowed them creative release that led them to feel some ownership over their lives.”

Magazine 2011 6'I have a connection to that!'

Rice designed the Vox Feminae class to give students an unusual degree of exposure to women’s choral literature from a vastly different time and place. However, nothing in her lesson plan, or in anyone’s wildest imagination, could have foreseen the powerful way in which this class would end.

With only a few weeks left in the semester, and with rehearsals intensifying, Rice started seeking someone who could help the singers with their pronunciation of Czech lyrics. She asked Laura Rocek’11, a Beloit student of Czech descent, if she could assist. When Rice explained the wider focus of the class, Rocek responded, “I have a connection to that!”

She explained that her grandparents, Jan and Eva Rocek, had met at Terezí́n—where Eva sang in the choir. Both had written their memoirs.

Rice realized this connection was too good to pass up—that what students could learn from a real-time conversation with survivors differed entirely from what memoirs or articles provided. “You can’t ask a book a question,” she says.

Rice set up an online connection using Skype to link students to the Ro˘ceks in their Delaware home. The night they were scheduled to talk, students clutched papers scrawled with questions, and shifted in their seats as the projection screen flickered to life.

The room, filled at first with nervous energy, calmed a bit after the Roceks answered the first question and students realized they were interacting with warm, open people. Their conversation ran the gamut, covering everything from how the Roceks took their deportation orders, to how Eva’s piano teacher made her sing in the choir, to her embarrassment at her first kiss, received from Jan at Terezí́n.

“The Roceks shared moments of their lives that they had every right not to share,” Rice says. “I was on the edge of crying the entire time because this wasn’t an opportunity I expected our class to have.”

Hearing first-hand from people who entered the camps at ages 15 and 17 also made the students re-think how they understood people caught up in a historical moment. “We expected the Roceks to talk about certain things because we can see the whole picture [of the Holocaust], but they couldn’t see the whole picture because it hadn’t all happened yet,” Smith says. “They just went about their lives.”

Students were also surprised by the Roceks’ attitude. When asked how their time in the camps affected the rest of their lives, and whether they carried any bitterness, they responded that they were not bitter at all. Instead, they took their experiences as motivation to live lives of tolerance and kindness. “Our daughter-in-law is German,” Eva said, “and we love her.”

That spirit stuck with students, making the conversation a fitting conclusion to the course. “We were talking to a Beloit community member’s grandparents who actually experienced what we read about,” Smith says. “The conversation was like a goody bag of everything we had learned.”

Engagement with the time and its people is what Mira Treatman’12 valued most about Vox Feminae. “I don’t think it’s easy to teach Holocaust material, and I don’t know many professors who would teach it with this experiential approach,” she says. “Susan made us get really intimate with it. That was surprising to me, and unusual in collegiate study. I think that’s the best way to study the Holocaust: Put down your guard and really internalize what it means.”

See Vox Feminae rehearse on the college's YouTube channel.

Katherine Leveling’09 begins a graduate program in English this fall at the University of California-Davis. A singer, she attended many Vox Feminae class periods and rehearsals for this article and performed with the group during Holocaust Remembrance Day.

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