See the full translated text and credits for our performance of Pavel Haas's Fata Morgana, marking Holocaust Memorial Day 2021.
Words by Howard Jacobson
Fata Morgana Op. 6 by Pavel Haas
Piano and Artistic Direction
Navarra String Quartet
Benjamin Marquise Gilmore – Violin I
Jonathan Stone – Violin II
Sascha Bota – Viola
Brian O’Kane – Cello
Filmed and edited by
Simon Wall, Tall Wall Media
On Memory by Howard Jacobson
The purpose of Holocaust Memorial Day is to remember. Not only near-unimaginable human cruelty, but near-unimaginable human suffering and courage. So its purpose is to enable us to imagine too. For memory needs imagination at its shoulder.
The opposite of memory is forgetfulness. There is more than one kind of forgetfulness. There is the slow, accidental forgetfulness of weariness and inattention. And then there is the deliberate forgetfulness of disbelief. Ours is an Age of Denial. The cancellation of the past that was Pol Pot’s Return to year Zero was not the twentieth century’s only attempt to expunge history. And this century seems to have learnt little from the terrible experiences of the last. Whatever our politics, we censor, we cancel, we airbrush, we no-platform, we deny. That which we don’t want to have happened we insist did not happen. ‘Make it go away,’ we beg our parents when we are children. And the more childish we remain, the greater our demands on politicians, teachers and commentators to tell us the lies we prefer to the truth.
Those who try to make what they don’t like go away are aided by the very resource we once thought could be relied upon to deliver truth. With what hopefulness we greeted the advent of the Internet. Now, we said, everything could be verified and nothing denied. There was no limit to what we could find out. History awaited us at the touch of a key. But the opposite has turned out to be the case. That same Internet, along with all the rumour and anxiety sites it facilitates – social media, chat rooms, twitter – has become our greatest source of disinformation.
And if events unfolding before our very eyes can be flatly denied, how much more precarious is the past. More than ever are we thrown back on memory. ‘Never forget’ was the grave injunction delivered to humanity as the truth of what had happened in the camps began to be told. This was a call that went beyond questions of forgiveness or even understanding. It was a bald commandment. Just let it be remembered.
In a harrowing passage in Primo Levi’s magisterial If This Is A Man – the greatest of all depictions of death-in-life in a concentration camp – Levi describes a dream he shares with fellow inmates. He dreams he is back home telling people of his experiences, but they are ‘completely indifferent… speak confusedly of other things among themselves, as if I was not there.’ Again and again guards taunted Levi with that prospect – ‘the ever-repeated scene of the unlistened-to story.’ And even if those returning from the camps did succeed in getting people to listen, they would not get them to believe.
It was partly knowing they would not be believed – either because what they had to tell was barely believable, or because they feared that malice would shut the ears of listeners – that kept so many survivors silent for so long. Eventually, one by one, they found the courage to refute those guards, defy their own nightmares, and tell the story of what had happened to them.
They were right to fear malice. Holocaust Denial is a vocation for some who call themselves historians. Making it not have happened is their life’s work. Their motives are various. But for none of them is the denial benign. None claims to be the bearer of good news to the Jews. None is saying ‘Rejoice! I have the evidence. More of you survived than you think.’ For many, indeed, denial of the Holocaust co-exists with the wish it had been even worse. Show the Holocaust to have been a hoax and you demonstrate why Jews deserved to suffer it.
This assault on memory is carefully calibrated to denigrate not just the victims, not just individual Jews whether they were in the camps or not, but Jewish culture and history. For Jews, memory is survival and continuance. An unsettled, peripatetic people, they carry their history around with them in memory. They are who they are because they remember to be.
But to do violence to the memory of one people amounts to doing violence to the memory of everyone. No story is just the story of itself. One will always beget another. So when those prison guards scoffingly warned Primo Levi that his story would be unheard, they were presaging a world where truth and falsehood would be relative, and deafness would one day be universal. It is a matter of life and death, therefore, that we remember.
English translation by Lada Valešová and Martin Čurda
Fata Morgana, Op. 6 (1923)
Rabindranath Tagore: The Gardener
When she passed me by with swift footsteps,
the hem of her robe touched me.
From the unknown island of the heart arose
unexpectedly a warm breath of spring.
A quiver of a fleeting touch brushed me by, and
disappeared again, like a torn flower petal, carried
away by a breeze.
It hit my heart like a sigh of her body
and whisper of her heart.
The night is the night of the ripe May,
the wind is the southerly wind.
I run as a musk-deer runs, in the shadow of the forest,
driven insane by his own scent.
I veer off my path and I wander, seeking what I cannot
find, and finding what I do not seek.
From my heart arises and dances
the image of my desire.
The bright vision keeps flashing by. I want to grasp it
firmly, but it escapes me and leads me off my path.
I walk, I run, I seek. I seek what I cannot find, I find
what I do not seek.
My heart, the bird of the thickets,
has found its sky in your eyes.
They are the cradle of the morning,
they are the kingdom of the stars.
My songs are lost in their depths.
May I soar into that sky,
into its solitary vastness.
Let me pierce its clouds
Let me spread my wings in its sunshine.
My beloved, my heart yearns day and night for the
meeting with you – for the meeting which is like all-consuming death!
Crush me like a storm,
take everything I have;
crack open my sleep and loot my dreams,
rob me of my world.
In that devastation,
in that stark nakedness of spirit,
let us be ‘one’ in beauty.
Alas, my desire is in vain! Where else can one hope for
such merging, except in you, my love?
You are the evening cloud floating
over the sky of my dreams.
I paint you and I envisage you guided by
the desires of my love.
You are mine, mine,
You Dweller of my infinite dreams.
Your legs are glowing pink
with the ardour of my heart’s desire,
You Reaper of the harvest of my sunset songs!
Your lips are bitterly sweet
with the taste of my wine of pain.
The shadow of my passion
has darkened your eyes,
You, mysterious guest of the depth
of my mesmerised gaze!
I have captured you, my beloved,
and cloaked you in the net of my music.
You are mine, you are mine,
You Dweller of my dreams!
You are mine, you are mine, you are mine’.
Born in Brno in 1889, Pavel Haas studied composition with Leoš Janáček and was one of the leading Czech composers of his generation. In Fata Morgana, a 1923 setting of love poetry by Rabindrath Tagore, the influence of Janáček can be heard alongside Haas’s distinctive voice.
In 1941 Haas was interned in the Terezin concentration camp, together with composers Gideon Klein, Hans Krasa and Viktor Ullmann. In October 1944 all four were deported to Auschwitz, where Haas, Ullmann and Krasa were killed on arrival. Klein was sent from Auschwitz to Fürstengrube, where he died in January 1945. The family tree of Bohemian and Moravian musical life was severed and the music of a generation of Czech composers slipped into obscurity for several decades.
The re-discovery and revival of this lost repertoire is ongoing. A recording of Pavel Haas’s songs, including the recorded premiere of Fata Morgana, performed by Nicky Spence, Lada Valešová and the Navarra Quartet, is available on Resonus Classics. Valešová has also recorded Haas’s Suite for Piano Op 13 for Avie Records in her survey of Czech piano music, Intimate Studies.
The novelist and journalist Howard Jacobson was born in Manchester in 1942. He has published more than twenty volumes of fiction and non-fiction, alongside trenchant essays, columns and criticism.
Holocaust Memorial Day
Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on 27 January each year in memory of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, alongside the millions of other people killed under Nazi Persecution and in the genocides which followed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
To help preserve memories and ensure lessons from the Holocaust and more recent genocides are learnt, please consider donating to Holocaust Memorial Day at www.hmd.org.uk/donate.