Raphael Schächter was born in Braila, Romania on 27 May 1905, and was raised and educated in Brno. He went to Prague after World War I to study piano, composition and conducting at the Prague Conservatory, from which he graduated. He established the Chamber Opera in 1937 to play neglected baroque music and worked with Emil F. Burian at his Avant-garde theatre. However, Nazi persecution soon forced Schächter to reduce his musical activities to private lessons and home concerts.
Schächter arrived at Theresienstadt in November 1941 and soon after began to organise singers and instrumentalists. He was a pioneer of cultural life in the ghetto, and worked with Karel Svenk and Gideon Klein among others to arrange musical activities.
In summer 1942, Schächter had began to rehearse Bedrich Smetana's The Bartered Bride. The opera premiere took place on 28 November without sets or costumes, and Schächter accompanied the ensemble on a battered baby grand piano. The performance was celebrated as 'a great musical act', and was so successful that it was repeated 35 times. A 13-year-old wrote in her diary:
'I had heard the Bartered Bride three times in Prague, but it was never so beautiful as here. It is indeed a miracle that conductor Schächter is able to prepare it like that. When I was walking home and overheard all the small talk about food, black-marketing, passes, and work in the fields, I felt like a person having had beautiful dreams, who awakens suddenly, and everything is again as trite as always. I was thinking all the time about the Bartered Bride, and even in my half-slumber I heard in my head "Faithful loving" [the love duet from the opera.]'
Schächter began to rehearse a second opera, The Kiss, soon afterwards. Describing the performance, the singer Bedrich Borges recalled:
'Rafael Schächter literally poured spirit into people. I remember, for example, how he was working with choir in opera The Kiss. I didn't sing, and sat in the audience; I looked at Schächter and thought I was looking at Johann Sebastian Bach. The man was simply impregnated by music, a rock of a man.'
In September 1943, Schächter was ordered by the SS to conduct Verdi's Requiem, for which he organised a choir of approximately 150 singers and four soloists. Shortly after the successful performance, almost the entire cast was deported to Auschwitz. Schächter reconstituted a large choir to perform the work again, but in December was forced to recruit musicians for a third time after another transport to the ‘East’. The final group, though reduced in size, gave fifteen performances. Schächter performed and conducted in a range of additional musical performances in Theresienstadt and was mentioned in several of Viktor Ullmann’s critiques.
In October 1944, the SS asked Schächter to stage Verdi’s Requiem again, this time for the Red Cross, with Eichmann and several other top SS officers present. Murray Sidlin wrote:
'Through Edgar [Krasa], I learned that the requiem was a code. It talks about the end of the world and what happens to those who commit evil. Even as they were facing their own destruction, the Jews in that choir were telling the Nazis how the Third Reich was doomed.'
It was with this last choir that Rafael Schächter was finally transported to Auschwitz along with several other Theresienstadt musicians. All were killed on arrival.
In April 2005, the conductor Murry Sidlin conceived, wrote and conducted Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin, a performance to honour Raphael Schächter.
'I must tell the story,' Sidlin declared, 'of an unsung hero, Raphael Schächter, who was a passionate conductor, a risk taker and a man motivated by music to serve humanity.'
Appearing in Sidlin’s performance were the camp survivors Edgar Krasa, Marianka Zadikow-May, and Eva Rocek, a surviving singer of Schächter's chorus.
Karas, J., 1985. Music in Terezín 1941–1945, New York.
Rosen, P., 2002. Bearing witness: a resource guide to literature, poetry, art, music, and videos by Holocaust victims and survivors, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
Kuna, M., 1993. Musik an der Grenze des Lebens: Musikerinnen und Musiker aus Böhmischen Ländern in Nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslagern und Gefängnissen, Frankfurt/M.: Zweitausendeins.
Schultz, I., 1993. Viktor Ullmann: 26 Kritiken über mus. Veranstaltungen in Theresienstadt.