One of the most active and popular musical performers in Theresienstadt, the bass Karel Berman was born in Bohemia on 14 April 1919. His studies at the Prague Conservatory were forcibly interrupted by the Nazi invasion, and in 1941 he was deported to Theresienstadt, where he distinguished himself as a versatile musician in a range of activities from stage directing and conducting to composition and performance: as a pianist and, most notably, as a bass. Berman’s many opera performances in the camp included Czech composer Smetana’s The Bartered Bride and The Kiss, as well as Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute. He was also featured as a soloist in the renowned performance of Verdi’s Requiem in the ghetto, under Rafael Schächter’s baton. He gave frequent solo recitals, incorporating standard repertoire, Czech compositions, and works by young Theresienstadt composers. An extant programme from a concert on 22 June 1944 includes, for example, works by Beethoven and Dvorák alongside Pavel Haas’ Four Songs to the Text of Chinese Poetry, a work that Berman continued regularly to include in his post-war programmes. In addition to his prolific performance activities, Berman also became conductor of a girls’ chorus in Theresienstadt, and conducted one performance of the one-act comic opera In the Well by the Czech composer Vilém Blodek. He also composed some notable works, including Three Songs for high voice and piano, a suite for piano titled Terezín, and a cycle of four songs for bass and piano titled Poupata (The Rosebuds); some of these works were performed under the auspices of Viktor Ullmann’s Studio für neue Musik (Studio for New Music). In one of his most enthusiastic reviews in Theresienstadt, Ullmann described Berman as an ‘eloquent, courageous, all-round talented artist, singer, composer, conductor’.
Berman was taken to Auschwitz in October 1944, and after a few days was transferred to Kaufering, a sub-camp of Dachau. He survived a death march and was liberated by the American army in May 1945. After the war, Berman returned to the Prague Conservatory to complete his studies, and graduated in 1946 as a singer and stage director. He has since worked in both capacities, and has been particularly active as a performer in operas, oratorios, as well as solo recitals throughout Europe and Japan.
Joža Karas, Music in Terezín 1941-1945 (New York: Beaufort Book Publishers, in association with Pendragon Press, 1985).