The great musical maestro, Arturo Toscanini, was once listening to a very complex concert with a friend. Toscanini, known for his photographic memory, intense personality and superb ear for detail, asked his companion if he had noticed anything unusual about the rendition of the orchestral piece. The friend replied that he had not and wondered what Toscanini had found unusual and noteworthy. Toscanini replied with an outstanding observation: “There should be fourteen violins in that orchestra. I only heard thirteen!” Every note, every instrument and every musical arrangement struck a chord deep within the grandmaster.
Shortly after Yom HaShoah, the middle school students of SINAI at RYNJ, who have a wide range of complex disabilities, were fortunate enough to participate in a deeply moving presentation by Dr. Tamara Reps Freeman, a Holocaust music recitalist and educator. Dr. Freeman showcased five songs that had been composed or sung in the Holocaust ghettos and concentration camps. She played each song on a special viola that itself had been rescued from the Holocaust. The students watched intently as her fingers danced across the strings, and were entranced as they followed the horsehair bow glide up and down.
Dr. Freeman told of the rescue of the viola and the backstory of each song. She asked each student to allow the stirring melodies and stories to seep into their minds and hearts and to “feel” the eternal message of the music. Dr. Freeman had the boys and girls commit their thoughts and feelings to paper by writing in a specially designed workbook that she distributed at the beginning of the program.
The responses were immediate, overwhelming and genuine. These SINAI students, many of whom struggle with academics and maintaining their focus, were riveted to their seats for an entire hour by the musical performance and the poignant stories. Dr. Freeman skillfully presented the emotionally sensitive and difficult material about the Shoah to this group of students who have special needs and complex learning challenges.
The words that were penned in their workbooks following the performance attest to the profound impression that Dr. Freeman made on the young audience. One young man wrote that he found one of the songs “exciting and happy,” and could not get over the idea that “someone risked their life to save this instrument.” He added that “it was amazing that they [the Jews] sang when they were treated like rats.” Another student was able to discern a more ”upbeat” tune that he felt had been composed to “mock the Nazis.” Without solicitation, one boy drew a picture of what he visualized a concentration camp barracks to look like while another suggested that some of the notes sounded like “pounding” and “stomping” on a floor or table.
Dr. Freeman fielded many questions and apologized when time did not allow her to call on every vigorously waving hand. She warmly presented some of her sheet music to two students who, finding her very approachable, shyly came forward and lingered at the end of the hour. The presentation engaged every single student on his or her own level, and enabled each child to internalize much of the information that she introduced. Dr. Freeman was true to her mission and was able to strike a chord deep within each and every student. She encouraged them to remember the facts of the Shoah, express pride/empathy in Holocaust composers and musicians and appreciate the inspirational quality of Holocaust music. This presentation helped every one of our students to see, in Dr. Freeman’s words, “how our people’s inner strength can inspire us to live with pride, bravery, dignity and maturity.”
Dena Mayerfeld is a teacher at SINAI at RYNJ. SINAI operates seven inclusive special education schools for children with a wide range of developmental, intellectual, and complex learning disabilities.
This article was originally published in The Jewish Link.