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A mission to revive lost notes from the Holocaust

By James H. Burnett III
Globe Staff / November 23, 2011
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When violist Mark Ludwig and friends gathered in his airy Brookline apartment to rehearse on a recent morning, the scene was a flurry of intensity, concentrated smiles, fluttering fingers, flying elbows, tossed sheet music, and flawlessly performed concertos.

But the levity and excitement belied both the music’s tragic roots and the serious nature of one man’s 20-year mission to bring it to light.

Ludwig created the nonprofit Terezin Music Foundation in 1991 to preserve and revive music that Jewish artists created while interned at Terezin (pronounced tear-eh-ZEEN), or Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in Prague where the Nazis during World War II housed people whose art they considered impure.

This month the foundation marked its 20th anniversary with performances by pianist Garrick Ohlsson, maestro Andre Previn, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, all done in the style of Terezin composers.

More than the performances, though, the 20th anniversary gala marked what many classical music elite say has been Ludwig’s extraordinary effort to memorialize an inanimate victim of the Holocaust that might have been lost otherwise.

“For me this has been an almost spiritual mission,’’ said Ludwig, 54, who also plays viola in the BSO. “First, this music was and remains unbelievable. Second, these are people whose lives, like so many victims of the Holocaust, were destroyed. But further, when their minds could have been on anything else, anything at all, like self-preservation, they found the will to continue their craft and continue to make and perform music in the worst possible circumstances. And that needs to be remembered.’’

From 1941 to 1945, Jewish artists found themselves packed into Terezin and forced to work factory jobs, making household items for the German economy. What the Nazis did not count on was the artists forming alliances and using their scant spare time to continue making music.

So prolific were the Terezin artists that they secretly performed late-night concerts for other prisoners while others stood watch for prison guards. The concerts were eventually discovered, but rather than put an end to them, Nazis decided they could use the concerts to ease international scrutiny and pressure over their treatment of Jews. They temporarily dressed up the ghetto and forced the Terezin artists to perform for International Red Cross observers in 1944. The occasion was filmed for a propaganda film that portrayed Terezin as some sort of utopia.

But when the Red Cross left, the cameras left, and the deportations from Terezin to the death camps resumed.

In all, 33,000 of Terezin’s 140,000 prisoners died of disease and starvation. Another 87,000 were sent to the death camps, and only 5 percent of that lot survived.

“It was no mistake that the Terezin composers wrote what they did and how they did,’’ said Anna Ornstein, an 84-year-old Auschwitz survivor, Terezin board member, and psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School. “They knew they were preserving history themselves, because they were unsure of who would survive. Many of them, perhaps most of them, expected that they would not survive.’’

In 1988, Ludwig discovered an old, dog-eared copy of the memoir of Rabbi Leo Baeck, who had been imprisoned at Terezin. Baeck’s account of Terezin’s musicians prompted Ludwig to hop a plane for Prague and launch a “Da Vinci Code’’-type search for the lost music.

It took dozens of return trips from Boston, mounds of paperwork, currying favor with bureaucrats in the former Czech Republic, and securing their permission to take possession of Terezin music, should he find any. Later Ludwig sneezed his way through dusty boxes and in basements and attics across Prague - makeshift archives, but Ludwig eventually found what he was looking for: sheet music written at Terezin.

“I knew then that their memory, the memory of their music, had to be preserved,’’ said Ludwig, who is married and has an 8-year-old daughter. “What compositions were incomplete, we had to complete. And those that were complete needed to be shared.’’

If Ludwig had been a gambler, what he did next would have been equivalent to calling in a thousand markers.

“I approached every great composer and artist I knew,’’ he said. “I recruited friends. I recruited fellow performers. I recruited academics and tracked down survivors. And I asked them all to help me make this a reality.’’

In 1991, after several years of planning and recruitment for board members, “who wouldn’t just serve in title but would actively participate,’’ Ludwig said, the Terezin Chamber Music Foundation (“chamber’’ was later dropped) was formed.

Unlike other nonprofits, there is no application process for musicians or composers who would like to work with the foundation on a Terezin-themed project. On the contrary, if Ludwig, informed through his global performance advisory board, determines that an artist or a composer is a good fit, he pursues them.

As for the foundation’s work, Ludwig kicked off the MusicFOR/Sarajevo project in November 1997, on the foundation’s sixth anniversary, to help rebuild the Music Academy of Sarajevo.

In 1999, with a National Endowment for the Arts grant at his back, Ludwig cocreated “Finding a Voice: Musicians in Terezin,’’ a curriculum that is used in schools and colleges.

Through the foundation, in 2001 Ludwig also developed the PEACE (Performance and Cultural Exchange) Programs, an intense academic and musical boot camp of sorts in the Berkshires, Boston, and Washington, D.C.

And in 2002, Ludwig and the foundation were commissioned by the State Department to produce fund-raising concerts for flood relief efforts in the Czech Republic. This work evolved into a cultural exchange program between Prague and Boston, led by Ludwig in the fall of 2004.

But the core mission of the Terezin Music Foundation over the years has always been to commission artists - some unknown, some famous - to complete and/or duplicate and perform Terezin music, which Ludwig has painstakingly copied and archived.

In an e-mail, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, a foundation board member, described Ludwig as “invaluable and crucial to the ongoing preservation and making of great music.’’

Edgar Krasa, a Terezin survivor and foundation board member who lives in Newton, said that without Ludwig’s efforts much of Terezin’s musical history might have died.

Krasa, who arrived at Terezin from Germany on one of the first Nazi transports in 1940 when construction began, was offered a deal by the Nazis: help set up the camp’s kitchen facilities and his family would be spared the death camps.

“Here’s what Mark learned that some people may not understand, what drives him on this project,’’ Krasa said. “He learned that residents of Terezin risked their lives for this music. And that was the difference maker.’’

Stephen Feigenbaum, a 22-year-old Winchester native who studies music at Yale, chuckled at the memory of his first contact with Ludwig.

“It was very ‘Mission: Impossible,’ ’’ Feigenbaum said. “I’ve been writing since I was 10 years old and have had a chance to write for musicians at the New England Conservatory and the Boston Landmark Orchestra. But I have to confess I did not know Mark or about Terezin. I got a call from him out of the blue asking to meet with me. We met in a park, I remember, and he basically told me my mission, if I chose to accept it.’’

Tom Martin, principal clarinetist with the BSO and a Terezin Music Foundation volunteer since the beginning, pointed to the World War II legend that had an American general suggesting that arts funding be cut in order to better fund the military. Reportedly the general was asked, “Then what would we be fighting for?’’

“It’s that thought that has kept Mark going,’’ Martin said. “I’ve performed this music. After me, others will perform it. And as long as that happens, Terezin won’t die. In fact the story will become less legend, because these efforts will make sure that it is more widely known.’’

James H. Burnett III can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamesburnett.

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