Recently I had the good fortune to be invited to the Usdan Summer Camp for the Arts on Long Island. Usdan is a wonderful summer oasis for students to pursue performing, visual, literary arts and more. During my visit I worked with their chorus on excerpts of my jazz opera, “Dear Erich.” In addition to working on the musical elements, we discussed the story’s themes, and we also discussed the meaning of specific lyrics of the section we rehearsed, which was the finale of the piece. It was very gratifying and meaningful to discuss and connect with these high school (and a few middle school) students, and to experience them processing and relating to some very mature subject matter.
I shared that the opera’s story is based on my family history and has themes that are both of a personal nature and themes that have larger social and political significance. On a personal level, I asked the students if they knew and had close relationships with their grandparents. Almost all of their hands went up. When I asked them to imagine not knowing their grandparents, and not having them in their lives, you could see a look of sadness on many of their faces. I mentioned that as young people, our “reality” is what we know and experience, and for me, not having my father’s parents in my life was the only reality I knew. But that it did make me sad that they were victims of the Holocaust and that I never had a chance to know them. Again, this reality combined with the acknowledgement of the importance of their grandparents in their lives, really registered on the student’s faces and I even felt their empathy when I described my experience.
I also talked about the healing power of remembrance. The act of remembering keeps the memories of loved ones alive and provides a certain kind of closure for the living. As I described this process a few hands went up and the students told me of candle lighting rituals that are a regular part of their family life, usually in the Jewish tradition. I was pleasantly surprised that the act (or ritual) of remembrance was met with recognition, as for me it was an idea I was only exposed to and thought about much later in life.
We also talked about survivor guilt and the idea that some experiences are so painful that people would rather not talk about them, even to loved ones. I shared that my father rarely if ever spoke about his experiences before and after World War II. I also explained that often, people feel guilty for having survived a terrible experience while others close to them did not. And though you wish you could have helped them, you couldn’t. Again, I saw looks of understanding and reflection on the student’s faces. It seemed they were relating these ideas to their own personal experiences. Even though those experiences wouldn’t have been directly with the Holocaust, the feeling and concept of survival guilt seemed to resonate with them.
I also talked about some of the reasons it was impossible to help those trapped in Germany, including the very restrictive US immigration policies in the 1930’s. The students immediately reacted with understanding when I mentioned that even today, we live in a time of restrictive immigration, and debate as to whether we should welcome “outsiders.” In these moments, I could see and feel the reactions of the students, particularly the students of color, recognizing the importance of these issues. In experiencing their reactions, I believe I was able to “connect the dots” on how the history of what happened relates to our current immigration situation.
Of course, hearing the young voices sing my music was a very special experience and we worked hard for almost an hour to coordinate the various parts – soloists and chorus. They were singing the music for the first time, and did a wonderful job, remaining focused the entire time. I decided to intersperse discussion of the text, to break up the time we drilled the music. We discussed specific lines, and I asked their thoughts on what they meant. First I asked about, “Out of the darkness comes the morning, the spring leaves winter far behind. ” I received enthusiastic participation. The students talked how about after a bad thing happens, usually things get better. Light follows darkness; winter, signifying death – leaves off the trees, is followed by spring – blooming new life. I talked about the personal nature of these themes.
Then I discussed lines that have more social and political significance. “We must stand strong, protect our brothers, to fear and hate we cannot allow.” While somewhat self explanatory, we discussed how even in today’s world we all bear responsibility for our fellow “brothers” (and sisters), and that we must be active and vigilant in protecting each other. We must do our best to prevent terrible crimes of hate. Once again I noticed a recognition in the students faces and reactions that they were grasping that the past was connected to the present.
After the final run through of the piece, we wrapped up and I was further moved by individual students coming up to me with a variety of meaningful responses. A few told me they had Holocaust survivors in their family and thanked me for writing a piece on this subject. One student came up to me and said he loved music that “crossed genres” (!) Another came up and started to give me a tutorial on Instagram and social media to help me build “buzz” on the piece in the theater world. I was blown away by the maturity and thoughtful feedback I was receiving. And that the seriousness of the subject matter did not appear to be a turn off or make them uncomfortable.
I look forward to many more of these experiences. And I am excited to craft an educational version of “Dear Erich.” In my teaching and sharing, I also learn so much from the students. And the quality of these student’s character, gives me hope and optimism for the future.