Anna Levy (photo from Yarilo Contemporary Music Society)
My mother’s maiden name was Levy, my dad’s surname was also Levy. My story is about life. None of my family was killed during the Holocaust. I am alive because I grew up in a small European country, Bulgaria, that – despite being Nazi-aligned – managed to save all its Jews during the Second World War. And I – and many others – will be saying thank you through music this spring in a major concert marking the 75th anniversary of this historic series of events, for which we are so grateful.
During the Holocaust, Bulgaria had a complex record. While it is responsible for deporting 11,000 Jews from Bulgarian-occupied territories, most of whom were murdered at Treblinka, it defied Hitler and saved all 50,000 of its Jews, among which was my family.
In 1943, the complicated diplomatic manoeuvres of the Bulgarian parliament, led by Dimitar Peshev, along with civil disobedience and the strong official opposition of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, resulted in the cancellation of the deportation that was planned for March of that year.
In June 1943, then German ambassador to Bulgaria, Adolf Heinz Beckerle reported to Berlin, “The Bulgarian society doesn’t quite understand the real meaning of the Jewish question … so the racial question is totally foreign to them,” and he complained that the Bulgarian people lacked “the ideological enlightenment that we [Germans] have.”
In 1996, Jewish National Fund named a forest in honour of Bulgaria, with memorial plaques dedicated to Peshev, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and to King Boris.
This year marks the 75 years since the salvation of Bulgarian Jews during the war and preparations are underway in Bulgaria, Israel and in other countries to mark this anniversary.
In Vancouver, on May 27, Project Tehillim will take place at the Orpheum Annex. Twenty-three professional musicians will participate in the program featuring Tehillim, which was written by one of the most famous living Jewish American composers, Steve Reich. This event should occupy a central place in Metro Vancouver’s cultural life, as the work is unique, rarely performed and difficult to put together.
“Tehillim,” explains Reich, “is the original Hebrew word for Psalms. Literally translated, it means praises, and it derives from the three-letter Hebrew root ‘hey, lamed, lamed’ … which is also the root of halleluyah.”
In his notes on the website of classical music publishing company Boosey & Hawkes, Reich also writes, “One of the reasons I chose to set Psalms as opposed to parts of the Torah or Prophets is that the oral tradition among Jews in the West for singing Psalms has been lost. (It has been maintained by Yemenite Jews.) This meant that I was free to compose the melodies for Tehillim without a living oral tradition to either imitate or ignore.”
That said, he notes, “The rhythm, of the music here comes directly from the rhythm of the Hebrew text and is, consequently, in flexible changing meters.”
Tehillim is deeply rooted in ancient Hebrew traditions from biblical times. This is not music of contemporary daily life, but instead conjures the timeless and eternal. This work is a deep reflection of Jewish tradition presented in a modern way.
The budget for this large-scale project is more than $20,000: for musicians’ fees, theatre rental, scores, instrument rentals and other expenses. To help raise these funds, the Yarilo Contemporary Music Society – of which I am co-artistic director with Jane Hayes – is holding the concert Lest We Forget, on Sunday, April 8, 3 p.m., at Pyatt Hall, with the support of the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture.
The fundraising concert features classical masterpieces. The centrepiece of the program – which will be performed by Angela Cavadas (violin), Rebecca Wenham (cello), Johanna Hauser (clarinet) and me on piano – is Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A Minor, written in memory of his Jewish friend Nikolai Rubinstein. In addition, there will be music by Jewish composers Srul Irving Glick (Suite hébraïque) and Ernest Bloch (Prayer).
Both concerts – Tehillim and Lest We Forget – highlight the spiritual qualities of the Jewish people. In the words of the non-Jewish author Milan Kundera about the importance of Jews in Europe: “Indeed, no other part of the world has been so deeply marked by the influence of Jewish genius. Aliens everywhere and everywhere at home, lifted above national quarrels, the Jews in the 20th century were the principal cosmopolitan, integrating element in Central Europe: they were its intellectual cement, a condensed version of its spirit, creators of its spiritual unity. That’s why I love the Jewish heritage and cling to it with as much passion and nostalgia as though it were my own.”
I love the Jewish heritage with a passion, as well, and it is “our own.” I hope that other members of the Jewish community will become Yarilo’s partners, and help us make Project Tehillim a worthy thank you. To contribute to the project, visit gofundme.com/2018-my-jewish-story-is-for-life; the campaign includes a third concert, which is planned for October. For tickets to the April 8 fundraising performance at Pyatt Hall, visit yarilomusic.com.