Lighting a candle, during the ceremony, with a Holocaust survivor; in the background members of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. The six candles symbolize the 6 million Jews killed during World War II.
Sunday the 22th of April, I attended a Holocaust memorial which took place at the Jewish Community Center in Tucson, Arizona, organized by Melissa Hamilton, who is a viola player with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra.
The orchestra was planning to perform the Leo Smit Viola Concerto, and was looking for another piece to complement that. They contacted me to see if there were other pieces by Leo Smit that could be performed during the ceremony. We discussed the unfinished Leo Smit string quartet, which I had completed, and Melissa was so excited about it that I decided to make a version for string orchestra.
All this made me think about the parallels and differences between my life and work and that of Leo Smit. We’re both Jewish composers based in Amsterdam, at one point I even lived in the same neighborhood where he lived. It was very moving, almost chilling, for me to finish the piece Leo Smit was working on when he was deported and killed in 1943 in Sobibor.
The tragedy deeply affected me. The idea that colleagues of mine were murdered just because they were Jewish.
When I was actually working on the score, I was more interested in Leo Smit’s music. Not necessarily in his Jewishness. I felt a musical connection. I think I did feel a responsibility to him personally in that I wanted to be as true as possible to his musical sensibilities. To try to finish the quartet in a way that would have satisfied him.
Members of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra performing during the ceremony
Two Jewish composers
Reflecting on the role our Jewish identity plays in our life and music, I must say I don’t think Leo Smit would have considered himself a Jewish composer. There are no themes or titles or anything that would refer to Jewish music or culture. That’s a big difference with me. What’s interesting is that another, even younger, composer who was murdered in World War Two, Dick Kattenburg (1919 – 1944), on the other hand, was definitely occupied by his Jewishness. He was learning Hebrew, he used Israeli folk songs, and it seemed as if he wanted to move to Palestine. Maybe it is because Smit was in his forties and Kattenburg was in his twenties. When you’re young, your Jewishness can easily become an issue due to the external world, in this case National Socialism. You’re more susceptible to becoming adamant.
For me it was probably the same mechanism. When I was in America, I was brought up in a Jewish environment, so that my Jewishness was never an issue. When I arrived in the Netherlands in my twenties, suddenly being Jewish became an issue, primarily because most of the Jews in Europe had a story about the tragedies of the Second World War. So at the time that made me start thinking about my own story and Jewishness, and my Jewish roots became an important source of inspiration for my music.