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The Butterfly Comes Home

By Charles Davidson

Cantor and composer Charles Davidson was one of the first cantors to graduate from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he subsequently served on the faculty and trained several generations of cantors. He has also been one of the most frequently commissioned composers of music for Jewish sacred purposes. But of his many compositions and achievements, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a choral song cycle based on poetry written by children interned at Terezin, remains the one of which he is most proud. “…a piece I feel I was born for,” he reflected recently. In this essay, Davidson recounts the profound experience of performing the piece in Terezin, some fifty years after the camp originally opened.
—Jeff Janeczko, Curator

ON A DRIZZLY, COLD THURSDAY MORNING, October 17, 1991, I found myself in a darkened grove of chestnut trees, their black-branched fingers stretched against a gray sky which peeked through some wet and drooping leaves. I bent and picked up a gnarled, brown walnut and rubbed its shine with my thumb thinking again how the past twenty-four years of my life have been shaped by a chance musical encounter. 

I was in Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia, the dreaded walled city itself, but would not have been there had it not been for my friends, Jerome Kopmar, who initiated a special musical commission to memorialize the Holocaust, and Solomon Mendelson, who urged it to completion over the summer and fall of 1968.

Barely a month before this particular Thursday morning, just after Rosh Hashannah, Bob Frye, TV Producer with Bolthead Productions of New York had called to invite me to go to Czechoslovakia as a guest of Vaclav Havel, The Terezin Initiative (an organization of survivors of European concentration camps), the Jewish Committees in the Czech Republic, the State Jewish Museum in Prague and the International Terezin Committee. I was to travel to the prison-city itself with a camera crew, the international tour choir of the American Boychoir, its teachers and Music Director, James Litton, and Mr. Frye and his staff, all of us to help dedicate the new Jewish Museum in Theresienstadt. This was the 50th year of its opening as a way-station for Jews on their way to dismal death at Auschwitz, and its use as a decoy and ruse for the International Red Cross visit there during World War II.

Original recording featuring the American Boychoir.

The American Boychoir, of Princeton, New Jersey, would perform my song cycle, I Never Saw Another Butterfly (which I had written to poetry of the children of Terezin), with symphony orchestra in Prague and in Brno and would also sing at the official opening of the Jewish Museum in Terezin. I accepted the invitation but with trepidation: It was an honor which both delighted and for some reason, also frightened me.

Ever since the music had been written, the work has seemed to live a life of its own, being performed widely, by all sorts of disparate groups and without promotional publicity. It had been nurtured by people I had not previously known, many of them from the school itself: former choirmasters Donald Hansen and John Kuzma, the exceptional humanitarian and dear friend Steven Howard, and then by the administrator John Ellis, and by a staff of dedicated workers in the school, all of whom I had met and afterwards loved for their humanity and for their hope for a better world. 

I had lived with the music and the poetry for many years and have always believed that it expressed my deepest feelings of sorrow at the destruction wrought upon the Jewish people and other peoples by the inhumanity of the Nazis and abetted by the apparent disinterest of the world. I had heard the many recordings, had been present at the scores of performances that always left me in tears, had been told of the thousands of performances by many choirs around the world, had received hundreds of programs from boy choirs, public high school choruses and church choirs, had heard of its several presentations before the Pope at the Vatican, the performances at the Rotunda in Washington, but I never had thought that I would, at some point, be forced to confront the reality of the poems and their authors in the place they last lived before they were murdered by the Nazis.

I didn't know what to expect from such a trip. I was now at the age that the authors of the poems would have been had they lived: One of the youthful poets even shared a birth date with me. The poetry had become so much a part of my own persona and was so integrated with my music that now, in retrospect after my trip, I believe that I expected to confront my own self in the barracks of Terezin.

I was unable to be at Smetana Hall in Prague on Sunday evening to hear the American Boychoir and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra with James Litton perform “Butterfly” for the first time in Czechoslovakia. I left Kennedy Airport aboard a Czech Airlines flight and arrived in Prague in the early morning of Tuesday, October 15, in time to be met and driven to the Park Hotel in the heart of the city. There, a special bronze plaque was being commemorated. Irony of ironies! The Park Hotel was the present site of the former “grouping area,” where all the Jews of Prague had been forced to gather before their transport to Terezin. 

With some photographers and relatives, I climbed a low retaining wall and looked down two levels of stairs at the three hundred and fifty former inmates of the camp, standing in bright sunshine, gathered from all over the world for these three days in Czechoslovakia, now crammed together on the postage stamp sized lawn waiting for the official government speeches, the inevitable band playing and the unveiling of the bronze plaque; gathered on the same piece of ground where they had waited, shivering with fright, fifty years before, at that time waiting to be sent to God only knew where and to what end.

“...but I never had thought that I would, at some point, be forced to confront the reality of the poems and their authors in the place they last lived before they were murdered by the Nazis.”

—Charles Davidson

The hotel itself is built on the corner of a busy thoroughfare. Cars, buses and trucks added to the noises of greeting, the calling one-to-another as former friends were recognized beneath the whitened hair and thickened bodies, so very different from the thin, wasted frames of former years. The sobs and cries forced out by relived memories mingled with horn blasts and the gunning of engines. Unconcerned and disinterested pedestrians walked past the park site not pausing to peer through the scraggly fir trees. But I watched, very moved, as the men and women below wandered through the crowd, peering into faces, searching for the children they had once been.

The ceremonies completed, flowers, yahrzeit candles and Israeli flags vied for places with one another beneath the dark, bronze plaque, itself created by a survivor, showing elongated and pathetic figures struggling toward some unseen but all too obvious oblivion. I was, at the same moment, involved and yet dispassionate, a participant and yet set apart as an observer, a feeling that was to be repeated again and again.

Told that I had two hours before another filming session for the documentary film that would tell of our trip, I spent the time walking in the old Jewish Quarter, looking at the sidewalk displays on the Charles Bridge and seeing the famous (infamous?) statue of Jesus in its niche with other statuary groups on the bridge and reading its inscription "Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, Adonai Tz'vaot" appended in bronze around the head. I learned that the inscription had been paid for by a medieval Jew as a fine for his "blasphemy"against Jesus. Why, I wondered, is this such a “must-see” item for Jewish tourists? If anything, it reminded me of the tenuous position Jews held in medieval Europe where Jewish life itself depended upon the whim of the local rulers, the state of the economy and the good will of the townspeople.

I left the Charles Bridge and went on to the ancient Jewish graveyard attached to the Pinsker Shul which had been built in 1535. Centuries before, in the year 916, the city of Prague had given permission for the Jewish community to bury their dead on this small plot of land. But only here, nowhere else. As spaces had been filled, the community added three feet of earth above each coffin and continued layering the graves until a very high mound was created. The built-up mound and the glacier-like jut of tomb-stones pointing in all directions make this holy place unique in the world. Many visitors wandered through the bewildering tumble of markers. Most of them seemed to be from Scandinavian countries with some Israelis and some Germans. I was the only person with a kippah and I went from stone to stone saying Kaddish. Many visitors, both Jewish and Gentile leave small notes on top of the stones, much, I would believe, in the manner of “kvittles” left in crevices of the Wall in Jerusalem.

I found the grave of Rabbi Loew, stood for a while and mourned the absence of a 20th century Golem who could have defended the Maharal's Jews in their time of greatest need. I left the cemetery and wandered into the small museum where I, suddenly shaken and apprehensive, saw some of the original poems from Terezin, neatly pressed beneath covers of glass, mute witness to their authors' existence.

I met the boys outside the famous Altneuschul, the “old-new shul.” They were dressed neatly in their traveling outfits of maroon jackets and dark trousers, standing patiently in rows while quietly waiting for directions. The interior of the Altneuschul is a contrast of stark hues; brilliantly white walls and dark oaken furniture. High wooden arches soar overhead, meeting in the center of the small domed chapel, thrust against the white, rough, hewn walls. The central bimah and shulḥan are adorned with a silver crown fit for some medieval princess and the worn lectern of the hazzan, set just to the right of the diminutive aron ha-kodesh seemed wonderfully beautiful to me, touched and loved by age, hallowed by many hands. The shul was built in 1270 and remains the oldest extant synagogue in Europe. While the boys rehearsed and were filmed and recorded, I stepped down into the depression carved out In the floor at the base of the hazzan's lectern ("min ha-meitzar...[Out of the depths have I called to Thee]") and quietly davened minḥa and ma'ariv. I felt as if I had been here and done this many times before. For some reason I felt comforted.

I spent the morning of Wednesday, October 16, walking through the Old Jewish Sector of Prague again, crossing the Moldau River and walking through the medieval streets. Jews had been in Prague since Roman times in 970 and lived comfortably until they were massacred by the Crusaders in 1096. Many were forced to baptize, but the community eventually recovered. I returned to the bus several hours later to begin the journey to Terezin.

I sat in the very last seat as we pulled away from the curb into the traffic of Prague and had a glimpse of the bronze memorial plaque as the loaded bus sped past the Park Hotel: I realized with a shudder that we were actually retracing the same route of those deported from that place fifty years ago. I looked out the windows as we passed block after block of gray buildings. Bob Frye and his assistants Marcy Lefkovitz from New York and Daniel Bergmann from Czechoslovakia were in quiet conversation in the front of the bus as I confirmed with a Czech cameraman near me that there was no other route; there was only one highway to Theresienstadt; this was, indeed, the very same road taken by thousands on their way to the death camps.

The rush of air through open windows ruffled the hair of the twenty-five young boys sitting in front of me, some sleeping, some looking at the beautiful farm lands that surrounded us, their teachers reading or catching up on their sleep. There was a general air of fatigue. They had arrived in Europe two weeks earlier to prepare for their concerts and it was obvious that all were tired. As tired, I imagined, as those poor children and adults who had waited for days at the "gathering center" on the site of the Park Hotel, waiting to be sent on transport.

We were surrounded with luggage, with books, with extra clothing and equipment: How horribly like those earlier bus rides, with children and teachers so similar to these souls, on this same road, with the same fields of potatoes and newly turned soil flying by and with the same feelings of uncertainty about their destination. I felt part of what was happening and yet apart from it. I promised myself not to forget what it must have been like to know that the end of the line was Terezin, “the black town now,” as one of the children's poems so described it. 

Thirty-three kilometers north of Prague we slowed and turned to the right, past the Terezin cemetery and crematorium, now smelling the sharp odor of manure in the surrounding fields, our eyes suddenly assailed by the massive yellowish brick walls, with broad, buttressed ramparts, that suddenly loomed up to confront us. We drove through a massive dark portal, hearing our exhaust echo hollowly, and we emerged in the town.

Was this Terezin? Truly? I saw stores, wide open streets, a few people walking, children playing, schools in session. Where was the somber reality of the place? Where were the black crepe banners and the smells of death once removed? I was totally unprepared to see a small city with real people in it, inhabited as indeed it was in 1941 before the Nazis ordered the small population out to make way for the Jews who would soon cram the streets, the houses, the barracks by the thousands. I knew Terezin only from the children 's poetry; the small streets of their prose, the little houses and bunks of their fears: I understood the reality of the place from the fantasy-quasi-real pictures of a child's imagination.

We drove for several minutes in silence. No one spoke as we continued toward the center of the town, past the populated areas, toward the town hall whose unforgettable steeple is found in so many drawings made by the adult and child artists who died here and at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Opposite the park, where, as one of the children's poems explained, “a queer old grand-dad sat,” we stopped at the former BOQ of the Russian army officers until recently stationed in what was now non-communist Czechoslovakia. The bus door opened and we got off, each child carrying his belongings.

I was in the grip of deja-vu, seeing in these youngsters other children who had stepped down from their buses, valises in hand, looking around for directions: Where do we go? What is this place? Where are my parents? I began to feel the weight of the place again as if the sight of these young boys evoked the ghosts of years past. It was true and this was real: This was Theresienstadt and I was back at the source of the "Butterfly.”

Vienna Boys Choir

Theresienstadt concentration camp. (Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0)

We ate that evening in a public school and were given a lecture by a Czech Boy Scout on the history of Terezin, its establishment as a garrison town in the time of the anti-Jewish ruler Maria-Theresa (1740-1780) who expelled the Jews from Bohemia and Moravia in 1744. The Jews of Prague did return four years later after they promised to pay high taxes. He explained how the Nazis used Terezin as a "model-city" to fool the international community and the representatives of the Red Cross into disbelieving the stories and rumors of Jewish Genocide. But our boys knew a great deal about that already, having been taught by their teachers at the American Boychoir School, Nancy Adair and Allison Hankinson, for the past half year about the Holocaust and specifically about Theresienstadt. Indeed, if this trip had the effect on these young singers that the music and poetry had already worked upon thousands of other young singers of the work, they would have a personal understanding and connection with the Holocaust that would remain with them for the rest of their lives. 

I spent an uneasy night waiting for the gray dawn. 

After a quick breakfast in the nearby school, we all walked through the wet streets to an imposing building which had served as a barracks for the Terezin children. The choir would rehearse in its auditorium. It was in this building that the new museum was to be established and it would open officially in a few hours. The auditorium was, in fact, used for performances by the very children who had lived in this barracks. Following the war, the auditorium had been converted into a plush theatre for the now-ousted communist officials who had seen movies and shows there: It was sumptuous with wide, plush chairs rising sharply in velvet rows toward the rear of the room.

It was a small and perfect hall, now bright with klieg lights and bustling with camera people from our outfit as well as from Czech TV. The doors were open to the damp, drizzle and cold because of the heat of the lights and the boys were again rehearsing under the direction of James Litton and his assistant Craig Dennison. Rain had been falling steadily and I went up to the first floor to hear the speeches delivered from the inside of the front foyer of the museum. A cardinal, a rabbi and government officials, standing on the marble steps inside were speaking in Czech to the three hundred and fifty survivors now standing in the park, umbrellas raised and dripping, coat collars turned-up against the cold. I listened for a while, took photos and then went below to get warm.

I sat in a great comfortable chair, adjusted my camera, ready to photograph the survivors as they came in, listening to the boys sing, being stopped, starting again, rehearsing meticulously as they always did. Suddenly, without warning, as the boys sang the exact words “. . . only I never saw another butterfly,” a large, brilliantly blue butterfly, flew into the room through an outside door, out of 49-degree rainy weather, circled over the boys heads as they sang. Still singing, they twisted their heads to keep the butterfly in view as it circled the stage again and flew around the outer periphery of the hall. I tried to find it with my camera as did the TV people but in spite of our efforts it eluded us and finally flew out an open door. The boys stopped singing and we all looked at one another. What was a butterfly doing outside in rainy, cold weather to begin with when it had absolutely no business being there? It was, after all, a cold and wet October in Czechoslovakia. Bob Frye hugged me and said that it was just as well that it had not been captured on film because its appearance would just not have been believed. Its significance became more important the longer we thought about its strange appearance. It was as if something or someone had visited us to bestow a blessing. We accepted it as such.

The small hall was filled as the boys sang and acted the work, performing the music as only they have been able to since the work was commissioned for them in 1968 when they were known as the Columbus Boychoir. The audience had text sheets in Czech and in English and I believe that we all were moved in an extraordinary way. It was an experience that I shall never forget and for which I will forever be grateful.

I had to leave right after the performance in order to catch a flight to Switzerland and from there to New York. Miraculously, the sun had come out during the performance and the rain had stopped. It was a beautiful clear day with blue skies and some few white clouds, the first such day in a week. While the driver assigned to me waited in his car, I walked to the grove of chestnut trees that had first greeted me the day before. I bent down and picked up a dark-brown chestnut whose doe's eye had caught my glance, the dappled sunlight reflecting back from its shiny face. I closed my hand around it, enjoying the hard, tangible feel and put it in my pocket to bring home. 

I looked around for the last time; viewing the broad, green plaza, the old church, the town hall and the new Jewish Museum, the parked buses that had brought the survivors from Prague, and I watched those former inmates of this place, now strolling casually, arm in arm, some in conversation, others quiet in their reflections as I recited aloud the poem “On A Sunny Evening,” written in 1944 by children in barracks L318 and L417. Ages 10-16:

On a purple sunshot evening under wide flow'ring chestnut trees, upon the threshold full of dust / yesterday the days are all like these/ trees flower forth in beauty,/ lovely too their very wood all gnarled and old, / that I am half afraid to peer into their crowns of green and gold./ The sun has made a veil of gold so lovely that my body aches,/ above the heavens shriek with blue/ convinced I've smiled by some mistake./ The world's a-bloom and wants to smile,/ I want to fly but where, how high? I want to fly./ If in barbed wire things can bloom, why couldn't I? I will not die, I will not die”

A Note on the Original Recording

The performance of I Never Saw Another Butterfly by the San Francisco Girls Chorus, conducted by Sharon Paul, has a distinctive clarity not evident in most of the boy choir performances I have heard. In this recording, the words come through very clearly and are instantly understood. On the other hand I do like the ethereal quality of boys voices. For me they enhance their recordings with a mysterious and heavenly quality. So it is with the American Boychoir's recording conducted by James Litton. This was the initial recording of "Butterfly" and my trip there with the boys and their teachers, enabled and sponsored by film producer Bob Frye, and for which he received a Cine Golden Eagle Award, was an epic period in my life. There is also a third approach which has been the most attractive to me. The addition of some male voices to a superior women's choir (SAB) as in the wonderful recording by the Grand Rapids Symphony Women's Chorus conducted by Sean Ivory. I have also understood that many of the choirs who have performed the piece have also visited Terezin either before or after their performances to experience the terrible reality of the place.

Read more about the work and composer through the links below:

Work Profile: "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" » Artist Profile: Charles Davidson »

You can view a performance featuring the Grand Rapids Symphony Youth and additional resources:

Video: I Never Saw Another Butterfly (Full Performance) » DVD: The Journey of Butterfly »




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