Choir Tour to Germany, Czech Republic Hits Educational Note

Steven Fisher (left) leads the boys in the South African song “Shosholoza,” with Inge Auerbacher (center). | Photo provided

At “82 years young,” Inge Auerbacher discovered she was a big sister to nearly 60 young boys.

“I told them, ‘Don’t call me grandma. Don’t call me mommy. I’m your older sister,’” she said.

Although no genetic traits were required, Auerbacher accompanied the Keystone State Boychoir on a concert tour to Germany and the Czech Republic, where they performed and also learned a bit of history.

Auerbacher shared her story of survival with the boys — she lived in Terezin between the ages of 7 and 10 — which the boys listened to with respect and admiration.

During their two-week tour, the group of 12- to 18-year-olds visited Terezin, where Auerbacher, a German native, showed them where she spent her days for three years.

Steven Fisher, choir co-founder and associate music director, said the boys were well aware of the opportunity they had, as this is the last generation who will get to know a Holocaust survivor.

“Any time you meet a survivor it’s powerful, but this went beyond what most people have ever experienced — probably most Jewish people,” he said. “They bonded very deeply.”

The choir tours the globe each summer, always with a humanistic purpose.

They’ve performed in India, simultaneously traveling with Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson; in Japan, meeting with families affected by Hiroshima during the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing there; and Antarctica, becoming the only choir to sing there, Fisher said.

The choir sang many pieces in Hebrew — some of the boys are Jewish — to audiences that included survivors. While in Terezin, they led a version of Brundibar, where the children’s opera was first performed.

“One woman who survived Auschwitz who said she had shed all of her tears in the Holocaust, she hadn’t cried since the Holocaust, but when these American boys sang in Hebrew, it was the first time she cried since,” Fisher recalled.

Before the tour, Fisher came across a story about young boys in Terezin who published a weekly magazine — called Vedem, meaning “In the Lead” in Czech — full of prose, poems and stories, which they read aloud.

Copies have survived — about 700 original pages — so some members of the choir met once a week prior to the tour to memorize and practice the poems with a vocal underscore.

Calvin Wamser, a 17-year-old choir member, joined the Vedem choir group.

“It has a really important message in it about hope,” he said.

He also later had the opportunity to meet Sidney Taussig, an original Vedem writer.

“We sat with him in his living room and just talked for two hours about his experience,” he recalled.

Wamser added that traveling with Auerbacher was special; she wasn’t shy to talk to anyone or share her experiences.

“Whenever she talked about her experiences in the Holocaust, she always ended it with talking about hope,” said the rising senior at Abington Senior High School. “I’m not Jewish personally, but whenever we learn about the Holocaust [in school], we never really learn in depth. It really put an extra personal layer to it.”

Although she lives in Queens, N.Y., Auerbacher visits Germany often. A retired chemist of 38 years, Auerbacher has written several books, including a firsthand account of life in Terezin, I Am a Star.

Her family lived in a small village in Germany called Kippenheim. She was the last Jewish child born there.

On her fourth birthday, she witnessed Kristallnacht. Her family then moved in with her grandparents in another village, primarily among Christians.

She was enrolled in a Jewish school for about six months in Stuttgart, Germany, until the transports began. But during her train commutes to the considerably remote school — worth noting, given that she was an unaccompanied 6-year-old wearing a yellow Star of David — a Christian woman acknowledged her.

Without speaking, the woman placed a brown paper bag at Auerbacher’s feet — her lunch for the day — and left.

“She wanted to do something, and had more people had the heart to do something, maybe this tragedy wouldn’t have come to this point,” she said.

But her schooling was soon suspended as she was sent to Terezin, losing eight years of education between the camp and being hospitalized after the war.

Altogether, 20 relatives died, but both of her parents survived. Of the 15,000 children sent to Terezin, only about 100 survived.

Some boys from the choir told her this experience changed their lives.

“You can read about these things in books, see movies, but to really meet somebody who can tell you this happened here,” she said, “it makes a world of difference.

“It was a wonderful experience,” she added. “I’m still humming their music — it won’t leave me!”

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