Don’t Forget About Me – The Short Life of Gideon Klein, Composer and Pianist
by David Fligg
Hardback, 321 pages
The great Czech conductor Karel Ančerl was imprisoned with Gideon Klein at Theresienstadt and knew him well. At a memorial concert given in 1946 he wrote; “[Klein] was an outstanding actor, poetry reciter, excellent pianist, skilful conductor, eminent chamber-music performer, searching composer. His intellect and scope of knowledge were extraordinary, his analytic abilities were amazing… we can be certain that he would be among the top personalities of our culture, whether as performer, a composer or a conductor.” This would be a glowing eulogy for an octogenarian – Klein was just twenty-five when he was killed by an SS execution squad retreating from Auschwitz.
This new biography by David Fligg is a powerful study of a clearly remarkable young man whose fate embodies the appalling legacy of the Nazi regime. Fligg is a passionate Klein advocate; aside from this biography he has written plays, promoted concerts and even encouraged the City of Prague to memorialise Klein’s last home with plaques in the pavement. He writes with scholarly insight leavened by passion and dedication. The hardback book itself is attractively substantial – I mourn the move away from stitched spines to glued ones – with a remarkable number of illustrations, photographs and reproductions of concert bills or manuscripts. Given the devastation and destruction suffered by the Jewish communities across Europe I was pleasantly surprised that so many records of Klein, his work and his family did survive. In no small part this is due to the dedication of his sister Lisa. Terrifyingly she was the only member of Klein’s extended family to survive the holocaust and she devoted her life – she died in 1999 – to promoting her brother’s work and legacy.
Of course this legacy is shrouded in a sense of “what might have been”. Clearly Klein was an extraordinary person from a very young age – a genuinely prodigious polymath and mature way beyond his years. Yet the fact remains that the music and writings that survive point to a future never fulfilled that would have surely marked him out as one of the most significant Czech composer/musicians of the 20th Century. As such, Fligg by necessity dwells more on the teenage and young adult years of Klein’s life than he would have done had he lived a normal ‘full’ lifespan. The benefit of this is the insight it gives the reader into a young person who happens to also be a remarkable artist – the fusion of playful teenager with serious musician is fascinating. Clearly Klein’s talents were recognised early by both his family and the teachers he worked with. Initially he was more concerned with playing the piano than composer although the latter became more significant as the opportunities to concertise and perform diminished once the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia.
Klein’s early years are examined in loving and careful detail. Interesting though much of that detail is, it is hard not to conclude that fewer pages would have been devoted to this phase of his life had he enjoyed a longer artistic maturity. On December 4th 1941 (2 days before his 22nd birthday) Klein was transported to the infamous ghetto at Theresienstadt/Terezín which is located in the north-west region of Bohemia. The Nazis intended this to be a transit camp before sending the Jewish internees and other ‘undesirables’ on to the death camps. However, they used the camp as a propaganda tool not just for the wider world but also for Jews in occupied countries to demonstrate that they were creating communities where the Jewish faith could be observed and cultural activities pursued. To that end various propaganda films and Red Cross visits were engineered to promote this lie. Even though he was so young Klein became one of the most active animators of all kinds of cultural life within the ghetto. Interestingly his sister Lisa, herself trained as a concert violinist, refused to support or take part in any activities as she saw that these were primarily a useful smokescreen for the Nazis behind which the horror of the final solution lurked.
Of course Klein was just one a many important artists, musicians, writers, poets, actors who found themselves incarcerated in Theresienstadt. In the field of music other Czech composers such as Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas and Hans Krása are the best-known alongside Klein but there were many others including the likes of Karel Švenk, Ilse Weber and Carlo Sigmund Taube all of whom suffered the same tragic fate as Klein.
Fligg is very good at detailing the range and variety of Klein’s activities in the camp. Compositions are discussed in some detail but not in a manner that requires the reader to have great technical musical knowledge. Interestingly for several of the works pages of Klein’s original manuscripts are reproduced. Curiously his musical script is relatively ‘scruffy’ – this applies to some of his pre-deportation works too. I find it interesting that a musician who as a performer would understand and appreciate the precision and detail of the writing of say Bach or Beethoven could be somewhat slapdash in his own manuscripts. As within any community a hierarchy existed within Theresienstadt. As one of the first arrivals at the camp – the Aufbaukommando – Klein benefited (a relative term clearly) from having a privileged status which permitted him to secure better living conditions for his close family and associates. One significant benefit was to avoid early onward-transportation as this was initially chosen by the Jewish camp elders. By 1944 the Nazi SS were in sole charge. With considerable prescience, when Klein was selected for transportation he left all his extant manuscripts with his then girlfriend Irma Semecká. Fligg quotes an extended passage written by Semecká in her Memories of Gideon Klein that makes it clear that by then he realised what a sham Theresienstadt represented.
On the transport of October 16th 1944 to Auschwitz there were 1500 people including Klein, Ullmann, Krása, Haas, Ančerl as well as many other significant figures in the camp’s cultural life. On arrival, 157 were deemed young and healthy enough to be selected for hard labour – Klein was one of that number. The remaining – including Ullmann, Krása and Haas were immediately sent to the gas chamber of Crematorium III; “at a stroke Czech music thereby suffered a gigantic tragic fracture” is Fligg’s chilling assessment. This was a literal stay of execution for Klein – on January 27th 1945 as the Russians were on the point of liberating Auschwitz a retreating group of around 20 SS troops killed the remaining prisoners they found at the work-camp associated with Auschwitz including Klein. Between October and his death in January he managed to have a letter smuggled out of the camp addressed to his sister Edith’s mother in law. This letter is unique in the broader history of the camps as being the only example on an uncensored smuggled letter. In it Klein asks for basic food supplies but three times says; “Don’t forget about me…” – the original letter is reproduced. This is the unbearably poignant title given to this book whose cover is adorned by the last known image of Klein – a portrait painted by Charlotta Burešová in Theresienstadt in 1944. Klein looks out with a weary wisdom way beyond his years.
This is not the first biography about Gideon Klein, but it is the first in many years and obviously makes use of the most recent and detailed information that has come to light. Nearly every page has copious footnotes and alongside the main text there are valuable appendices of a list of works and a timeline. Fligg describes the book as “an odyssey to discover Gideon Klein”. But it is more than that, it is a memorial to all those whose lives were swept away by the mindless ideology and inhuman cruelty of the Nazi regime. Klein might represent one of those whose creative light burnt brightest but the personal tragedy of every individual murdered and those left behind to mourn is represented here too.
A powerful and compelling study of an artist who will not be forgotten.
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