Jewish people have a deeply difficult relationship with the cross. Once a Roman instrument of torture and oppression, the Christian transformation of that symbol brought Jewish people no relief.
Racial antisemitism begins in Europe beneath the symbol of that cross. At the beginning of the first crusade, these holy pilgrims of death began their ill-fated conquest of Jerusalem by slaughtering entire communities of Jews along the Rhine–even killing the occasional bishop or lord who might dare to protect them out of legal responsibility or religious duty. In a ghastly parody of the Mass, Jewish blood was shed for their role in causing the Black Plague. Good Friday was a deadly day for European and Russian Jews to be out of home.
And in the shadow of steepled crosses, the ghetto was invented. Once a poorly conceived policy of protection and control, the ghetto’s efficiency in creating the conditions for social decay became the model for our treatment of North American blacks and aboriginals. Ultimately, the world came to realize that ghetto was a centuries old prophecy of Nazi concentration camps like Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
Anna Fisk is right that “the crucifixion has cast a long shadow” (Sex, Sin, and Our Selves, 105).
Although I have written a book on the history of antisemitism, I am still an outsider looking in on the conversation. It is hard for me to know exactly what to do with the way Jews after the Shoah have taken up the cross as a symbol. Marc Chagall did this on the first mornings of the Holocaust, capturing Kristallnacht–the Night of Broken Glass, Nov 9-10, 1938–within his White Crucifixion. I was visiting the Art Institute of Chicago, touring its incredible depths with my students. Alone and unaware, late in the day, I turned the corner and found this painting that I had studied for so long. I was undone, and saw nothing else that day.
Jewish writers too have struggled with the image of the cross. Chaim Potok uses Chagall’s crucifixions to help capture the troubling questions an observant Jew asks in the wake of the Holocaust. The cross becomes the central image of My Name is Asher Lev, capturing the tensions in the novel–tensions that are not merely difficult, but impossible. It is a sad and beautiful book.
I cannot imagine the complexity of feeling and history, the struggles of theology and identity, that go into a Jewish artist as he or she takes up the image of the cross. Even as late as 2001, we see Neil Gaiman using the cross at the mythic centre of his American Gods. My first image of a Jewish crucifixion in literature, though, came in Elie Wiesel. In his impossible memoir, Night, Wiesel tells of a scene on a gallows that has always slayed me. It is the scene of 3 condemned rebels within the concentration camp, one a little boy.
One day, as we returned from work, we saw three gallows, three black ravens, erected on the Appelplatz. Roll call. The SS surrounding us, machine guns aimed at us: the usual ritual. Three prisoners in chains—and, among them, the little pipel, the sad-eyed angel.
The SS seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows.
This time, the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS took his place.
The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs. In unison, the nooses were placed around their necks.
“Long live liberty!” shouted the two men.
But the boy was silent.
“Where is merciful God, where is He?” someone behind me was asking.
At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over. Total silence in the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.
“Caps off!” screamed the Lagerälteste. His voice quivered. As for the rest of us, we were weeping.
“Cover your heads!”
Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving; being
so light, the child was still alive. . . .
For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“Where is God now?”
And I heard a voice within me answer him:
“Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this
gallows. . . .”
That night the soup tasted of corpses (64-5).
How does one read this passage? Beyond the emotional weight of millions of victims, beyond the human betrayal of brutal intensity, and beyond the ages of violence that press down upon those gallows, there is the ambivalence of God’s death in this scene. How do we read it?
In one reading we can see how God in the cross suffers with the victim in his suffering. In this reading, Elie Wiesel takes up this medieval Christian idea of suffering with Christ–a deepening of symbolism within an age of suffering. The little boy evokes the image of Christ, hung between two insurrectionists and bearing the penalty of all. In this sacred image, God is both repulsed by the moment and still living within it. In the incarnation, it is God who dies at the hands of the powerful for the sake of the weak.
It would be untrue to the text, though, to read only in this way. We also see in the text “the death of God in the soul of a child” is the death of the Jewish faith for Wiesel. The Nazis took away his family, his liberty, his dreams. Yet, much of Night is a lament for the loss of his own faith. He loved being a Jew, and he loved loving God. The death of God on those gallows is the death of the faith of a child.
We must see in this scene Nietzsche’s cry that “God is dead. We have killed him, you and I.” Yet, I am not sure that Nietzsche’s madman foresaw the manner of God’s execution. Instead of the death of religion–the loss of this invention of men–it was the crumpling of God beneath the feet of human invention that finally made the madman sound. As François Mauriac writes in his foreword to Night, the concentration camps were not just machines of death for human bodies, but were also the crypts of Jewish faith. He writes:
I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the ac- cused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now, but I felt myself to be stronger than this Almighty to whom my life had been bound for so long (xx-xxi).
Yet, even in this loss of faith, Mauriac’s faith was not lost. The accusation is both prayer and creed. “And I, who believe that God is love, what answer was there to give…?” Mauriac speaks of “that other Jew, this crucified brother … whose cross conquered the world….” He speaks of the transformation of the symbol of the cross and the crematorium. He speaks of Jewish resurrection.
There are other ways to read. Some see the death of the modern era on that gallows, the death of certainty, the death of the good of technology, the loss of the nations. Others see the death of the idea of “man”–the human project where civilization and nature is both paint and painting of human endeavour. I suspect that Wiesel was tempted to this last view. When he received his Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, he used his experience to speak to the atrocities taking place in the world even then. His speech, with 40 years of distance from the gallows, betrays a hope for humanity, and that “one person of integrity can make a difference, a difference of life and death.” Wiesel has faith, he says,
Faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and even in His creation. Without it no action would be possible. And action is the only remedy to indifference, the most insidious danger of all.
Elie Wiesel died this weekend at the age of 87. He has been on my mind lately. My work is primarily on the image of the cross as a pattern for a healthy spiritual life. Some might be tempted to forget that the cross is not ambivalent and problematic. Some are content, I suppose, to see the cross merely as a piece of art, a relic, a symbol, or an accessory. But, as Jürgen Moltmann reminds us, “The cross is not and cannot be loved” (The Crucified God, 1). The cross never was a lovely thing, and any loveliness in it comes with the horror.
Upon the death of this great man who suffered so much and has inspired so many–including myself, and my students–I find that I am still struggling with what to do with the cross. For those of us who see hope and a model in the cross of Christ, we cannot do so without recognizing the long and sorrowful shadow it has cast–from Golgatha all the way to the gallows.
Rest in Peace, Elie Wiesel.
Thank you Brenton. This was lovely and thought-provoking. We have to embrace the truth of history and squarely face the wrongs done in the name of Christ, even though it’s far easier to sweep all that under the rug. It has been said that it took four hundred years for the early Christians to start using the cross as a symbol of their faith – for it wasn’t until then that the Roman civilization collapsed and people didn’t regularly see crucifixions. They couldn’t imagine that ugly method of torture and death being used as a symbol of their beautiful faith. But it is fitting, all the same, that it be so – humanity’s greatest failure and God’s greatest gift are wrapped up in that symbol. It still casts a long shadow of both.
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Curious is that early “Alexamenos sebete theon” graffito discovered in Rome in 1857, with its donkey-headed Jesus (apparently taking up and extrapolating the peculiar Roman idea that the Jews secretly worship a donkey, which Tacitus seems to recount in all seriousness!).
I had never heard that Moltmann saying that ““The cross is not and cannot be loved”, but I’d like to see the context, for I have sung Liszt’s Via Crucis and translated the Old English poem usually called ‘The Dream of the Rood’, and they give a different impression – closer (I think) to your saying “any loveliness in it comes with the horror”.
I just used that graffito in a class I taught last week–lecturing on the Image of the Cross in literature and art. It’s funny you should mention it. I hadn’t made the connection–what’s the root of that Roman idea?
Moltmann’s statement is at the very beginning of the Crucified God. It is a startling way to begin, particularly since it is probably not demonstrably true. “The Rood” really did capture the imagination of certain of those Saxon and Nordic clans, so there has certainly been a devotion to the cross. Motlmann is trying to recover a Lutheran theology of the cross lost in liberal German Christianity that has a social transformation that is lost in biblicistic Anglo-American Christianity (I think).
I can’t find my copy of Tacitus, but Project Gutenberg has a transcription of W. Hamilton Fyfe’s (hereafter,WHF) 1912 OUP translation of the Histories, where, in Book V, Tacitus explains the Exodus as King Bocchoris collecting an depositing “a motley crew” of plague-victims in the desert where “one of them, named Moses, advised them not to look for help to gods or men, since both had deserted them, but to trust rather in themselves and accept as divine the guidance of the first being by whose aid they should get out of their present plight. […] it so happened that a drove of wild asses moved away from their pasture to a rock densely covered with trees. Guessing the truth from the grassy nature of the ground, Moses followed and disclosed an ample flow of water. […] To ensure his future hold over the people, Moses introduced a new cult, which was the opposite of all other religions. All that we hold sacred they held profane, and allowed practices which we abominate. They dedicated in a shrine an image of the animal whose guidance had put an end to their wandering and thirst.” WHF gives no sources, but notes “The idea that this animal was sacred to the Jews was so prevalent among ‘the Gentiles’ that Josephus takes the trouble to refute it” – without saying where Josephus does that.
What you say about Moltmann reminds me of George Grant’s fondness for the twenty-first of Luther’s Theses for the Heidelberg Disputation of April 1518 which Karlfried Froelich translates “The ‘theologian of glory’ calls the bad good and the good bad. The ‘theologian of the cross’ says what a thing is.” I’m not really sure how Grant understands it, nor, on my own, how Luther does, but I suppose the end of thesis 24 clarifies a lot: “without a theology of the cross, man misuses the best things in the worst way.”
I’ve read Josephus and bits of Tacitus. I don’t know that he refutes the ass in the wilderness, but I can’t think of any actual Jewish document that even hints at it. Can anyone else? (It’s been a while since Josephus, granted)
Yes, I just read Moltmann’s section on Luther’s Theology of the Cross just this week. I’m surprised George Grant played with it.
Grant has a wonder poem he wrote on Good Friday – he sent me a copy, back in the day – or Sheila did (I should dig it out – I don’t know if it’s been published: I haven’t caught up with the edition of his works, or kept up with enough of ‘the literature’).
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I’ve never heard of it, but I do like the idea of a “wonder poem”!
I’m just reading Andy Orchard’s A Critical Companion to Beowulf (2003) and reached the section “Varying words: synonyms, compounds, and unique forms”, and it makes me think ‘wonder-poem’ probably used to be a English word (or might well have been, if not recorded)!
My impression of Eli Wiesel is awe, but I have not yet ventured upon any of his books (though I am often uncomfortably busy reading, and watching documentaries, about the camps). Therefore, in ignorance of any context, I wonder if in that “Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows. . . .” there might be, among other things attention to man as in the image of God, and especially clearly in the innocent, unjustly treated, abused Image-bearer, like Abel (for example), or this boy. I also (in that great ignorance) wonder if there might be any Kaballistic layer of reference, each ‘mensch’ in the Image of God as ‘having within a “spark of the Divine” ‘ (an idea capable of orthodox as well as unorthodox explication).
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Ach, my wife’s In Memoriam was the first original newspaper one online over here, today, and I misspell his first name! (That’s what comes of not remembering his full name was Eliezer, and thinking I know how to spell.)
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Could I see the link? (could I read it?)
Eli & Elie are both short for Eliezer.
You could see it on the website – or the first “26%” of it, the rest being behind a Euro paywall! Whether or not you could read it would depend on how well you puzzle into Dutch from German (assuming you don’t know Dutch…) and/or how good your (electronic) ‘translation aids’ are. She’s very modest about it… but I might be able to e-mail a copy to you. It did make me aware that the published form of ‘Night’ was derived from a longer, earlier work – which set me searching as far as his Dutch Wikipedia article, where I read of a Yiddish version, Un di velt hot geshvign published in some form in Buenos Aires in 1956! I’m not sure how best to find out more about that (including, has the original ever been published in full, and/or translated? – my dear mite of Yiddish would never be up to a whole book!).
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Well, my Dutch is nonexistent. But it is cool that she did it! It took me a while to come up with this!
Powerful article, thanks, Brenton. Regarding LA Smith’s comment: “…humanity’s greatest failure and God’s greatest gift are wrapped up in that symbol.” Really struck by that phrase. It’s amazing to consider. Your comment sort of zaps my mind and leads it down a zillion rabbit trails related to the topic. What especially astounds me is when I read the verses that talk about the cross pre-existing before time (i.e. Rev. 3:18, “…Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.”) This symbol that captures the greatest virtue and the worst evil also existed, in some form related to the eternal Lamb, before any human virtue or evil appeared on earth. I often wonder what it was like for the people gathered around the cross as Jesus hung on it. I know there were great signs (i.e. earthquakes, etc.) but I also wonder if some of them intuitively sensed the eternal quality of the event of the cross. What I mean is perhaps as they looked up at Jesus, they somehow sensed that they were not witnessing just another passing moment in time, but beholding an event that existed in the eternal past and exists in the eternal future. They would not have described what they were sensing with any such words or with any words at all, maybe, but it might have been a nagging, subconscious feeling that they had just stumbled on an unbreakable, immovable edifice that forms the centerpiece of reality itself. Maybe encountering the cross at that moment might have had a similar feeling to it that the OT prophets felt when the physical world parted and they saw visions of God’s throne and Heaven in the eternal present, except, in this case with the cross, it was more invasive. They weren’t seeing visions. Instead, the eternal hand of Heaven had come down and scooped up earth, blood, agony, and flesh and shaped it into the form of something that has always existed in eternity as the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.”
I don’t know, getting into time-focused concepts always muddies things up, but it really is amazing how so much is embodied by two beams of wood intersecting together simply because the Son of God was placed on it. Everything He touches or bleeds on becomes more than it ever was in its previous state.
For the Jews, tragically, a counterfeit cross has often overshadowed them and demanded their blood instead of the true cross that spills the eternal Lamb’s blood on their behalf.
On a semi-related note, this video of a Jewish man telling his story about becoming a Messianic Jew is fascinating: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5sMEkGoojbg It’s especially fascinating because, from what I hear, it (and other similar testimonies) have gone viral among Jewish communities. I’ve interviewed a couple of rabbis in recent years, and though they’re not Christian, they demonstrated a remarkable warmth toward Christians, which I found moving and encouraging. In recent years, the Jewish people have had an increased curiosity about the claims of Jesus, though I don’t blame them for associating so much darkness with the cross. I would too if I were in their shoes.
Thanks so much for this note. I suppose some anthropologists would suggest that all of the Christian movement was birthed out of that sense of the numenous or the eternal by those waiting cross-side. What’s the C.S. Lewis phrase, “time to chew on the strange bread the gods had given me….” I suspect people caught exactly what you are saying, and I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of that before. I think it took a while (it took Paul a decade, maybe) to integrate the faith they knew and the faith they were experiencing in the church of the Holy Spirit.
I think it is the Yoruba that dance the creation dance, and in that moment creation is taking place. I think we can learn something about time and the existential cross event.
I found the video you linked to be fascinating (and watched a couple of others). There are a few reasons I don’t tend to talk about Jewish conversion.
-I have gained greatly from Jewish scholars thinking about the New Testament (like Daniel Boyarin, Amy Jill-Levine, Shaye Cohen, and others. This is a diverse conversation and I don’t really have anything critical to add to it.
-There is great division and shame in the Jewish community about conversions to the faith that has been the engine of such great sadness to Jews. It is not my story but theirs.
-The politics of Israel are complex, and faith conversations quickly move into that mode.
-The theologies of dispensationalism, British Israelism, and certain messianic flavoured church groups concerns me greatly.
-There are quite a number of Jewish-influenced new religious movements that are quite far from either Judaism or Christianity. These groups make people anxious about talking about faith in this context.
-I am not certain what I read of the Jewish fate in the New Testament as a whole (if there is one).
-As an anti-antisemitism activist, I received great pressure to adopt certain viewpoints that made me uncomfortable (and seemed to me beyond the point).
That said, I thought you put it quite nicely and I was glad to watch the short videos.
Yes, there is much rich contemplation to be had about what people experienced when they were standing by the cross. I suppose one could say that it would have been the same as those who experienced Jesus in the flesh during the time he was on Earth – those who had “eyes to see” would have seen more than just another itinerant preacher/rebel being executed by Rome. I liked your comment about the eternal nature of the cross – that sense that this event is a fixed point in time around which everything else revolves. I remember reading/hearing one time that perhaps when we are in Heaven and not bound by time we, too, will be able to visit Golgatha. Now there’s a thought….
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Maybe Brenton can shed some grammatical and lexical light on that phrase ending Revelation 13:8 – “of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” The Vulgate (which would be what a millennium or so of western Christians would be most likely to encounter) translates “Agni, qui occisus est ab origine mundi” with a perfect tense verb and a noun which I suppose English ‘origin’ translates well for the most part. What is the verb-form-sense of Greek ‘esphagmenou’ which apparently echos the Septuagint of Isaiah 53:7?
My sense of ‘what it must mean’ would be, first, the Son’s absolute readiness to come and to die, as sacrificial Lamb, if Man fell. And man did fall – with that falling ‘at the beginning’ of human history the slaying is actuated-in-potential: it ‘must’ happen (by the Love of God), though it has not yet happened in time.
Curiously (at least to this dictionary reader) ‘origo’ is apparently used poetically in the post-Classical period to mean ‘forefather’ or ‘progenitor’. So, one might translate ‘of the Lamb, who was slain since the Forefather of the world’ (in the sense, ‘since the Forefather, Adam, sinned’-?). Might there be wordplay, meaning two things at once?
The Greek text reads “apo kataboles kosmou’ – exactly the same phrase Christ uses in Matthew 25:34. But, curiously (again, at least to this dictionary reader), ‘katabole’ can also mean ‘an attack’. So, one might translate ‘of the Lamb, who was slain since the attack of the cosmos’. Is Satan part of ‘the cosmos’? Adam is, in any case. What range of meaning might the genitive of ‘cosmos’ have? Could it mean ‘the attack on the cosmos by Satan’? Or something like ‘the revolt of the rebellious fallen cosmos’ (in the person of fallen Man)? Again, might there be wordplay, meaning more than one thing at once?
In any case, much of Christian reading and thinking has come to see that eventual self-sacrificial slaying in time as having effects reaching back to the foundation of the world and fall of Man – that Christ’s saving act and power reaches back the first human beings in their falling.
Rev 13:8 is really difficult to translate. The best thing to do is compare a bunch. I like to compare the “householders of the earth/land” with the “foundations of the world/world system,” allow the two halves of the verse to sit in poetic contrast, as the beast and the slain lamb are in tension. It shows us height and breadth, a universality that squares off the beaten lamb with the conquering beast. Though the grammar is difficult, I think the reader can easily decide which side to be on.
There are more echoes of Isa 53 in the NT than actual quotations, so this might be an echo of the suffering servant.
The rest of the conversation is a bit head-whirling for me to do in this setting. Revelation’s Greek is idiomatic, accented. And the interpretations are so political. Honestly, I have stayed away!
But, the idea of time–was, is, is to come–is central to the book. Apocalypse in general (as I talked about in my Charles Williams piece for Sorina) is a genre that collapses and intensifies time.
Thank you, Brenton, for incorporating Marc Chagall into this article. As a Jewish artist, he seems to span the gap between Jew and Christian, while not hiding any of the terrible truth of our failures. Chagall captures the imagination, and then takes one on a journey the viewer may have otherwise avoided. I am an artist and a Christian with many Jewish friends and colleagues. In my early zeal to bring the Gospel to one of my art college teachers, I stumbled onto the hurt of the holocaust her husband had suffered. There were no cliche answers available. But even in my youthful ignorance, we became fast friends, a tribute to the good character of my new friends.
Thank you for the nice note. It is not hard for me to include Chagall in this post. It’s harder for me to leave him out of all the others!
I love how we are in-flesh in our community. Our liberal moralism and religious certainties are constantly finding themselves confronted by real lives around us. It doesn’t always change our core commitments, this encounter. But it leaves none of them without context.
I’m glad for the generosity of your friends and teachers.
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Thanks Brenton. There seems to be a fresh upwelling of antisemitism in the online conspiracy theory crowd. With such true hearted Jewish friends I personally could never be swayed by some lunatic on the web selling a byzantine theory of a Jewish plot to control the world. The reality is that all humans have it in their nature to do evil things for personal benefit.
(sound of screeching brakes)
Oops! I went way off topic. Once again, thank you Elie Wiesel. RIP
Brenton: great points and much to think about, thanks! (Your words, “It is not my story but theirs,” especially hit me–much to chew on there.)
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L. A. Smith: Thanks for the reply! Really enjoyed it. “I remember reading/hearing one time that perhaps when we are in Heaven and not bound by time we, too, will be able to visit Golgatha.” Wow, that is a thought! Will be mulling that over quite a bit this week…
Elie Wiesel was a giant in our time. RIP Elie Wiesel.
Brenton, thank you for quoting Jürgen Moltmann, that the cross is a horror. I am repelled by the warm fuzzy feelings in some Evangelical choruses about the cross. To remove the horror is to remove the meaning of the history-shattering event on Golgotha.
St. Paul’s description of the cross never turns soft. In his letter to the Colossians he describes it as the unique titanic act of violence that was necessary to liberate humanity from the grip of Satan and the death sentence imposed at the fall of Adam.
…and yet, the sufferings of the Jews are a thing still I can’t come to grips with. Any person who is at ease about the Holocaust needs to watch “Night and Fog” by Alain Resnais.
“To remove the horror is to remove the meaning”–well said.
That Night and Fog piece is one of the most influential pieces I know. We take for granted the knowledge of the Holocaust, but it was only coming out in bits and pieces after the war.
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I first encountered Night and Fog when working as an AV tech at a large high school. I had read of it, but not seen it. On seeing it I could not quench the anger and rage for weeks. It is the singular reason I rejected those who tried to persuade me that pacifism is the most correct Christian expression. This kind of evil must be met with violence.
I still struggle with that question, but to me the Holocaust stands as a singular moment in our history.
Greatgraphicone: Regarding the Holocaust, I would also recommend composer Steve Reich’s piece “Different Trains,” which contrasts the sounds of trains in different contexts during the WWII time period (Part 1: Pre-War America, Part 2: Europe During the War–i.e. the trains that brought people to the concentration camps–and Part 3: Post-War America). It’s a powerful listening experience. He uses minimalist composing techniques to replicate the motion/sensation of trains and also used speech recordings of people who experienced those different contexts of trains. He uses the inflections and rhythm of spoken phrases by these people to form his melodic motifs. It’s basically a musical contemplation of the Holocaust trains. Extremely powerful and immersive. It really stirs empathy in the listener to see/hear/feel the trains from the view points of those in them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYEwsIW-zsQ&list=PL86344FF0F7ACFC84
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Thanks Kevin, I will check that out. It sounds like this composer knows what he’s doing.
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Kevin, I just stole time out of my work day to follow your link. It was well worth my time. These pieces form a stunning musical triptych. The middle piece feels like a musical interpretation of Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica.” You can feel the bleakness, the grief, the terror. It is awful, and also brilliant. On either side is (or I perceive) hope and freedom in the North American heartland, train tracks leading toward things pertaining to life. I know it’s all up to the hearer, but that is what this hearer got.
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So glad you got a chance to listen! Fantastic. I still remember hearing it the first time–was just sort of stunned/transfixed sitting there. Just looked up “Guernica.” Wow, definitely a similar feel. They both bring a slow wave of nausea over the spirit–just horrifying and sickening–yet very carefully constructed works of art that stir the mind and empathy. And that’s what I heard too: this sort of shocking contrast of hope/vastness/promise on either side in Part I and III as Reich brings speeding on-time trains roaring through America to life, all contrasted to the slow pendulum-like train-chugging, nausea, and terror of Part II in the middle. It’s definitely one of those works that you never forget. (And why Reich is one of America’s greatest contemporary composers.) Really glad you got a chance to hear it.
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Thank you for bringing this to our attention! I have not tried it yet, but thought this might be a context to mention the various recordings made of music composed in camps of different sorts – something else I have not followed up in detail, myself, yet. The one such composer with whom I am familiar is William Hilsley (born Hildesheimer) – of Jewish descent, born of German parents – happily for him, in London, giving him a British passport, so that when he was arrested working in the Netherlands, he got sent to a camp for British civilians (including, for a while, P.G. Woodhouse) rather than a death camp. He composed all sorts of music in camp – a setting of the Mass for Catholic fellow prisoners for example, but also lots of show tunes for musical plays they put on – including a pantomime retelling of Bluebeard featuring not only Lord Peter Wimsey and Bunter, but Miss Dorothy L. Sayers (played by a man, as it was an all-male camp). There are even recordings made in the camp with a portable machine brought by a ‘neutral’ visitor, in fact interested in keeping the plight of the prisoners in the public eye.
Gripping article Brenton! Though it is difficult to read of such historical accounts it’s important to remember where humanity has come from and let it affect how we act in the future. I recently read a book called Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay which tells the account of the cattle-like round up of Jewish families in a stadium (Vel’D’Hiv, Paris 1942) and events that followed through the eyes of a 10 year old girl as discovered and pieced together by a journalist. It was a captivating book I could not put down, and not one I”ll soon forget. Another forgettable account is written in the Boy In the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne. My then teenagers and I sat down one eve to watch the movie and ended up sobbing and speechless afterward. It’s stories like these that keep the history alive and relevant to future generations.
Night by Elie Wiesel is now on my “must read” list, though I”m sure it will have a similar gut wrenching impact. Thanks for your tribute Brenton.
Wow, to both references. I have not watched “Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”–I just can’t do children things, so it takes me a long time to recover. “Night” is difficult, and perverse, and troubling.
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