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From anti-Semitic hotbed to healing: St. Cloud area students to perform oratorio at Nazi death camps

Lee Nelson conducts a rehearsal of "To Be Certain of the Dawn" this week at the Abbey Church at St. John's University in Collegeville.
Photo by Axel Theimer
Lee Nelson conducts a rehearsal of "To Be Certain of the Dawn" this week at the Abbey Church at St. John's University in Collegeville.

This won't be your everyday field trip. For one thing, close to 200 children, college students and others from Minnesota will be performing a new choral work at the sites of former Nazi death camps during a two-week tour of Europe.

For another, "To Be Certain of the Dawn" takes as its subject not just the Holocaust of World War II but nearly 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism.


"This will be a life-changing experience for these students," said Lee Nelson, choral conductor at St. Cloud State University, who will lead the group.

The fact that the performances will occur on the sites of Nazi death camps, and that former inmates of those camps in France, Germany and Switzerland are expected to be in the audience, is just one of the strands of irony and coincidence encircling this work and its eloquent plea for tolerance.

Lee Nelson
Courtesy of St. Cloud State University
Lee Nelson

Chief among them is the reputation that St. Cloud has earned in recent years for being a hotbed of anti-Semitism, given the much-reported drawings of Nazi swastikas observed in various public places and on campus.

Then there's the fact that this 60-minute oratorio, with music by Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus and text by poet Michael Dennis Browne, was premiered in 2005 at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, a city once described — rather famously — as "the most anti-Semitic city in America."

An admirable audacity
Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, director of Jewish studies at St. Cloud State and former senior rabbi at Temple Israel in Minneapolis, suggested to the university's music faculty that the Paulus-Browne oratorio be performed in Europe. To that end he raised $36,000. The result, acting as a prelude to the May 20-June 4 concerts in Europe, will be two free performances this weekend — Friday at Stewart Hall in Ritsche Auditorium in St. Cloud and Saturday at St. John's Abbey Church at St. John's University in Collegeville. Tickets for the St. Cloud concert are all gone, but some are still available for the Collegeville event. (See related content.)

Among the 300 performers this weekend will be the St. John's Boys' Choir, St. Cloud State's Cantabile Girls Choir of fourth- to ninth-graders, and singers, instrumentalists and faculty soloists from St. Cloud State, the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University.

Rabbi Joseph Edelheit
Courtesy of St. Cloud State University
Rabbi Joseph Edelheit

Edelheit, who is teaching a related course titled "The Holocaust in Transcendence" this spring in St. Cloud, sees an admirable audacity in staging the concerts at this time and place. He came to St. Cloud in 2002 as part of a court mandate after the anti-Semitic incidents.

"Here we are," he said, "bringing a unique Minnesota creation of healing, and we're lifting it and plopping it right into the middle of a campus that has had scathing press about being an anti-Semitic community. And then, as if that weren't enough, we're going to play it in a place that participated in the 'Kingdom of Night,' " a reference to the Christian failure to support Jews in Europe in the 1930s and the Catholic Church's unwillingness to stand up to Hitler.

Marking an anniversary

The original idea behind "To Be Certain of the Dawn" was that it coincide with the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Jews from the death camps and the 40th anniversary of the Catholic Church's 1965 "Nostra Aetate" ("In our time') declaration that Jews were not responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus and its mandate that Catholics teach that history accordingly.

The Rev. Michael O'Connell, rector at the Basilica, had commissioned the work some years earlier as a gift to Temple Israel and, more generally, to the Jews of Minneapolis.

The inspiration had been a trip in 2000 with 45 other Catholics and Jews from Minnesota, including Edelheit, to the Nazi concentration camps, where more than 6 million Jews were killed.

"The experience of seeing Auschwitz and Birkenau was terrifying," O'Connell recalled. "I thought it was time for Christians to own up to the Holocaust. Two-thousand years of teaching and preaching contempt against Jews didn't cause the Holocaust, but it certainly helped make it possible."

Composer Stephen Paulus, left, and Osmo Vanska of the Minnesota Orchestra.
Photo by Sharolyn Hagen
Composer Stephen Paulus, left, and Osmo Vanska of the Minnesota Orchestra.

Having been impressed with "The Three Hermits," a one-act church opera by Paulus and Browne that premiered in St. Paul in 1997, O'Connell gave them the commission and made just two requests: that children's voices be used at some point in the work and that Cantor Barry Abelson of Temple Israel be given a significant part.

'Certain of the power to turn ... agony into a song'

The title of the work draws on the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: "This is the task; in the darkest night to be certain of the dawn, certain of the power to turn a curse into a blessing, agony into a song."

Neither Paulus nor Browne, who teaches at the University of Minnesota, is a Jew. Browne, who calls himself a "dissident Catholic," evolved a three-movement structure for the work: "Renewal," "Remembrance" and "Visions."

The middle section is based on by Roman Vishniac's photographs of Eastern European children, which Browne saw displayed at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. All these children were killed in one day by the Nazis. At the premiere, the faces of some of the children were projected onto the walls of the basilica. At the same time, in a duet for soprano and mezzo, the music and the text draw us into the minds of two little girls, as if the singers were the girls. But before long the chorus declaims the harsh pronouncements of the Nuremburg laws, to which Browne adds his own interpretation: "Jews may not imagine/Jews may not dream."

The work ends on a brighter — but not necessarily optimistic — note with the choir and the cantor, who began the work, singing in Hebrew, "You should love your neighbor as yourself," after which we hear the shofar, a Jewish horn.

O'Connell spoke briefly before the first performance at the basilica the night of Nov. 17, 2005. The goal of the work, he said, was "to teach lives of tolerance and respect for all peoples" and to assure "that Christian children of the 21st century safeguard Jewish children of the 21st century."

Powerful reactions at premiere
Response to the work was overwhelmingly positive, said Paulus. "Michael and I have written a lot of pieces together, but we've never gotten a reaction like this." And the response continues. "I gave a talk last year to an association of university women," Browne said, "and this woman said to me afterward, recalling the premiere, 'That was the most powerful experience I've ever had.' You don't hear that very often."

Another one who was impressed that night was the Minnesota Orchestra's music director, Osmo Vanska, who had rehearsed and conducted the premiere as well as the subsequent performances later that week. It was Vanska who had insisted on the work being performed as part of the orchestra's regular subscription season rather than simply as a rental, so as to give the oratorio more exposure. He had obtained a score well in advance, "and I liked what I read," he said.

Photos of Eastern European children who died in the Holocaust were projected on screens during the 2005 premiere of "To Be Certain of the Dawn" at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, which commissioned the oratorio.
Courtesy of stephenpaulus.com
Photos of Eastern European children who died in the Holocaust were projected on screens during the 2005 premiere of "To Be Certain of the Dawn" at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, which commissioned the oratorio.

Of the premiere he said, "There were a lot of tears. I immediately thought we must record this. I spoke to BIS (his record company in Sweden). They are open to my ideas because we have worked together so long. They respected my idea and said they were ready for it. It's great that we have a composer here who writes music that connects with people. This is rare. Contemporary music often leaves audiences feeling cold."

And indeed, as planned, Vanska and the orchestra along with the Minnesota Chorale, three additional choirs and a quartet of soloists performed the work at Orchestra Hall twice in February of this year and, after two-dozen microphones were placed onstage, spent three days recording the work. BIS is expected to release the disc in spring.

'Blow to the city's solar plexus'

What effect the work will have, if any, is impossible to say. Whether art is edifying is a debate that goes back at least to Plato. In the case of Minneapolis and its history of intolerance against Jews, journalism seems to have had a bigger impact than art.

"It was a blow to the city's solar plexus," said Hyman Berman, speaking of Carey McWilliams' 1946 description of Minneapolis as the most anti-Semitic city in the country.

This was a city where Jews were barred from membership in service clubs and many trade unions and even the Automobile Club, McWilliams reported in a 1946 issue of the liberal journal Common Ground.

Then-Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey reacted immediately to the article, Berman said. "He appointed a special commission chaired by Art Naftalin. The report they eventually made was very critical and sharp. It's my contention that Humphrey's confrontation with this particular instance of home-grown bigotry triggered his entire commitment to civil rights and human rights, which was the foundation of his entire political career."

Berman, who is professor emeritus of history at the University of Minnesota, thinks it's unlikely that McWilliams would make the same observation about Minneapolis today that he did 62 years ago. After all, Naftalin, a Jew, eventually became mayor, serving from 1961 to 1969, and since then the state has sent three Jewish senators to Washington — Rudy Boschwitz, Paul Wellstone and Norm Coleman — and possibly a fourth, Al Franken, will be elected in November.

But it was the McWilliams' article that made these things possible, said Berman. "That article was the opening salvo in transforming Minneapolis from what was, in fact, a bigoted, racist community to what we know today as kind of an accepting community. And this didn't happen overnight," he said. "It was hard-fought."

And yet anti-Semitism never seems to go away. The year that "To Be Certain of the Dawn" was premiered, the most nagging subject in Hollywood was the Mel Gibson film "The Passion of the Christ," which contrary to the Second Vatican Council, blames the Jews for the death of Christ.

Flash-forward to today (Friday) and audiences in Los Angeles will be attending the premiere of Oren Jacoby's documentary, "Constantine's Sword," a look at the history of Christian anti-Semitism based on James Carroll's recent book by the same name. Narrated by Liev Schreiber, Philip Bosco, Natasha Richardson and Eli Wallach, the movie begins its story in Colorado Springs where Mikey Weinstein, an alumnus of the U.S. Air Force Academy, describes the harassing of his son, Casey, a Jewish cadet, by evangelical Christians who blanket the student cafeteria with fliers advertising "The Passion of the Christ." Casey sued the Air Force, but the case never made it to trial.

Paulus said it's presumptuous to think that a musical work can change people. "But," he said, "I hope those who are present at these performances will move a little closer toward empathy for others who have suffered, not only Jews but any race that's been made to suffer."

Michael Anthony is a former music critic for the Star Tribune.

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