Renan Koen, "Positive Resistance"
Updated: Jan 25
Renan Koen is a Turkish-Jewish concert pianist, music therapist and public educator. Since the release of her 2015 album, “Holocaust Remembrance / Before Sleep”, she has toured the world lecturing on the Holocaust, specifically Theresienstadt and the composers interned there with youth groups, and recently to a global audience in January at the UN Headquarters in NYC for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Earlier in her career, she released, “Lost Traces, Hidden Memories” (2014), an album of Ladino music, inspired by her heritage, raised among the Sephardic communities of Istanbul. During government-imposed quarantines, she performed a series of online concerts via the Twitter account of the Turkish Jewish Community Association (@tyahuditoplumu), who also supports her educational efforts in collaboration with Everlasting Hope: Gustav Mahler & Terezin Composers
Fictive Mag spoke with Ms. Koen at a cafe in Istanbul not far from where she attended secondary school in the affluent neighborhood of Nisantasi. She discussed her project, “March of the Music”, in which she has brought her students to Theresienstadt annually since 2018 to enact what she calls, “Positive Resistance”, by responding creatively to tyranny by performing concerts, composing music, making art and writing essays about their experiences appreciating the music history of the ghetto and concentration camp where Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas, Viktor Ullman, and Zikmund Schul wrote compositions and eventually perished in the Holocaust.
How did you first learn about Theresienstadt?
Of course I knew about the Holocaust. I heard about Theresienstadt. I was fascinated that some [music] production was going on. That some composers, or some musicians were still playing or composing. This caught my attention a lot.
As a European citizen, also, because the Holocaust was not spoken [about] enough, I didn’t know much about it, the camps, how many were there, the conditions. I only knew of Auschwitz, [in my] early career. I started to search about this, which composers, which works, and then composers I learned quickly. The list of the works I learned quickly. But I couldn’t get the scores quickly. The scores weren’t ready or they were publishing very few. It took years.
What was the turning point for you in your discovery of music composed in Theresienstadt?
In 2011, when I came back home from Bodrum, I found a Pavel Haas piano suite in my mailbox. It was like a miracle moment for me. It was [written] before the camp, when he was excluded from public, because these composers, like every other Jew in Europe they were excluded from the the wider community, from schools, public places, and everything. He composed this during this time. I opened the envelope. I was so excited.
I started to practice, and then a few days later I received a choral work by Zikmund Schul which was composed in 1941. It was [written] before Theresienstadt. Most were from Schott Music, from Germany. When I read about the text in the choral work about Zikmund Schul it was so fascinating because it was hard times and he used a Shabbat text in this choral work, a prayer, but only as a text, not as a melody.
It was something about, ‘God, if you did that to us, so you know better than us, so you have a plan, so we have to submit. We’re in your plan. We surrender to you.’ I was in shock, how, in these circumstances, he could compose. I established a choir for a concert in 2011. I played the Pavel Haas piano suite. They sang this choir work. I accompanied.
How has this cultural advocacy impacted Turkey’s Jewish community?
I found a story about a survivor who was my friend’s uncle. He left to Turkey during the First World War, to evade the army. He went to France. In the Second World War, they caught him and put him in Drancy [concentration camp]. He had a journal there.
My friend gave it to me, and also exposed his story in the Neve Shalom Synagogue for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah, in 2011. It was a big coincidence, this man’s grandson was visiting Istanbul for the first time and we didn’t know he was coming, and he came and he saw his grandfather like this, and he didn’t know his story. It was a big deal for everything. It happened in 2011.
What led you to continue this work?
In 2015 I got many scores, choir scores and piano scores. One of them, Gideon Klein’s piano sonata I couldn’t find it from Schott Music, or from London or from the Terezin Institute, so what I did was I listened to who played it before in YouTube. I made a list of pianists and started to search for them on Facebook I found somebody. I contacted an Italian conductor and pianist and he sent me the score.
What was the significance of these Jewish composers for music history? To what aesthetic or cultural movements did they contribute?
As for Gideon Klein, for example, he was born in 1919. He was a great pianist. He was very talented. He went to Prague Conservatory for the composition class. He studied with Alois Hába, a great composer, and one of the pioneers of microtonal music, also the teacher of [Turkish composer] Necil Kazım Akses. Alois Hába was a school by himself. He was the school.
Gideon Klein studied with him, and philosophy and musicology at Charles University. I think he was a genius. His contribution was a lot. It could have been more. He died when he was 26. It’s a loss for European music history as well. He’s one of the continuations of the microtonal music school. His music is microtonal music, with very rich textures. He was very young. I only have one of his works, a Piano Sonata, which is especially very angry.
Would you say that their music was a reflection of Jewish life?
They didn’t know Jewish life in Central Europe. They didn’t know Jewish religion. They were just European, culturally cultivated people. And when they went to Theresienstadt, there they learned about Jewish music, and Jewish culture and Jewish religion.
As for the musical part, they found a book there. There was a book in Theresienstadt published in Berlin. The book contained Jewish religious music and also the Jewish folk music. So, that’s how they started to compose music there. They established a chorus, and started to arrange the religious music and also the folk music for the chorus. That’s how they started.
And then the chorus expanded with women. Viktor Ullman and Gideon Klein found a piano in the ghetto and secretively they brought it to the barracks and Gideon Klein repaired it and they started to compose.
Are there recordings of the Theresienstadt composers?
There was a clarinetist and doctor, George Horner, he escaped to America and he was very successful. He played with Yo-Yo Ma. He tells stories about Gideon Klein. They were neighbors in Moravia. He knew Gideon Klein. When he saw him, he was always going to their barracks to listen to him. He said in his speeches that he was practicing and practicing and practicing a piano concerto and it was never enough for him. But nobody could record it of course.
Have you taken a different approach to your performance and recording of music composed in Theresienstadt?
No, I never tried to do something different. But I tried to understand it a lot, the musical context. I was thinking a lot. That’s why I wanted to play in Theresienstadt. I wanted to hear, when I was playing the sound of the environment, how quiet it was, the sound of trees, the smell.
I wanted to hear and of course it’s not the same, because the population is not the same, but still I wanted to hear that. When I played there, I gave a concert in Theresienstadt, I really understood better, more deeply. I understood the tempos more, the pace of life, how they walked, where they walked.
Please describe more about Theresienstadt.
Terezin was in Czechoslovakia back then, of course. It is very close to Prague, about 45 minutes by car. It’s a small city. It’s a historical city, as everywhere else in the Czech Republic, named by Maria Theresa, that’s why it’s Terez-in. During the First World War, all of the soldiers were there and they said it was a very cheerful city. All of the bars, the soldiers, they knew how to enjoy life. It was very, very cheerful.
Because of the German territories, the Nazis invaded there in 1940 and they established this ghetto and prison, which they called a small fortress. In 1941 it was ready, and people started to be deported there, and they, of course, changed the name. They named it Theresienstadt, because they Germanized it. Between this invasion and the ghetto life it’s still like a ghost city.
Here in Turkey how were the receptions to the concerts for Before Sleep?
In Turkey, and elsewhere, people are not very cautious about the Holocaust, still. It’s amazing. Sometimes I come across survivors’ children, in Brazil, for example. Most didn’t know about the Holocaust, and Terezin especially, but a lady approached me after the concert and said, ‘You know, you’re telling really true stories about Theresienstadt because my mother was a survivor,’ and she told me everything that you’re telling now. Sometimes people approach me as survivors’ children. But most people aren’t aware of the Holocaust.
Is there anything unique to your experiences performing this music and teaching about the Holocaust in Turkey?
I can not associate this music with countries, as a performer. As a musician, for me, it’s very important to make them alive, to bring this music and reality to life also. [My] Ladino [album, Lost Traces, Hidden Memories] came first. But eleven months after, this [Holocaust Remembrance / Before Sleep album] came.
When I was preparing the concert in February, 2015, I decided to have another one in Istanbul, the Izmir Jewish community proposed this concert. I told myself if I’m going to play it in Izmir why not start from Istanbul, because Istanbul is a very important place to play. I started to talk to people to do that, and suddenly realized that it’s such a pity that it will not be permanent, that it will finish in one concert.
Immediately, I started to work on that. I immediately had the answers from sponsors. It was an express procedure [Laughs]. I immediately had the reaction from the label company, so I started and it was a very quick process. It’s a heavy work. It’s a book also. It came out very quickly.
Did you have the idea to add an educational initiative from the beginning?
When I say the concert [for Before Sleep], it’s always a lecture concert. I never play without an explanation. I start from the Holocaust. It depends on the audience, if they don’t know anything about the Holocaust I start from the beginning; how the Holocaust happened, what does it mean, what Hitler did, how countries were involved. And then I come to Terezin the city, and Theresienstadt, the circumstances, and the composers, and the works, something like that.
In April, there will be a lecture concert. I prepared an educational program for young people, age range from 14 to 17. I sometimes go to 11 years old too, if they’re ready. I use another story for that also. I go to the universities also. The aim, the goal, the target group is 14 to 17 years old, young people.
I go to non-Jewish schools in Turkey and abroad. And I tell the story. It’s answering questions, interaction. My goal is to [reach] Turkey, not only Istanbul. I sometimes go to Jewish schools, but I prefer not to because the non-Jewish kids are more important for me because the Jewish schools can reach the source of the history, they can learn and they learn. The other one doesn’t know about this.
When you were growing up, what was the development of your awareness of the Holocaust?
It was poor, very poor. Of course, I knew it because the Jewish youth clubs were teaching us about this and we had once a year the Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah, we always commemorate the Holocaust. I knew but I didn’t know the details. My primary school was right here in Şişli Terakki Lisesi. For middle school, I started to go to the conservatory.
Did you meet any survivors while in school?
During your class for young people, do you also perform a concert?
I can’t say a concert, but I play during the educational program. I start to tell about the Holocaust, with the question, ‘How many of you know about the Holocaust?’ None, or few. ‘Do you know what the Second World War is?’ Yes. ‘Did you hear about Hitler? They say, Yes.
They haven’t usually heard the word, Holocaust?
No, or genocide. And then, I start to tell about the Holocaust, Second World War, how the Second World War started, how it developed, why the Jewish people were targeted, what was Hitler’s ideology about this, how he developed this ideology, and how many plans he tried to kill all the Jewish people, and how the Final Solution plan worked through camps.
I specifically tell about Theresienstadt, and then I start to tell about the composers, their life before the war, before the camp and in the camp, and how they were deported to death camps, and their works. And then I say, ‘Let me speak with music now. Listen to music from the camp. But it will be your turn to speak after this.’
And then I go to the piano and I invite them to the piano, because I want them to see the notes, because the Gideon Klein scores are a little bit like handwriting still, like manuscripts. I ask what did you feel about this, what do you think about this, how did this piece make you feel? This turns into a dialogue. They speak. They love to share. They share a lot.
Are these usually more affluent, wealthier schools?
No. I go to all kinds of schools. For example, in Brazil I went to the favelas.
Here, do you experience some negativity?
No, never. In Berlin, I had an interesting experience. I went to Turkish schools. Aziz Nesin School, a pilot school of bilingual education, in German and Turkish. They are very religious families’ children. I went there, and they were very ready for Theresienstadt because their history teacher told them about the Holocaust and about Theresienstadt specifically because there were children’s art productions there in Theresienstadt.
So they knew about it, but they felt so much shame on behalf of Hitler. When they saw me, because the teacher told them that I’m Jewish. It was the first time for them, 11 to 12 year old children, they were all red, because of what Hitler did to Jewish people, all of the bad words, and not only Hitler but people, neighbors to neighbors. They were all red and they could not even look at me. We started about how I felt about this.
It was in Turkish. They couldn’t directly ask me. But the teacher told me that the children are very curious about how you feel about this and how is your life in Turkey. What does it mean to be a Jew. When they saw me that I’m very friendly and I don’t have bad feelings about my life and that I’m honest with them, they started to talk with me and at the end they hugged me and didn’t want to let me go. It was a powerful experience.
But they identified so much with German history?
Yes. It was a very strong experience for me.
Did you also perform?
Yes, but I always prefer the music room, not the stage with them.
These compositions that you chose for Before Sleep, were they written at Theresienstadt camp?
Was this music Nazi propaganda? Or did the German officers not know that they were writing music?
They didn’t know. But just last summer, I didn’t know this information either. I had been informed by a survivor that the Nazi officers were afraid to be in the camp all the time. So they were a little bit outside. Now there is a Terezin Cultural House, it was the Nazi’s officers building. They were in the building most of the time. They didn’t know. It was not completely prohibited in Terezin. Certain styles of music were prohibited, such as jazz, or music for themselves was prohibited. The Nazis wanted them to compose something. It was not completely prohibited. But jazz music was prohibited for sure. And when they shot the propaganda movie there, Nazi officers did a fake atmosphere there, and they built up, for the movie, a jazz club.
How did these scores survive?
As for the Gideon Klein’s sonata, for example, he gave to his sister who was in Theresienstadt also. And his sister survived so the sonata survived. And Viktor Ullman’s piano sonata, he wanted to bring all the scores with him to Auschwitz and people told him don’t do it. He left it in Theresienstadt and somebody found it in Theresienstadt. Pavel Haas’s choral works, because one of them was dedicated to somebody in the camp, and these people survived and moved to Israel. That’s how we have it. Most of the time it’s lost by the way.
In the context of the UN presentation, for example, with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, do you feel like there’s a certain narrative that is confining you, or placing you, or are you simply addressing a genuine need for more people to learn about the Holocaust?
If you’re asking me what it’s like to work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they’re very respectful about this issue. They don’t relate it to anything else. They don’t instrumentalize the issue. This is very important for me.
On the topic of genocide, there’s a tension especially in terms of Turkish-European-American relations.
The Holocaust is a very unique thing, and unique method. The Holocaust is incomparable with other tragedies, I think.
Why is Holocaust education urgent today?
First of all, the history itself is very twisted somehow. History has to be taught to young people very honestly. Each of us has some difficulties in life, and I want the students to find their strong points in themselves, how they’re strong, in which fields they could be talented and how they can face their own difficulties in life.
If individually a person is not at peace, the community can’t be at peace, that’s why it’s very important to tell this history very transparently. And the second part of my education is to find their strong points. What I do, once a year in August, I take the students to Terezin. I started with two and last year was four. This year, if it’s not cancelled from coronavirus it will be more this year. I bring them to Terezin and I do the guide. We are part of a festival, and they meet other musicians or other musicologists. They listen. I organize a meeting with a survivor too. They speak with a survivor and I ask them to produce something for me, according to either their education or talents. They produce something, but it’s serious, musical work, essays or articles, or they draw something. I promote their works to the world.
One of them composed a really great work, and one of them wrote an article. The work [of music] has been played last year. We did a world premiere here in the Italian synagogue [in Istanbul]. The article I published in Salom newspaper. This year, one of them was from the Istanbul University Conservatory, which is a Western music education. One was from ITU Turkish Music Conservatory. They finished composing. One was a violinist from an orchestra, from Mimar Sinan University. He was in love with the Gideon Klein trio. He said, ‘I want to play this with a trio.’ I said, ‘Okay, make your own trio and let me see it and I will give you the score afterwards.’ He tried and he tried and he did it.
The trio comes every Friday to my house and they practice in my house. It’s a string trio. The other one was a student from the German school, interesting young lady and she’s now writing about this. She’s very talented with writing. I reached other music from Warsaw Ghetto, Josima Feldschuh’s piano works. Josima Feldschuh was a star pianist in the Warsaw Ghetto. When she was 14 she died and she composed in the Warsaw Ghetto 18 musical works. I’ve been introduced to Josima’s stepsister in New York, and her niece gave me the manuscripts of her. So I’m going to play a little bit of the music from the beginning to open the concert, because I have to open the concert.
The world premiere of these works will be played. The violinist and his trio will play Gideon Klein’s string trio. It will be at the Italian synagogue. Just before that we will record an album with Gideon Klein’s trio, last year’s composition students’ works, and also the new composition students’ works. There will be four works on the album.
I will promote this album of course. I already made a deal with an Italian label, Sheva Collection, because their distribution are very wide. They were with Naxos in the USA, incredible. So they have distribution in Europe, England, and the Far East, and also with Naxos in America. That’s the next record project. It’s not only my project, but their works.
I named this educational program “Positive Resistance Through Holocaust Reality”. These students actions where I bring students every year to Terezin is the March of the Music. So, it will be outcomes from March of the Music, two years works’ from March of the Music.
What do their compositions sounds like?
Contemporary music. Very interesting work. It’s really contemporary. They’re in their 20s.
I like this idea of Positive Resistance?
I created these terms. I have the copyright now. [Laughs].
How do you define Positive Resistance?
Because they composed music in the camp, in the ghetto, and they produced something through their talents and creativity. They stayed very healthy, healthier than the others. How did they do that? Because they connected with their souls. They worked and they practiced. We saw it in Pavel Haas’s choral works. He composed a work for a male chorus. He a text from the Tehillim and composed a chorus for it. It says in the text, ‘Don’t cry, don’t complain, work.”
It says in the musicology text that he did that for solidarity. They chose to be on their creative side. They composed, and created this solidarity in the camp and encouraged others to compose as well and stayed healthier. I named all of these things that they did as Positive Resistance. Also, I define it the other way around. All of the persecutions and violations are negative resistance, some kind of pressure. And they answered this pressure, this violence, positively, as resisters, positive resisters.