Born: April 14, 1919; Jindrichuv Hradec, Bohemia
Died: August 11, 1995; Prague, Czech Republic
Composer, bass singer, and conductor Karel Berman was among a few -- perhaps the only composer -- artists imprisoned in the Nazi-controlled Terezin work camp that survived World War II. Born in the tiny Bohemian hamlet of Jindrichuv Hradec, Berman studied at the Prague Conservatory in the 1930s and had already begun his career as a conductor and singer when he was interned at Terezin in March 1943. As Terezin (aka, Theresienstadt) was a "modelRead more camp" used by the Nazis to convince the allies that they were not abusing prisoners, Berman went to work in cultural events within the camp; the role of "Death" in Viktor Ullmann's opera The Emperor of Atlantis and Pavel Haas' song cycle Four Songs to Texts of Chinese Poetry were both written for Berman to sing. However, as Germany began to lose the war, it also began to lose interest in this falsely altruistic project; Haas and Ullmann were sent to Auschwitz and died shortly upon their arrival in October 1944. Berman was sent out the month before, but found healthy at Auschwitz; he was transferred to a forced labor camp in Kauffering. Coming down with typhus, Berman nearly perished, but recovered well enough to be liberated and returned to Prague to finish his musical education.
From 1948 to 1953, Berman was a member of the opera in Pilsen, but in 1953 he joined the National Theater of Prague, where Berman enjoyed a long career as a repertory bass singer (he was particularly known for Kecel in Smetana's The Bartered Bride and as Leporello in Mozart's Don Giovanni), conductor, and for a time, the company's music director. Berman's responsibilities in Prague did not necessarily keep him there, and he appeared throughout Europe, proving especially popular in -- ironically -- Berlin. Berman made many recordings, though as these mainly appeared behind the Iron Curtain he did not become well known outside of Europe. In Prague, Berman was also a well-known and beloved singing teacher in a career that lasted long after he retired from the opera stage.
As a composer, Karel Berman wrote only two works; the song cycle Poupata (Rosebuds, 1944/1984) and the piano suite 1938-1945 Reminiscences (1944/1957). Both of these sets were begun at Terezin, but not completed until later. The piano suite, originally in three movements and composed to commemorate his own 25th birthday, is one of the only musical works to comment upon the events of the Holocaust from an insider's perspective and has become one of the best-known piano works from that subgenre of Western literature. Read less