Buhl Planetarium to host screenings of virtual-reality Holocaust documentary

One of the lesser known stories of the Holocaust is the Terezin concentration camp. All of the concentration camps were horrible, but this particular camp had its own brand of insidiousness.

Terezin was established in 1941 in the Czech town of Terezin as a destination for European Jews from prominent families, including many talented composers, musicians, writers and visual artists. They were encouraged to perform and practice their craft even as they suffered the same deprivations – starvation, disease and death – as prisoners of other concentration camps.

The Nazis, in turn, exploited these artists and built a propaganda narrative around Terezin for organizations like the Red Cross when they came to inspect. The Nazis would claim that Jews weren’t suffering there, they were actually thriving creatively.

The story of Terezin is now being told in an award-winning virtual reality documentary called “By the Waters of Babylon” showing this month at the Buhl Planetarium at Carnegie Science Center. It employs 360-degree videos to take viewers on an immersive tour of the concentration camp.

Viewers will learn about the lives and music of many of the composers silenced by the Holocaust. The music was not permitted to leave the camp, but most of the sheets of it, including complete works, were smuggled out.

At Terezin, from where prisoners were deported to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, prisoners said playing music gave them hope.

“Whenever I knew that I had a concert, I was happy,” pianist Alice Herz-Sommer said in a 1993 BBC/Czech TV documentary film called “The Music of Terezin.” “We performed before an audience of 150 old, hopeless, sick and hungry people. They lived for the music. It was good to them. If they hadn’t come to these concerts, they would have died. And we would have.”

The immersive film, “By the Waters of Babylon,” includes the Clarion Quartet, colleagues in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, bringing the music of these imprisoned musicians and composers to life.

“’By the Waters of Babylon’ invites viewers to meet at the intersection of past and present, with banned music of the Holocaust, its present-day interpretation, and the latest in immersive technology,” said Lauren Bairnsfather, director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.

“Viewers literally travel through time and space. It has been an honor to support this project during the years of its development, and we can’t wait to bring it to a live audience,” she said.

“By the Waters of Babylon” was created by award-winning filmmakers and Chatham University and Point Park University professors Kristen Lauth Shaeffer and Andrew Halasz, and was made possible by The Heinz Endowments Small Arts Initiative.

“The story of these musicians finding hope through their art, in the darkest of times, resonated with us strongly,” said Shaeffer and Halasz. “This theme and the mission of the Clarion Quartet – to shine a light on oppressed composers’ work – made this a story that we were compelled to tell.”

Four screenings of the documentary will be held at the Buhl Planetarium on May 18 and May 31. The showings on May 18 will include a VIP reception and a talkback with the filmmakers and the Clarion Quartet.

View the documentary trailer and learn more at bythewatersvr.com.

Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or pguggenheimer@triblive.com.


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