TAMPA — The cantor summoned his 13-year-olds — boys and girls he had tutored for their bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies at Congregation Rodeph Sholom. All year they had struggled together to master Hebrew readings. Now Cantor Moshe Friedler invited six of his best students to his house on Sunday at 4.
They weren't sure what to expect. He told them only he had written music expressing his feelings about the Holocaust.
Friedler had more in mind than that. The cantor had one more lesson.
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During a vacation, he had read Elie Wiesel's One Generation After. It's a collection of stories and essays about Jews in the world today, and like all of Wiesel's writings, includes memories of the Holocaust.
All his life, Friedler has felt connected to those who perished. His father's family, except for one, had been wiped out. His mother's family escaped to Argentina, where he grew up. Wiesel's book made Friedler want to compose songs for all the lost ones. "The songs came to me like a waterfall inside my heart and soul."
He wrote Wiesel for permission. The Nobel Peace Prize winner wrote back:
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On Sunday night, the students and their parents gathered in the cantor's Tampa living room.
He had composed a dozen songs. He recruited a string quartet from the Florida Orchestra. He also recruited a conductor and an ensemble of singers.
The cantor then gathered dozens of images of Jewish culture, and dozens more of its obliteration. He melded the images and his music on his Apple into a 45-minute DVD.
Friedler asked Rosa Modiano Miller, 80, to introduce his music to the boys and girls. Back in 1941 when Greece fell to the Nazis, she was about their age.
Miller told them how all her family had been killed except her mother, father and brother. They were spared by a quirk — they happened to be Italian citizens, which placed them under the jurisdiction of the Fascist Italian government. They were allowed to stay in their hometown of Salonica because of that.
But 79 of her Greek relatives, with 50,000 other Salonica Jews, were shipped to death camps. She remembers walking outside the morning after a night roundup and finding her neighborhood empty of life.
After Italy surrendered to the Allies, Miller's family fled to Athens using forged documents. Her father joined resistance forces in the mountains. They were discovered. They fled. They lived in hiding. An elderly aunt was forbidden to even pass gas. The aunt protested, "Do you think the Germans know a Jewish fart?"
The 13-year-olds listened in silence.
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The music began. Friedler had titled his collection Songs of Hope & Despair. The students heard his voice, deep and lush, the timbre of a cello.
"Everything is gone," he sang. "All I have are memories."
On the large-screen TV, they watched images of the glory of Jewish life depicted in the paintings of Marc Chagall, the great Jewish modernist. Then they watched Chagall's colorful paintings replaced by stark black and white photographs that showed the end of everything.
"Persecuted souls who never had a chance," Friedler sang.
They saw fathers, mothers and children starved to skeletons.
"The staring eyes all ask the ancient question, 'Why?' "
For 45 minutes, no one moved. They barely breathed.
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The lights came on.
The six struggled for words. A parent tried to help.
"Our children need time for it all to sink in," said Debra Faulk, there with her son Zach. "It may be tomorrow. It may hit them when they're 30."
Jacob Harris has a godfather in New York who has tattoos on his arm from Auschwitz. He was 16 when he got those tattoos.
"He doesn't like to talk to me about it," Jacob said. "But I think he'd be happy that I came tonight."
The room remained solemn.
"Everyone has a different story," said 13-year-old Elly Bovarnick. She has read the diary of Anne Frank, a girl like her.
"We have different stories, but we're all connected."
That, the cantor said, was the one more lesson.