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Anne Frank cantata helps keep Jewish history alive

When older generations die, there’s always the fear that we’ll lose their stories.

But in metro Detroit’s Jewish community, they’re trying to keep history alive…through music.

And they’re doing it thanks to Anne Frank, her chestnut tree, and a stressed-out high school orchestra in metro Detroit.

Specifically, the Berkley High School orchestra.

No pressure, but they’re performing the American premiere of a well-respected German composer’s cantata.

About the Holocaust.

No pressure, but they’re performing the American premiere of a well-respected German composer’s cantata. About the Holocaust.

In just four short days, this state-of-the-art high school concert hall will be jam packed with rabbis, Holocaust survivors, and even the German composer himself, Volker Blumenthaler, who’s flying in just for this.

So right now, the violinists are stressing.

“Uh, it’s [sounding] really bad,” whispers violinist Austin Glass.

He’s an earnest, articulate guy with short dark hair and dark framed glasses.

“It’s just not as great as we could be doing, and that’s just the honest answer.”

In the orchestra’s defense, maybe the strings section is supposed to sound kind of screeching, almost even atonal.

After all, this is a contemporary piece they’re playing.

The percussionists are feeling pretty good.

“This is basically our best rehearsal yet,” the xylophonist leans over to whisper. “It’s the first time it’s actually sounded like music.”

To understand how these kids ended up in this position – and to appreciate just how much pressure they’re under- we have to back up.

This started with Anne Frank, and a tree.

Specifically, the chestnut tree that stood outside her attic window in Amsterdam when her family was hiding from the Nazi’s.

Holocaust experts say it’s significant because it’s the one thing she could actually see of the outside world.

When the tree died recently, eleven saplings were saved.

Deciding where these saplings would be planted wasn’t easy.

A massive competition took place and Michigan’s Holocaust Museum snagged one.

Stephen Goldman is their executive director.

“The Holocaust museum was one of the sites granted a tree,” he says. “Along with the 9-11 

“The Holocaust museum was one of the sites granted a tree,” he says. “Along with the 9-11 memorial. The Clinton library. The White House.”

memorial, the Clinton library, the White House…”

So the museum wants to kick off a whole summer of celebrations for this planting.

They’ve worked on youth programs with Berkley High School over the years. School employees estimate about half the students are Jewish.

And it just so happens Berkley has a great orchestra, one that gets about as much attention and praise as a football team.

The museum’s organizers made some calls, and got the OK for Berkley’s orchestra to premiere this new cantata in the US.

It’s called “My Name is Anne Frank.”

The piece has complicated rhythms. It’s super difficult to play, and there’s not a whole lot of melody.

But some kids are totally into it. 

Isabelle Wroblewski sings in the choir. She says this piece makes her feel like she’s actually with Anne Frank.  

“I love this piece of music,” she says.

Violinist Noah Duchan jumps in, “You don’t have to play the violin part!”

Wroblewski is undaunted.

“As horrible as it may be,” she says, pointedly ignoring Duchan, “the sounds that we make and the emotions that we try to convey to the audience are extremely powerful.”

Austin Glass, the violinist who’s not impressed with their rehearsals so far, chimes in, “In Hebrew school, we learn if you don’t remember the holocaust, it’ll happen again. You know, if we don’t let Holocaust survivors tell their story, then we haven’t learned anything about the horrors. So this is really what we work on: not getting every note perfect, but really conveying the emotion." 

"This is really what we work on: not getting every note perfect, but really conveying the emotion.”

And before you know it, it’s show time.

Every chair in the 700-seat concert hall is claimed.

And after the lengthy introductions, orchestra director John Robertson steps onto the conductor’s podium.

The red-robed choir files onto the risers behind the musicians.

And all together, they start the 46-minute, four part cantata that spans the entire war, the life and death of Frank, and the discovery of her diary by her father, Otto Frank.  

And you know what? It really does all come together.

These harrowing lyrics are layered on top of this dark, unsettling music.

It just works.  

After a good five minutes of thunderous applause, violinist Austin Glass says it all hit him right before they started to play.

“I didn’t know that there were going be Holocaust survivors in the audience,” he says. “And I think that put a lot more pressure on us, but it made it a lot more real for us.”

One of those survivors is Guy Stern.

He works with the memorial museum, and orchestrated many of the partnerships and diplomatic ties that brought this piece from Germany to metro Detroit.

As he mingles with the crowd, the musicians, and the composer, he says watching these kids play is so satisfying.  

“Because it’s my voice instilled in them, and coming out of them.Just to hear that wonderful dedication of those children. Because you felt that they felt. And that’s a great thing.”

Stern says parts of the piece put him right back in the agony of the war.

But he says it also makes him feel hopeful.

Because as his generation, the last of the survivors, die out, their stories are living on.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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