by Irena Karshenbaum
(AJNews) – After sitting through a very long awards ceremony, held in Edmonton on March 11, 2023, Czech-born, Canadian music artist, Lenka Lichtenberg, was shocked to hear that her work, “Thieves of Dreams: Songs of Theresienstadt’s Secret Poetess,” beat out the other four nominees to win a JUNO Award in the Global Music Album of the Year category.
The announcement was not what Lichtenberg was expecting as, she believes, a Holocaust-themed album has never won a JUNO and it is the first time that a Czech-language album had been nominated and won. She says that after a lifetime of recording, since the age of 10, and submitting, “Over and over again to the JUNOs and entering MASARYK five years ago, which I thought was my best album ever, I wasn’t expecting to win. I thought I should be a happy person thanks to my beautiful life and I should stop dreaming of a JUNO. Of course, I submitted “Thieves of Dreams” and thought this has no chance, and when I was nominated, I was shocked.”
The collection of 15 songs (plus one instrumental) – based on poems written between 1940 and 1945 by her grandmother, Anna Hana Friesová, just before and while she was incarcerated, together with her daughter, Jana Renée Friesová, at Terezin, or Theresienstadt – did not fall on deaf ears by the JUNO jury who recognized the work’s universal beauty and poignant story.
Lichtenberg found her grandmother’s poems in her mother’s desk, in her Prague apartment, after her mother had passed away in 2016. She explains that the poems were most likely written on scraps of paper, which Anna Hana managed to keep hidden for two and a half years while at Terezin. After the mother and daughter were liberated, on May 8, 1945, and returned to their lives, Anna Hana copied her poems into booklets and never spoke about her experiences during the Holocaust, or her poetry, again. Anna Hana’s daughter was different. Jana Renée wrote about her time in Terezin in her 1996 book, Fortress of My Youth.
The discovery of her grandmother’s poems compelled Lichtenberg on a journey to, “Bring her voice back to life in the way I best knew how, through music.” Click here for a brief video about the journey.
Born in Prague, Lichtenberg studied at the Prague Music Conservatory before arriving in Canada in 1981 where she went on to obtain a Masters degree in Ethnomusicology from York University. She taught music and built a career as a musician, composer and producer with seven solo music albums to her credit spanning a broad spectrum from Czech, Moravian and Slovak folk songs, new age remixes, and songs sang in Yiddish, Arabic, Iraqi, English and French. Her style has been described as “folk-art jazz,” which also applies to “Thieves of Dreams” performed entirely in Czech.
This depth of experience allowed Lichtenberg to delve deeply into her grandmother’s poetry, which, in spite of all the tragedy she was living through, was surprisingly full of hope and love. In Miracles, Anna Hana writes, “There never have been more magical moments/and evenings, and intimacy more brilliant/and nights in dreams more beautiful/and a heart has never dreamt so exquisitely/as in our togetherness.”
Lichtenberg hopes that her grandmother was writing about her grandfather, Richard Fries, and in many poems she believes she was, although she is not entirely sure, as by the time the family was deported to Terezin, her grandparent’s marriage was falling apart. She recounts that after her grandfather returned from being imprisoned by the Gestapo, he was, “a broken man.” Surviving such horrors and set in contrast to his wife’s “very energetic and very funny” nature, “Apparently, they argued so loudly you could hear them through the whole house.”
Of course, Anna Hana was not a woman who had fallen out of love with her husband. In It was a cold dusk, my love, she writes about the heartbreak of parting from her beloved husband, “With our last tear the final darkness fell/and G-d couldn’t see our faces;/the end fell into our eyes like a stone onto a mirror,/only the wind wanted to know what was going on.” Fries was deported to Auschwitz where he was murdered in the gas chambers on October 10, 1944.
“There is some sadness, loss of faith, but they are not bitter,” Lichtenberg describes the poetry. In fact, Anna Hana shows a remarkable capacity for forgiveness. In I wanted to curse you, bitter land, she writes about being betrayed as Jews by Czechoslovakia, “Damned be all places,/where I’d been happy!/Suddenly my heart softened,/as if broken; instead of cursing/I whispered a prayer: after all,/all the trees there were in full bloom.”
It may have been her eternal hope that allowed Anna Hana to find companionship and love again by remarrying Bedrich Stein, another Holocaust survivor, after the War.
This desire for renewal also applied to Lichtenberg’s own life as a Jew. The process of assimilation, to try to save themselves, had started with her great-grandmother, Františka Siegrova, whose second marriage was to a non-Jewish man, Jan Siegr, a judge. Both perished in the Holocaust. She at Auschwitz and he was shot for storing food to send to Terezin. Her grandfather, Richard Fries, who was from a mountainous part of Czechoslovakia, had experienced pogroms himself causing him to indicate “no religion” on his marriage document, even though both him and his wife were fully Jewish. “They felt that would somehow keep them safe. Of course, that wasn’t the case with the Nazis,” Lichtenberg explains. When their only child, Jana Renée, was born in 1927 the parents wrote “none” under religion on her birth certificate. Jana Renée only learned she was Jewish at the age of 12, after the Nazis had occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939, and her parents had to explain to her why she couldn’t go to school.
Lichtenberg, like her mother, did not know she was Jewish, when, at the age of 10, as a well-known child singer in Czechoslovakia, she was invited to perform at the Prague Jewish Community Centre and her mother had to finally tell her about her roots.
As an adult, Lichtenberg wanted to defy the path of assimilation her family had been on for almost a century, “I decided I would make up for all that had been lost and live as Jewish a life as possible.” She started to study Jewish music and through that met her future husband, Rubin Cohen. The couple have three children.
Lichtenberg performs regularly as a cantorial soloist and co-leads Shabbat services at Congregation Darchei Noam in Toronto. She is working on releasing volume two containing 12 new songs, from a total of 65 poems that her grandmother wrote, sang in English this time. Aiming for a release date of October of 2023, the collection does not yet have a name. A book containing all poems, both in English and Czech, is also in the works with editor, Alena Jirásek.
Irena Karshenbaum writes in Calgary. irenakarshenbaum.com
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