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UW-Madison School of Music to Share $2.5M Grant to Promote Study of Jewish Culture

When Teri Dobbs was twelve years old, growing up in the tiny farming town of Platte, South Dakota, her mother took her aside and broached a topic that would forever change the young girl’s life.

“My mom started educating me about the Holocaust, and gave me a book,” says Dobbs, an associate professor of music and chair of the music education program at UW-Madison. “She said, ‘You need to read this book, because it could have been us.’ ’’ It was about the extermination camp at Treblinka, during World War II in Poland.

Dobbs asked her what she meant.

“Performing the Jewish Archives” is a $2.5 million grant to five universities to mount recently rediscovered Jewish musical, theatrical and literary works created from 1880 to 1950, and encourage the creation of new works based on archives.

Teri Dobbs

Teri Dobbs. Photograph by Michael R. Anderson.

Her mom replied, “Well, your grandfather’s Jewish.” Dobbs was bewildered, and her mother explained: He was one of the only Jewish people in town, his mother having been part of a wave of Jewish immigrants in the late 19th century who became merchants, peddlers and farmers on the Great Plains. His name was Gerrit Dyke.

Dobbs kept reading. She asked questions. She wanted to know: How did a Dutch Jewish woman, Maria Louisa Rosenthal, land in the middle of South Dakota in the 1880s? After marrying Govert VanderBoom, a non-Jewish Dutch man, Maria Louisa took his name, but the name Rosenthal was not forgotten. Dobbs’ mom kept a trove of family papers, including Maria Louisa’s obituary, who in her papers consistently referred to herself as “Maria Louisa Rosenthal VanderBoom.” And, when asked, extended family members replied, “Yes, Maria was Jewish.” But that was the end of the conversation.

It wasn’t the end of Dobbs’ interest in Jewish history, however.

In 2002, she became a Jew by choice and married a Jewish man. As it happened, her husband, Jesse Markow, had a similar background: his grandfather, Morris (Moishe) Markov had emigrated from the Ukraine, from a shtetl called Markova, located in what was known then as the Pale of Jewish Settlement. Markow arrived in New York City around 1904 as a single man, with only a wooden flute in his pocket that he’d formerly played in the Russian czar’s army, and found his first job working at a laundry at the dockyards.

Dobbs' husband, Jesse Markow, with his grandfather's flute.

Dobbs’ husband, Jesse Markow, with his grandfather’s flute.

Neither Rosenthal nor Markov maintained any links to their former homelands. And so it was for so many expatriate Jews at that time.

Meanwhile, Dobbs grew up. She went to college at the University of South Dakota and served four years with the United States Air Force Academy Band as a flutist and singer, then taught band, orchestra, vocal music, and general music in Colorado, South Dakota, and Illinois. Later, in graduate school at Northwestern University, where she earned a master’s degree in 1992 and a Ph.D in music education in 2005, she found herself drawn to that Jewish history, and started delving into music created and performed during the Holocaust, or Shoah.

At UW-Madison, where she arrived in 2006 as an assistant (now associate) professor of music education, she focused on children’s musical experiences in the ghetto at Theresienstadt, known now as Terezín. During World War II, Terezín, an 18th-century fortified city in Czechoslovakia, not far from Prague, was converted by the Nazis into a transit camp for thousands of largely upper class, educated Jews, including well-known artists, writers, and composers, most of whom who ultimately were killed in concentration camps. One of those, the composer Hans Krasa, had written a children’s operetta, Brundibár, which was performed over 50 times by children at Terezín.

Artifacts from the children's operetta, Brundibár

Artifacts from the children’s operetta, Brundibár.

Performing Brundibár provided a way for the Jews at Terezín to preserve some semblance of culture as society was disintegrating all around them. It also provided Dobbs the entrée into a field of study that had so long intrigued her.

In 2010, she began an intense study of the operetta, culminating in a paper published last fall in the Philosophy of Music Education Review, “Remembering the Singing of Silenced Voices: Brundibár and Problems of Pedagogy,” in which Dobbs explored the cognitive dissonance of music-making during wartime and questioned how the opera is taught today. On a recent sabbatical, she spent time researching the archives in the Jewish Museum of Prague and the Terezín Memorial, in addition to Yale University’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies and the Shoah Foundation Video History Archive at the University of Southern California.

In Prague, she interviewed survivors of Terezín, some of whom had sung in the Brundibár chorus. All shed light on how valuable the experience of music making was to people trapped inside the ghetto, and provide insight into music education today.

“Studying Brundibár is, in a way, studying the ‘present absence’ of people who are no longer with us,” Dobbs says. “When we hear the operetta, we hear the voices of children who were silenced.”

It turned out that Dobbs’ work fit perfectly within a framework being developed by researchers elsewhere.

Due to her pedagogical pedigree, Dobbs was recently named an international co-investigator in a $2.5 million grant to mount recently rediscovered Jewish musical, theatrical and literary works created from 1880 to 1950, and to encourage the creation of new works based on archives. The grant, called “Performing the Jewish Archive,” was awarded by the British Arts & Humanities Research Council, and is led by Dr. Stephen Muir at the University of Leeds in England. Other co-investigators include Dr. Helen Finch, School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds; Dr. Lisa Peschel, Film, Theatre and Television, University of York; Dr. Nick Barraclough, Psychology, University of York; Dr. Joseph Toltz, Sydney Conservatorium, University of Sydney; and Dr. David Fligg, Leeds College of Music.

The three-year “Performing the Jewish Archive” project will involve a large number of partners, exploring archives, delivering community and educational projects, holding at least two international conferences and a series of symposia at the British Library, as well as mounting five international performance festivals – in the United States, the Czech Republic, South Africa, Australia and Yorkshire, England. Madison — where two of those festivals will take place in 2015 and 2016 — is the only United States site to be chosen. The goal of the performance festivals is to uncover lost and damaged theater scripts, musical scores and works of literature so that they may be experienced by modern audiences.

Not so long ago, lead investigator Stephen Muir himself, on a trip to South Africa, unearthed a musical score called “One Little Goat” by a previously unknown Russian Jewish composer, David Eisenstadt (Dovid Ajzensztadt). Eisenstadt had lost his life at the Treblinka concentration camp but had given the manuscript to a friend to review. Decades ago, the score had wended its way to South Africa via a friend and was finally premiered last spring in England.

Brundibár is only one example of the wealth of Jewish performance art that has been lost for so long. And so the race is on to find others, to preserve them, and to present them. And for at least one researcher, it will also help open a door to her own past.

“Having the opportunity to do this kind of research/scholarship in many ways brings me full circle, connecting and reconnecting me with a part of my heritage that was hidden for so long,” says Dobbs. “It’s a way for me to return to my roots by remembering actively those who went before me, maybe even to make things a bit better for those who come after me. In Judaism, this can be considered a type of ‘tikkun olam,’ or ‘healing the world.'”

Read about Dobbs’ research in a story published in the online newsletter of the Center for Jewish Studies.

“Remembering the Singing of Silenced Voices”: Philosophy of Music Education Review, Fall 2013, Teryl Dobbs, author.

More media links:

Lost and found: music of the Holocaust

Raiders of the lost arts get £1.5m grant