Made in Maine: A Holocaust Remembrance Album
In the small Maine town of Oakland, two music teachers collaborated with 400 choral students, the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine (HHRC), and a professional producer and sound engineer to record and release a one-of-a-kind album: “Songs of Darkness and Hope” (Affetto Recordings 2017).
The CD’s 11 tracks include traditional Hebrew music from Eastern Europe and Israel (“Shiru L'Adonai,” “Dodi Li” and “Ani Ma'amin;” concentration camp songs “Dachau Lied” and “Peat Bog Soldiers,” which arose in the camps as songs of rebellion and internal support for the captives; modern settings of texts preserved from Terazin and other camps (“Butterfly,” “Inscription of Hope”); and completing the album, “Make Them Hear You,” from the musical “Rag Time,” which is a universal anthem calling for advocacy and justice in response to oppression and hate.
The project was conceived by husband-wife team Pam and Kevin Rhein, who teach choral music to fifth through 12th-grade students attending Regional School Unit 18.
In their 36 years of teaching, the Rheins frequently incorporated Jewish music into their programming. “We’d done music from the Jewish heritage and the kids have really enjoyed it. We thought it was very beautiful or very poignant,” said Kevin. Pam got an idea to get the entire choral program together and put the songs in some type of logical format.”
Pam then approached Liz Helitzer, executive director of the HHRC in Augusta, whose mission is to use the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides to combat prejudice and discrimination in Maine and beyond.
“Elizabeth was floored,” says Kevin, “because just a few nights before there had been a board meeting, where one of the members, a Holocaust survivor, had said we need to get more young people involved in understanding the story. And then Pam walked in saying, ‘Hi, I have 400 young people.’”
“The timing was pretty opportune,” agreed Helitzer. “We had started to speak about the HHRC’s Holocaust Day of Remembrance event and we decided we wanted to do something that would appeal to and bring in more young people.”
The Rheins then selected the repertoire and rehearsed their various choral ensembles, while Helitzer presented to the middle and high school students an educational program entitled “Decision Making in Times of Injustice,” focusing on the events leading up to the Holocaust and intended to counter what Helitzer considers the “intolerant rhetoric” permeating today’s social and political climate.
Students involved with the recording felt the process increased their understanding of both Jewish culture and the horrors of the Holocaust.
Eleventh-grader Julia Cooke, a member of the women’s ensemble, said, “Before the project I was aware of Jewish culture and the effect of the Holocaust, having learned about that time from history class. However, by performing the songs on the album, we got a much more personal account of what happened. We were singing words that people who were sent to their death wrote and sang, and the project really brought all of our previous knowledge into a new perspective.”
Sophomore Taylor Doone said the most challenging part of recording the album was learning the Hebrew and Yiddish pronunciations and “executing them perfectly so it would sound authentic and be done with the utmost respect and care.”
John C. Baker of Affetto Recordings recorded the album in the Messlaonskee High School auditorium, which is large enough to accommodate all 400 students, and at a local church, where the acoustics favored the high school chamber ensemble. Baker produced the album, and the recording was engineered by Andy Forster, Messalonskee’s band director and music production teacher.
Although initially “Songs of Darkness and Hope” was envisioned as a local production to be distributed through the HHRC, Baker realized the quality of the album – “its mix of history and incredible choral talent” – deserved a wider release.
Naxos of America, the leading independent distributor of classical music, agreed to release the album and submitted it for consideration on its Grammy Award ballot. “Songs of Darkness and Hope” was the only recording by a secondary school to be considered for nomination in the choral music category, according to Baker.
The national recognition of the project has brought pride to the school district and more traffic to the HHRC, to which the album is dedicated.
“It’s been really great,” said Helitzer, “People have walked in and said, ‘Oh I saw the article about this CD and I wanted to check out the center.’ So, it has helped to raise the center’s visibility and the story around it is so lovely.”