Joza Karas, Collector of Music of Nazis’ Victims, Dies at 82
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Joza Karas, a musician and teacher who became a sleuth in his quarter-century search for the music and stories of composers who managed to do masterly work in a Nazi concentration camp, died on Friday in Bloomfield, Conn. He was 82.
His family announced the death.
In 1985 Mr. Karas (whose first name is pronounced YO-zha) published “Music in Terezin, 1941-1945.” That book chronicled the thriving musical life in the disease-ridden concentration camp at Terezin, in what is now the Czech Republic. The camp was also known by its German name, Theresienstadt.
Mr. Karas collected more than 50 pieces of the music written there and produced editions that have been widely performed.
In films and by other means, the Nazis made propaganda use of the four concert orchestras and as many chamber groups that flourished at Terezin. An opera company mounted several productions.
In a legendary deception, when the International Red Cross inspected the camp in 1944, the Nazis sent the old and sick to gas chambers, painted buildings, planted flowers and even opened a chocolate shop.
In truth, Terezin was a place where 140,000 people, mainly Jews, were held in a labor camp or transferred to death camps like Auschwitz. Many died at Terezin through execution, disease and starvation.
But the music was real, developing spontaneously after a pianist found and repaired an abandoned piano. Soon there were several choruses. Inmates smuggled in instruments in pieces.
Eventually, more than 10 composer-inmates created original works, many of which were performed in the camp. One such composer was Viktor Ullmann, who had studied with Arnold Schoenberg. He formed the Studio for New Music at Terezin. Others were Hans Krasa, Gideon Klein and Pavel Haas.
Despite using the music for propaganda, the Nazis had no interest in preserving it, and the composers and musicians could not: many of them were killed. Tracking it down became Mr. Karas’s obsession.
“Why should I, a Christian, get involved in a research project virtually untouched for 25 years, since the last puff of smoke had darkened the skies of Auschwitz?” he wrote in his book. “Putting aside these questions, I felt attracted to the project because I am a Czech musician, and this was a subject dealing with the music of Czechoslovak Jews.”
Josef M. Karas was born in Warsaw on May 3, 1926, and learned to play the violin when he was very young. His father, Frantisek, was a government official, a professor of Polish and an author who wrote about Czech customs; he also helped Jews as part of the World War II underground.
As a boy, Joza noticed that his Jewish classmates had stopped coming to school with no explanation. He saw signs warning people away from Jewish-owned stores.
In 1948 Mr. Karas escaped Czechoslovakia, which by then was under Communist rule, and made his way to the United States by way of Colombia and Canada. In 1955 he began more than a half-century of teaching the violin at the Hartt School at the University of Hartford in Connecticut and of playing the instrument in the Hartford Symphony.
In 1970, Mr. Karas read articles in a Czech music magazine reporting that eight short compositions and fragments of music from Terezin had been deposited in the Jewish Museum in Prague. Investigating this seemed a perfect project for summer break. On his first trip to Prague, he made several major finds. One was the piano reduction and orchestral version of Hans Krasa’s children’s opera “Brundibar.” It had been the most popular musical production in the camp, presented 55 times.
Mr. Karas made a performing edition of the opera, about a brother and sister whose efforts to buy milk for their sick mother are thwarted by an evil organ grinder. He conducted the North American premiere of the opera in Czech in 1975 and the English-language premiere in 1977, using a translation by him and his wife, the former Milada Javora, who had died in 1974.
Mr. Karas is survived by his second wife, the former Anne Killackey; his sons Francis, Henry, Michael, Joseph and Alexander; his daughter Joan K. Carrasquillo; his brothers Zdenek and Frantisek; his sister Jana Spacek; and seven grandchildren.
“When I started my research, I used to have nightmares,” Mr. Karas told The Hartford Courant. “And guilt. I’d pick up a piece of chocolate and I couldn’t eat it.”
He recovered. “They say Czechs get used to anything,” he said. “Even the gallows.”