A Voice in the Darkness
At the beginning of a week-long workshop I always ask the participants what brought them here. What was their desire, motive, hope, need, or intention in coming?
In a singing workshop usually someone will say, “I want to reach higher notes,” or, “I was not accepted into the choir when I was young and I have always wanted to sing,” or something to this effect.
But on this one occasion, a woman said, “I have come to ask for permission not to sing”. This was unusual, so I asked the group if it would be all right with everyone. We all agreed that she had our permission not to sing.
For the rest of the week, as we worked together and it came to her time, we sat quietly and listened to her not singing. For five days she wept off and on. Something in me knew very clearly that I was not to interfere in any way. I was just to listen deeply to her silence and to her tears.
At the end of each workshop a ritual takes place at an altar that the group creates from items significant to us during our time together. On our last evening the weather was wild and stormy. Through the skylight above the meeting room we could see the rain falling, and the wind was moving the branches of the giant trees that surrounded our small building in the woods. One by one, each participant went to our altar and sang something, or read a poem, or told a story. When it was the woman’s time to approach, she stood for a time, as expected, in silence. These had come to be precious moments and we were all touched by the quietness. But this time, she spoke. And she told us her story.
“I was a prisoner in the German concentration camp of Auschwitz. I was fifteen, and had been singing in a choir since I was very young. I was chosen, with three other girls, to sing as the prisoners were forced to walk past us into the gas chambers. I watched my mother and sister pass by me and I kept singing. People who I knew and loved from my village passed, and I kept singing. I sang the same songs over and over and over. I lived as they died. I sang while they died. I cannot forgive myself for singing while they died. I have not been able to sing anything since then. This week it has been so healing to be with you all. I want to break the silence, and sing one of the songs that I sang.”
Tentatively she began to sing. Her voice was beautiful, with a soft, plaintive tremolo, exquisite in tone. Tears streamed down her face as the words of her homeland poured out of her. Suddenly, there was a break in the clouds overhead and moonlight streamed in through the skylight, illuminating her long white hair. When her song was done, she cried out, “How can I ever forgive myself?”
I took her face in my hands, looked into those brave, tormented eyes and whispered, “Of all the people on earth, you were chosen to be the voice of grace and beauty in so much suffering. I thank you. They thank you. We thank you. God thanks you.”
Two years later I was walking down a street when I heard someone call my name. I looked around, and there she was, running down the street toward me, her face radiant with joy. We embraced and she said, “I have spent the last two years finding people who were prisoners in the death camps. I tell them my story and I sing for them. I have never been so happy. Now I see why I lived.”
Pictured above: A calmer BC coastal sunset than the stormy sunset on the night of Ann’s story, but the location is very close to where the incredible voice workshop in her story took place.