Music is a language and Renan Koen’s fluency in it and passion for it make her message universal. Our initial written communication reflects her halting, though charming, English. On FaceTime, however, her expressive description of the projects she’s spearheaded is informative and her enthusiasm carries the conversation.
The wind is blowing through her hair, creating a subtle whoosh sound in the background of our video call. When I comment on her choice to chat outside, she asks if it’s distracting. On the contrary, it actually reinforces her aura: she personifies a gust of fresh air, with views on music, history and life that are unique and inspiring.
Nothing in Koen’s Turkish background or demeanour prepares you for her commitment to Holocaust education, which she calls “an intense topic.”
Koen, a pianist, composer, soprano and music therapist, was born in Ankara, Turkey. She can trace her father’s family back 400 years, four generations of that with great specificity. They were Greek from the time of the Ottoman Empire. Hers was a Sephardic family that stopped in Kastoria when they left Spain and then moved to the south of Turkey for business reasons.
Initially, she says, “I didn’t know about Holocaust music but I did know about Theresienstadt,” the Nazi concentration camp situated in what is now the Czech Republic. This camp had a highly developed cultural life which included musicians and composers among the inmates. She researched not just the music, but also the “life, ideals and works of composers who continued to create, notwithstanding the prohibitions imposed on them while imprisoned.”
Koen’s third album, Holocaust Remembrance/Before Sleep, includes not only recordings of their works for piano and chorus, but also an information booklet and DVD. Listeners can hear real-life stories from the war including interviews with survivors’ families. World ORT Music and its Holocaust website include Holocaust Remembrance/Before Sleep in their citation list.
Koen has performed the work in New York as well as on location in Theresienstadt. “It was my dream to play the music where it was composed and last summer, this dream became a reality.”
She’s talking to me from her home in Istanbul. It’s 8 p.m. there but still light outside. She has just completed a full day’s journey from the Aegean side of Turkey, but is still smiling and energetic.
Koen has recently created a Holocaust education program called “Positive Resistance through Holocaust Reality” for teenage students and from it, spun off a student trip to Theresienstadt. The trip is restricted to students who’ve already gone through her education program. Koen allows the students’ classroom teachers to select students they feel are suited for the special nature of the trip. Students in both the course and on the trip are not Jewish but have studied the Holocaust. In some cases, Koen is the first Jew that these students encounter.
Typically, she teaches 14- to 17-year-olds, sometimes as old as 19. Her program is international. She never included younger children until she met a precocious 11-year-old at a bilingual Turkish school in Berlin.
“An excellent history teacher taught them about the Holocaust. This girl was very into it and improvised, playing her music beside me. She’ll attend, accompanied by her teacher, because she’s so young.”
Last year, two students made the trip. This year, it’s grown to seven. Koen’s goals are “to tell the true history without new memory and to fight anti-Semitism.
“I ask them, can you imagine what would you do with your own struggles, without harming any living thing? The result of this education, I hope, is that there will be more students every year,” she says.
The main requirement is that “they absolutely must create music afterward,” based on their experience. Koen records their performances, publishes their musical scores and promotes the music to the world. She is planning to produce a CD from these recordings.
“If they’re music students, we use their instruments and choose words based on their emotions.” If not, she helps them construct a rough instrument to represent their original composition. “At the end of the education, if they’re not musical, I hold a do-it-yourself atelier, a workshop to make your own instrument. I buy and provide the materials. They choose the words.”
The itinerary this year begins in Prague on Aug. 20. The next day they will travel to Theresienstadt where participants get a guided tour and attend concerts. Then they’ll meet an Auschwitz survivor. “Last year, a Theresienstadt survivor attended, told them about her experience and sang a song.” All presentations are in English.
“The reason for the project was discovering the Theresienstadt composers. Their music texture was wonderful and rich.”
Koen’s training as a music therapist comes through when she says, “Their body, mind and emotions were weak, but through the creativity, they found strength to live. They hung on with their soul and they created. So they created a new area in their life I think.
“There is hope here; there is a message in here to give to the younger generation. All of us are struggling with how to meet with our talent, how to connect with our souls. If one day peace will come to this world, it will come in part through “Positive Resistance Through Holocaust Reality.”
You can sample some songs on her website at renankoen.com.