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Lenka Lichtenberg’s Juno-nominated album brings Holocaust survivor’s poetry to life

TORONTO – A series of poems written in a concentration camp about romantic love, betrayal and hopeful dreams of faraway places is being brought to life in album form, sung in Czech by the author’s granddaughter.

Lenka Lichtenberg’s album “Thieves of Dreams,” released in 2022, is competing at the Juno Awards next weekend in the global music album of the year category.

Blending chamber music and jazz, the album draws from poetry that her grandmother, Anna Hana Friesova, wrote while imprisoned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during the Second World War.

It’s also nominated for global roots album of the year and the Oliver Schroer pushing the boundaries award at this spring’s Canadian Folk Music Awards.

Lichtenberg first started the project after the death of her mother, the writer Jana Renee Friesova, in 2016. She says a year after her passing, as she was going through papers in her mother’s apartment in Prague, she discovered two small notebooks filled with poems that her grandmother wrote between 1940 and 1945.

“Writing anything was actually strictly forbidden,” Lichtenberg said of the Nazi concentration camp. “My suspicion is that she actually wrote these on little scraps of paper that she kept hidden.”

She said when the Soviet army liberated the concentration camp in May 1945, her poetry was one of the few things she took with her.

Lichtenberg spent her childhood partaking in musical theater in Prague and studied classical music at the Prague Conservatory, specializing in voice. Once in Canada, she received a bachelor of education from the University of British Columbia and a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from York University.

From 1997 to 2005, she taught music appreciation at Toronto Metropolitan University, formerly Ryerson University, and then became a Yiddish singer before focusing on music celebrating her country of birth.

Lichtenberg didn’t know what to do with the poems. At first, she thought they were historical records fitting for a museum. However, looking at them through a point of view of creating meaningful art helped her come to the decision to make her album.

“This was so extraordinary and personal, so being a musician, I decided to give life to these poems through music,” she said.

She then received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council to commission musicians for the album.

“Thieves of Dreams” features arrangements from 19 musicians from the Czech Republic, Canada and Germany. But working on the album during the COVID-19 pandemic meant she wasn’t able to spend time together with the others in a studio.

However, pandemic restrictions that shut down live events also meant musicians were itching to get involved in musical collaborations, even if it meant working out of their home studios.

“I found people extremely receptive and eager to do stuff and that was a real pleasure,” she said.

She would make a track with her vocals and keyboard accompaniment and send it to her collaborators, including Canadian bassist George Koller, who would then add his instrumentals and send it back. That approach was applied to other collaborations and was how the album was put together.

“The variety of sounds that come in the album is a result of that kind of approach,” he said.

When she started to read the poems, she said she could envision her grandmother going through various emotions such as passion, love and disappointment. Lichtenberg said her grandmother wrote about how her marriage to her grandfather was falling apart and how she felt at a loss. Her grandfather, Richard Friesova, was executed in a gas chamber on Oct. 10, 1944 in Auschwitz.

“It was so unexpected how somebody, when they are in a concentration camp and not knowing if they’re going to live the next day, who’s starving most of the time, to think about and write about the state of their marriage,” she said.

In the song “What Is This Place?,” Lichtenberg says her grandmother was describing how being in the camp affected relationship and the hope she still carried despite the situation.

She says in other songs, her grandmother touches upon romantic love and the breakdown of her marriage during the war such as “Feet Are Marching, Two and Two.” Others are love poems unexpectedly written as the possibility of death loomed, as when she explored her romantic exploits in “That Monster, Custom.” Some poems, like “My Paradise of Solitude” discuss her dreaming of faraway places and Lichtenberg is connected to that aspect most.

“I get so strongly affected by the writing because it’s in my blood, she’s my blood,” he said.

She says when she gave the originals to her friends and colleagues who are Czech, they were strongly affected by the writing as well.

“This is powerful poetry that deserves its place in the world,” she said.

Lichtenberg originally had plans to make a double album, with one album being in Czech and the other being in English with a different set of poems. She says it was hard to choose between the 65 pieces of poetry, but despite knowing the album sounded more authentic in Czech, she’s committed to making an English version to reach a larger audience.

“I have chosen most of the songs for the album and I’m getting some of them recorded,” she said. “The songs will be more accessible and understandable.”

Lichtenberg says she is giving herself more freedom to explore a variety of different sounds. She said the English project would be more experimental compared to the Czech-language album, including improvised pieces and spoken words.

“I’m looking at one piece that will probably be 11 minutes long that will go through a whole bunch of different sounds and styles and the story will be really thick in there,” she said.

She says she’s excited to receive another grant from the Canada Arts Council for the project and says she can commission four or five musicians. She says she wants those musicians to explore where they can go musically and creatively on the album, which she plans to release this summer or fall.

When it comes to the chance of winning a Juno, she’s grateful to be nominated and happy whether she leaves a winner or not. She says the nomination itself shows her music isn’t just meaningful to her and to her community, it’s also meaningful to others in the industry.

“That is extremely rewarding,” she said. “It means everything. It really makes sense of my life in Canada as a musician.”

Listen to a playlist of 2023 Juno Award nominees on Spotify: https://bit.ly/CPJunos2023

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 5, 2023.

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