Lenka Lichtenberg: Thieves of Dreams

August 25, 2022

A Vocal Afterlife

Listening Post 355. If poetry is a lost art, Lenka Lichtenberg’s latest album is a welcome reminder that what is lost can also be found. In 2016, the Czech-Canadian Jewish singer-songwriter was in her native Prague, sorting through the belongings of her mother, who had just passed away; opening a drawer she discovered two worn notebooks filled with poems her grandmother, Anna Hana Friesová (1901-1987), had written in the Theresienstadt (Terezín) concentration camp during the Nazi occupation. Lichtenberg knew that her mother, then fifteen, had been sent to the prison camp with both parents, that her grandfather was ultimately murdered in Auschwitz and mother and grandmother survived the war. But she knew nothing of her grandmother’s Holocaust experience until the words leaped off those tattered pages—and she resolved to make them come alive with music. The verses are symbolic and starkly revealing: Hope in the cracks of despair, pain as proof of existence, solitude transformed from burden into refuge, time as a wounded ship. Lichtenberg composed melodies for eight poems and commissioned other artists to compose for eight more. In the words of the Passover refrain, simply finding the poems would have been proof enough—“dayenu”—of divine grace; turning them into stunning songs is gift upon gift. In What Is This Place? (Kam jsme to zašli, video 1) the poet exhorts herself to remember the sun in darkest night; while It Was a Cold Dusk, My Love (Studený soumrak byl, můj milý, video 2) apparently describes her final moments with her husband. A sense of betrayal by a beloved homeland permeates I Wanted to Curse You, Bitter Land (Chtěla jsem tě prokliít, hořká zemi, video 3); and dying love itself becomes a prison in That Monster, Custom (Zvyk, to je příšera, video 4). By Lichtenberg’s account, Anna Hana lived a full life after the war—and most improbably, an afterlife in which grandmother and granddaughter’s voices merge. (Six Degrees Records)

Note: Though Lichtenberg’s grandmother never published her poems, her mother, Jana Renée Friesová—who became a journalist and university professor—wrote a memoir, Fortress of My Youth, about the war years. The album track I Have My Own Grief (Mám vlastní trud, video 5) unites Anna Hana’s poem, Jana’s spoken description of the Nazis’ 1942 roundup of Jews in her region and Lenka’s music and singing.

Lenka Lichtenberg: Thieves of Dreams: Songs of Theresienstadt’s Secret Poetess / Zloději snů: Písně tajemné básnířky Terezína
Lenka Lichtenberg: Vocals, piano, synthesizers
Jana Renée Friesová: Spoken word
Jessica Deutsch: Violin, viola, cello
George Koller: Double bass
Fern Lindzon: Piano
Chris Gartner: Electric bass
Beverley Johnson: Marimba
Lorie Wolf: Drums
Alan Hetherington: Drums
Christian Dawid: Clarinet, bass clarinet
Milli Janatková: Acoustic guitar, harmony vocals
Auri Fell: Voice percussion, harmony vocals
Murray Foster: Harmony vocals
David Buchbinder: Trumpet, flugelhorn
Robert Fischmann: Low whistle
Tyler Edmond: Double bass
Anita Katakkar: Tabla
Andrew McPherson: Harmony vocals
Tomáš Reindl: Tabla, percussion

Related post. Lenka Lichtenberg: Yiddish Journey, Listening Post 97, April 30, 2017. https://worldlisteningpost.com/2017/04/30/lenka-lichtenberg-yiddish-journey/


What Is This Place? / Kam jsme to zašli?
Poem: Anna Hana Friesová/Music: Rachel Cohen
English translations: Lenka Lichtenberg & Alena Jirásek

(From the Czech lyrics)
What is this place?
Where have we come to?
What happened to the way you used to look at me?

We’re eternally lost/and eternally redeemed
In the darkest of nights remember the sun!

Love is the only spring through which our life is born
Cherish your life/and regret none of it

We’re eternally lost/and eternally redeemed
In the darkest of nights remember the sun!


It Was a Cold Dusk, My Love / Studený soumrak byl, můj milý
Poem: Anna Hana Friesová/Music: Jessica Deutsch

It was a cold dusk, my love
when we were saying our goodbyes
with aching hand and dead word.

With our last tear the final darkness fell
and God couldn’t see our faces
the end fell into our eyes like a stone onto a mirror
only the wind wanted to know what was going on

The dead wondered, a voice of eternity
the laughter of their silence carrying over fields
the universe cooled down the heat of our sorrow
Pain is but a moment, eternity holds no pain

As long as it is bathing in a spa of hot tears
the heart is alive, and it can still feel
value your grief, you happy fools
pain is existence, pain is being alive

The end is reconciliation, the end is an eternal nothing
when life is not lived, nothing hurts
now we only gaze from behind blind pupils
at the living pain of our happy surroundings


I Wanted to Curse You, Bitter Land / Chtěla jsem tě prokliít, hořká zemi
Poem: Anna Hana Friesová/Music: Milli Janatková

I wanted to curse you, bitter land/because you’ve dealt so strangely
with my faith and my hopes/because you lied, the whole of you had lied

I wanted to curse you, meadow/so familiar, whose grass and flowers
had grown for another woman/betrayal, your betrayal
must not be granted mercy/let your blossoms perish like my joys.

Damned be all places/where I’d been happy!
Suddenly my heart softened/as if broken; instead of cursing
I whispered a prayer: after all/all the trees there were in full bloom


That Monster, Custom / Zvyk to je příšera
Poem: Anna Hana Friesová/Music: Lenka Lichtenberg

“That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat”/or so says Shakespeare, and so I write to you
when love is a habit, and habit is not love/one must see the difference
between these two prisons

When love is near the end, shadows haunt us/like people facing death and eternal silence
it cannot be otherwise before our love expires/and that’s why, my love, I’ll tell you for the last time:

I have only one life, and it all belonged to you/with roots in the ground, with blossoms in the sky
as always happens, the earth shares with heaven/and then everything wilts miserably away

Now our clock is slowing down/and lazy desire will not wind it up again
what love’s hand would reach for/the familial purr of the mundane

I write this in ink and think through blood/and in the end I’m not ashamed to tell you
that you were the first to own my non-virginal body/that I gave you all I had and am left
with nothing at all.

That I gave you all my dreams/and those are worth more than a body
a body becomes dull/even according to Shakespeare
but our dreams revolt and/haunt us with their beauty
and over time/desire turns into a vampire

I write this in ink/and think through blood
it must be time now to tell you all/who knows where the roads will lead
I just know for certain/that I have nothing left at all
nothing, nothing.


I Have My Own Grief / Mám vlastní trud
Poem: Anna Hana Friesová/Spoken words: Jana Renée Friesová/Music: Lenka Lichtenberg

I have my own grief, but perhaps I can manage
to carry yours as well
and should I collapse under both their weight
I’ll collapse without a sound



1 Comment

  1. Lenka Lichtenberg

    This review reflects a deep understanding of the Thieves of Dreams narrative – for which I am eternally grateful.


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