TALKING WITH TERI DOBBS IS LIKE being pulled into a beautiful symphony: Her laughter is a musical trill, her voice resonates the happiness of a major key and her words crescendo with excitement.

It’s not surprising.

The UW-Madison professor of music education recently published a paper, “Remembering the Singing of Silenced Voices,” in which she explored the experiences of those involved in a children’s operetta, created and performed during the Holocaust. It has opened doors to music history in a way never expected, and is leading to the search and preservation of even more important scores and scripts of Jewish performance art from that time. The 57-year-old, originally from Platte, S.D., is also learning more about herself in the process. “This work is giving me a new understanding about who I am,” Dobbs says. “It’s giving me the opportunity to embrace my family’s history, rather than always just wondering about it.”

Dobbs was 12 when she first learned of her Jewish heritage, but recalls it now as a time of confusion. “My mother told me about extermination camps in Poland during World War II, and explained my grandfather was Jewish,” Dobbs says. “She told me his mother was part of a wave of Jewish immigrants in the late 19th century who came to the Great Plains. She married a non-Jewish man of Dutch heritage, and took his name. She and her son, my grandfather, were some of the only Jewish people in South Dakota.”

Further questions about it—even posed to other family members—did not reveal answers, or relieve her interest. “Even today, some of our relatives find this history more of a curiosity,” Dobbs says. “Most aren’t willing to embrace it.”

Her own willingness picked up steam as Dobbs worked her way through college, her eye on music education. She taught for many years, and eventually went to graduate school at Northwestern University in Illinois, earning a master’s degree, and Ph.D., while using the time to dig into Jewish history related to music, and especially how it was created and performed during the Holocaust. “The idea of trauma, and how music helped in their survival is really interesting to me,” Dobbs says. “It was important in that it gave them purpose. It felt safe, and welcoming, which allowed them to be like a normal child for a little while, and isn’t that different for kids today. Music allows you to find your place, and your friendships whether it is in a class, band, or choir.”

As a part of her research, Dobbs traveled to Prague in 2010 where she talked with survivors directly about the children’s operetta, learning it was performed more than 50 times at the Nazi camp for Jews. “They were so generous with their time, telling me how the music was an important way for the children to build a community,” Dobbs says. “I was told about one father who traded his bread just to be able to get his daughter an instrument to take part in the operetta. Yet when you hear it, you realize you are hearing the voices of some who were forever silenced at that camp.”

Now, for the first time, Dobbs no longer feels alone in her interest. She has been named an international co-investigator, along with six other researchers from around the world, of a $2.5 million “Performing the Jewish Archive” grant. The end result will bring unknown or rediscovered Jewish musical, and theatrical works to the stage at festivals in 2016, with performances scheduled for the Czech Republic, South Africa, Australia, England and North America—with Madison as the only U.S. site.

“I am working with others on this cultural event which will again bring people together through music, but now a modern audience” Dobbs says. “And it will continue to connect me with a part of my past, missing for so long.”

Finding her history through music, seems to have her story playing out on a perfect note.

– Teri Barr

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