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I Believe

I Believe is a concert work about the Holocaust. Using music and words, a story of hate, survival and hope is told from within the minds of the victims and perpetrators. It is a singular large scale work divided into 12 movements using the artistic forces of a symphony orchestra, large mixed chorus, children’s chorus, ensembles, soloists and narrator. The artistic architecture is influenced by a host of sources all in service to capture the essence of a story that needs to be told, in a plea for awareness, understanding and peace.

The Holocaust encompasses simultaneously the most depraved human behaviour and the most sublime human behaviour; it is complex and simple; universal and particular. It is not to be forgotten nor should its import be diluted in any manner. The Holocaust is a telling commentary about humanity by humanity and thus it is important and necessary to share this most human story of despair and hope with our communities and especially our youth.

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arranged, produced, and lyrics by zane zalis

The Beginning

Time passes, cataclysmic events unfold and the world changes, from war to peace, from peace to war, but through both war and peace an ancient hate lives. From 1933-1945 such entrenched hate towards a people is no longer a tense undercurrent but is expressed openly, vehemently and directly against those who are purportedly to blame for the ills and suffering of a nation and its citizens. Hate found its ultimate expression in the Holocaust and this expression of moral bankruptcy found its prelude in Kristallnacht.


Time passes, cataclysmic events unfold and the world changes, from war to peace, from peace to war, but through both war and peace an ancient hate lives. From 1933-1945 such entrenched hate towards a people is no longer a tense undercurrent but is expressed openly, vehemently and directly against those who are purportedly to blame for the ills and suffering of a nation and its citizens. Hate found its ultimate expression in the Holocaust and this expression of moral bankruptcy found its prelude in Kristallnacht.

Not Wanted

The St. Louis sailed from Hamburg on May 13, 1939 with 937 men, women, and children aboard. Each had their story of why they were crossing the Atlantic Ocean for Cuba but all were hoping for a life of peace. Such was not to be – as graft, greed, deception, racism, and politics altered the anticipated outcome. The St. Louis was prevented from docking and its passengers were forced to wait in high anxiety as negotiations and alternate locations were considered. Despite efforts, eventually the ship and its unwanted passengers had to return to Europe, knowing fully well what awaited them.

The Children

To intentionally hurt a child elicits gut wrenching responses from most human beings. That is why the premeditated action to annihilate approximately 1.5 million children during the Holocaust is singularly one of the most despicable and heinous actions ever to be undertaken by human kind. Children’s lives should be filled with love, laughter and learning, not violent hate and loathing. They truly were innocent and with profound sadness we all must ask, why?

He Said!

He, is Adolf Hitler and his manner and words both frightened and fuelled the imagination of millions of people. His words ripped and clawed at the body of reason and compassion until it was unrecognizable; we now call it, the Holocaust.

The Directive

On January 20, 1942, fifteen high-ranking senior officials gathered for a meeting of great importance. They met in a beautiful villa by a lake named Wannsee in the outskirts of Berlin. In this idyllic setting they discussed the “Final Solution” to the Jewish question; a plan of action to deport, enslave labor and annihilate a people. The meeting was designed to consolidate and coordinate the plan from a state sanctioned level. Among those present were: Secretary of State Dr. Stuckart – Reich Ministry for the Interior, Secretary of State Neumann – Plenipotentiary for the Four Year Plan, Secretary of State Dr. Freisler – Reich Ministry of Justice, Secretary of State Dr. Bühler – Office of the Government General. Reinhard Heydrich, second in command of the SS convened the meeting.


When we are born we are given a name, and with our name we build a life. Our identity as humans is forever connected with our name. Remove names and replace them with numbers and in so doing we become objects, nothing more than a ledger entry in a book. And, when the numbers are no longer useful, we toss them away, for it is much easier to erase a number, than to erase a name. When you are less than human in the eyes of those who count the numbers, extermination is not a complicated moral issue.

I Have a Name

The human spirit is powerfully resilient and that which is removed on the surface is not so easily destroyed within. Our names not only rest on our ears, but are indelibly impressed upon our souls; a gift to be cherished and guarded with love. During the Holocaust millions of Jews and other condemned people had their names removed and replaced with numbers. They suffered the ignominious fate of being de-humanized, counted and herded like beasts of burden, and then they were exterminated. Those who survived remind us all of the inextinguishable nature of the human spirit and the power of a name.

Excerpt from the World Premiere of I Believe; an Oratorio for today.
Performed at the Centennial Concert Hall with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra    |   Vocals begin 1:37
Composer & Lyricist: Zane Zalis    |   Lead Vocals: Kelsey Cowie and Marc Devigne

Death March

With the advance of the Allies there was growing realization that the truth about concentration camp activities would be discovered. The SS began to destroy evidence both material and human. Those prisoners that were still able to walk were forced to march miles in brutal winter weather with no food or water; they were being evacuated to camps in the German interior. Thousands died of exposure and starvation and many who were unable to maintain pace were shot by SS guards. They walked, and walked, and walked. There were no words just the sound of death marching and of souls desperately hanging on to life.


The Allies were approaching and in some cases their approach was heralded by the sound of artillery. At times freedom was the unassuming approach of a single vehicle to an isolated prison. Regardless, it was a time of total confusion and chaos, the decision to run or stay in the camp could be the difference between life and death. The battle for freedom is two-fold; external and internal. Despite being physically freed by the Allies the assault of memory would continue to take its toll.

What Now?

So, after all is said and done what is a Holocaust survivor to do. For many, their families were murdered, homes were stolen, and former neighborhoods were unwelcoming to say the least. Immigration policies were unforgiving; who wanted “damaged goods”. Those that were fortunate to have found surviving friends or family had nothing and depended on the welfare of others, as did the thousands of orphaned children. The world had turned its back on all of them and now it was attempting to help; too little and too late for some.

I Will Remember You / Finale

It is important to remember. Remembrance walks beside us as an equal partner as we move forward in moral growth. We need to remember those people and events that have shaped humankind and continue to do so. The Holocaust is a declaration of the depth of human fallibility and moral frailty. Reason and rationalism can be deceiving, imposters of truth, as they were during the Holocaust. We must continuously build the moral fabric of our societies in the hope for informed peace. Peace is not a conclusion but a continuous journey that requires the traveler to be a thoughtful and compassionate navigator.

testimonials and reviews

Canadian composer Zane Zalis – not himself Jewish, but a child of the Ukrainian Catholic traditions – has transformed heartbreaking stories from survivors into a powerful score with intensely moving lyrics. With a contemporary musical score, funneling the passion and directness of musical theater into the framework of a classical oratorio, I Believe tells a story both dark and triumphant in its 12 movements. Soloists include DCINY favorite Sara Jean Ford, currently reprising her role as Christine Daae in Broadway’s The Phantom of the Opera; acclaimed tenor Alex Gemignani, a Drama Desk nominee for roles in LES MISERABLES and Sweeney Todd; and baritone Drew Gehling, well-known for his performances on Broadway in Jersey Boys and in the original revival cast for On A Clear Day You Can See Forever alongside Harry Connick, Jr.

For Zalis, I Believehas universal resonance – relating to many cases in which the human spirit has endured, despite intolerance and unspeakable crimes against humanity. A review following the 2011 world premiere said that the work “resonates with conviction and the need to communicate unimaginable horrors – and ultimately hope – in a contemporary idiom.” (Winnipeg Free Press). Click here to view the full article.

EZRA GLINTER The Jerusalem Post 2009

I Believe encompasses not only a narrative from the beginning of the Holocaust through liberation but also a plea for awareness, understanding and peace wherever issues of human rights are concerned. The musical syntax is accessible, the choral writing rich and resourceful and the orchestral forces are used with skill. Mr. Zalis’s gift for melody is a hallmark of I Believe, and a number of the movements can stand alone for purely memorable songwriting.

TRUDY SCHROEDER The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra
Executive Director

I Believe was one of the most unique pieces I ever conducted. Through the music Zane Zalis was able to create a beautiful vehicle to communicate the tragic story of the holocaust to a 21st century audience.

ALEXANDER MICKELTHWATE Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra
Music Director / Conductor

I Believe is as unique as it is powerful – a memorial to a story that must be told. No doubt those new to the darkest events in history will feel its messages in Zalis’ narrative and remember them long after the music stops.[/column]

JAMES MANISHEN The Winnipeg Free Press
Classical Music Reporter

I Believe touches your heart, helps not to forget and demonstrates the importance of understanding, tolerance and reconciliation. There is no better music for this.

Ambassador of Austria to Canada

I Believe is an amazingly uplifting and spiritual musical experience… it is a must see for all people of good will.

EPHRAIM KAYE The International School for Holocaust Studies
Yad Vashem

In word, in resonant melody and chord, I Believe speaks to the depths of our humanity. Building on the particular experience of the Holocaust genocide, this oratorio explores such darkness as it is a part of the whole human condition. But then I Believe sings us forward to a future of hope. This oratorio is an essential experience for all of us.

REV DR. KAREN HAMILTON The Canadian Coucil of Churches
General Secretary

You have to hear it to believe it. On the surface, there’s no reason why I Believe, a Holocaust-themed oratorio by Canadian composer Zane Zalis, should work. First, there’s the question of the music. For five years, Zalis has been working on I Believe, which will be premiered by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra on May 21. Though the piece is scored for a full orchestra and a chorus of almost 200 voices, its style is often closer to musical theater than it is to contemporary classical repertoire. “For me, it is quite an intense, strange project. I don’t know of anything like it,” said Alexander Mickelthwate, the conductor and music director of the WSO. In addition, the Holocaust is about the farthest thing from Zalis’s own life experience. Born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Zalis comes from a strictly Ukrainian Catholic background. “I was raised a Ukrainian boy, with Baba and Gigi in the house, I played the accordion, went to Catholic school. I was raised in traditional ways,” he told The Jerusalem Post. But despite superficial indications to the contrary, Holocaust survivors who have heard excerpts from the work are unanimous in their verdict: Zalis gets it. “He’s in there, in a way. I give him credit that he got close enough to the barbed wire that he could hear the children. In his mind, he’s there physically,” said Arnold Frieman, a Winnipeg Holocaust survivor who was imprisoned in a slave labor camp near the Hungarian-Romanian border during the Second World War. Frieman first heard a portion of I Believe during a community performance by the WSO at Miles Macdonell Collegiate, where Zalis heads the school’s acclaimed music production program. After the performance, Frieman approached Zalis, overcome by emotion. “I have read many books on the Holocaust. And as you read those accounts of what they did to us physically and spiritually, it does impact you. But the music and the lyrics give it life. It takes you back,” he said. “Even non-survivors can get a reasonably good feeling as to the fear. The fear was always there. This feeling that you’re nobody, you’re doomed, you’re finished. You can feel it, both from the music and the lyrics.”

Zalis began working on I Believe in 2004 when he was commissioned to write an overture for the inauguration of the Arthur Mauro Centre for Peace and Justice at the University of Manitoba. “What do you write for a center for peace and justice?” he wondered. After reading up on the history of genocide, he realized that for him, there was no subject more moving, challenging or relevant than the Holocaust. Following the initial 12-minute performance of the overture, he came swiftly to another conclusion: He would expand the short work into a concert-length piece. Years of reading, writing, and interviewing Holocaust survivors followed. As he wrote I Believe, individual movements were performed at community and educational events, including a presentation he made in the summer of 2008 at Yad Vashem. On each occasion he was confronted by the same reaction: People were moved to tears and wondered how he did it. “This one lady came up who had been in Auschwitz. She said to me, ‘I didn’t think that you would get to me because I’ve seen so much. But you hit the nail on the head,'” Zalis recalled. “It has been a mystery for many, many people. How did I get the pulse of whatever it was? I don’t know. Why fish around? I don’t have an answer,” he said. Though I Believe is unquestionably about the Holocaust, its lyrics shy away from explicit references, giving the piece a universal resonance. The words Jew and Nazi, for example, are never used. And despite some similarities to musical theater, its story is mostly conceptual. “You know Tevye and the Fiddler on the Roof? It’s not like that. It’s about inside the mind of a survivor. It’s written for feeling the Holocaust,” Zalis said. “I have been trying to share and walk in those shoes so I can understand. And that’s how come I don’t think a history book does it. And that’s how come I don’t think facts and dates and numbers do it,” he said. “Do you know how it feels to lose everyone? Do you know what alone means? Do you know what it means to turn your back on a God that you believed in since your childhood and feel empty? Now you start to understand the Holocaust. That’s my take. That’s what’s in the music.” Though I Believe is envisioned as a full-scale symphonic work, it is also designed so that it can be used in smaller settings, such as classrooms. Following the premiere, a workshop based on I Believe will be held for Winnipeg teachers. Ephraim Kaye, the director of international seminars at the school for international studies at Yad Vashem, will be traveling to Winnipeg especially to attend. Other plans are also in the works to extend I Believe beyond its initial performance. For now though, it’s the premiere that matters most. Approximately 5,000 people have already seen portions of I Believe in one form or another, but this is the first time it will be performed in its entirety with a full orchestral line-up. Visiting dignitaries and tour groups are coming to Winnipeg from as far away as Austria and Israel, and tickets sold out weeks ago. It’s the culmination, and perhaps the new beginning, of an intense emotional and artistic odyssey. In the end, Zalis may yet make believers of us all.

EZRA GLINTER The Jerusalem Post 2009
link to original article

This unique Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra recording of Winnipeg composer/lyricist Zane Zalis’ Holocaust oratorio resonates with conviction and the need to communicate unimaginable horrors — and ultimately hope — in a contemporary idiom. The disc includes all texts and notes about the production that was five years in the making, with the first-rate ensemble led by WSO’s Alexander Mickelthwate.

Live performances don’t always translate well to a recording, but this one successfully allows Zalis’s compelling theatricality to emerge throughout the disc’s 12 tracks. The children’s chorus singing “fly away” in The Children tugs at your heartstrings while soloists Kelsey Cowie and Marc Devigne’s gutsy vocals add emotional gravitas to What Now? A suspenseful Death March includes an ominous humming refrain as the men transform into a chorus of lost souls.

Last May’s world premiere sold out. Those who couldn’t get a ticket have another chance to check out this ever-timely work that speaks to all generations.

HOLLY  HARRIS The Winnipeg Free Press 2009
link to original article