PENFIELD — They donned formal clothing, performed classical music and even ate caviar. For most of their 10-day tour in April, more than 100 young musicians happily embraced the music, religion, culture and history of Eastern Europe.
Yet one experience served as a powerful neutralizer for all the fun: visiting World War II concentration camps.
Stephen and Angela Ryck, members of St. Joseph Parish, were part of the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra that played a concert in each of three countries — Poland, Slovakia and Hungary. RPYO, under the directorship of David Harman, is an ensemble of top young musicians from the Rochester area who give several local concerts annually and also go abroad every few years.
Stephen is a cellist and Angela plays the violin. The siblings also perform weekly at 9 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. Joseph Church along with their older sister Elena, 19, a violinist as well. And their mother, Theresa, is a music teacher at St. Joseph School.
April marked the first time that either Stephen, 17, or Angela, 15, had been on a plane. They were accompanied by their father, Kevin, who was one of 16 adults and served as the trip’s lead chaperon.
The RPYO group left Rochester on Good Friday, April 6. With practically no sleep over a 36-hour period, many of them — including the Rycks — struggled out of bed Easter Sunday morning in Warsaw, Poland, to walk several blocks to a 6 a.m. Mass at a local church.
At the European concerts the orchestra performed music from famed composers and mixed in such American fare as “West Side Story.” The Rycks noted that during their opening concert in Opole, Poland, one song was a ballad to commemorate the deaths of Polish people during World War II. Stephen observed that most of Warsaw had been destroyed during the war, “so there weren’t very many old buildings.”
While still in Poland, the musicians encountered a much more graphic reminder of the war’s horrors. They spent a day at the death camps of Auschwitz, where millions of people — mostly Jews — are believed to have been exterminated at the hands of the Nazis. The visitors encountered glass-case displays with human hair and pairs of shoes, as well as a wall that had been used to line up prisoners and shoot them. At one point they entered what had been a gas chamber to light memorial candles.
“Most of the time I’m thinking how hard it was to believe I was in the place where (the Holocaust) happened,” Angela said. “People were saying they couldn’t see how the Germans got away with it.”
At Auschwitz’s Birkenau facility, Stephen and Angela said they were amazed by its vastness. Only a few photographs were taken because of the somber mood, on a day that was appropriately cold and rainy. One picture shows the students walking with hands stuck in their pockets, heads bowed.
“I just remember it was completely silent. It was beyond words,” Stephen said.
“There were some kids that cried, some had tears. But I was impressed by the amount of support the kids all gave each other,” their father remarked.
“On the bus afterward was pretty quiet. We didn’t have much scheduled because we couldn’t do much,” Stephen said. “Everything else seemed unimportant now.”
Following the concentration camps the RPYO members gradually brightened up, aided by beautiful mountainside scenery while crossing from Poland into Slovakia by bus.
“The mood really changed. Everybody just seemed kind of happier,” Angela said.
They staged a concert in Kosice with numerous dignitaries in attendance, then were guests at a reception that included caviar and other fine foods. From there it was on to Hungary, where they were treated to an equestrian show, a dinner of authentic Hungarian goulash and the chance to engage in native dancing.
The orchestra gave its final concert in Debrecen, performing for 800 enthusiastic audience members who wouldn’t stop clapping and insisted on an encore — something that Kevin Ryck noted is rarely done in Bartok Hall, named after the Hungarian composer. At the ensuing reception, local choir members serenaded the RPYO with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Stephen and Angela said they enjoyed viewing many historic buildings during their trip, and appreciated the chance to bond with their cohorts whom they normally only see at rehearsals and concerts. Cell phones and computers were lacking, but “you forget about it after a while,” said Stephen, a junior at Fairport High School, where his sister is a sophomore.
Angela said the excursion taught her to appreciate the importance of music as a universal means of communication, and Stephen said he was struck by how the cultures and languages varied but everyone seemed united by their humanity.
“We’re so different. But we’re not really different at all,” he said.