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Lincoln Center Presents an Opera Without Jews, Set in Auschwitz

‘The Passenger’ is a moving Polish Jewish-Catholic Soviet hybrid with a glaring omission. But is it a ‘Holocaust opera’?

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A scene from the Houston Grand Opera dress rehearsal of “The Passenger,” taken January 15, 2014. (© Stephanie Berger)
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The Lincoln Center Festival’s publicity for an opera titled The Passenger, aimed at New Yorkers eager for an unusual musical experience, is magnetic: a “forgotten Holocaust opera,” as the copy calls it, adding that Dmitri Shostakovich hailed it “a perfect masterpiece.” Completed by the Polish-Jewish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg in 1968, much of the opera is set in Auschwitz. But beyond a few lines given to a Jewish character, there’s no explicit Jewish presence in this concentration camp. Seeing the work, it’s hard to believe: An opera set in the killing factory known for subtracting Jews from the world, and it subtracts Jews.

The main characters of The Passenger are two Polish gentiles and a German camp officer, surrounded by an international array of women packed into a barracks. They come from Warsaw, Zagreb, and other cities—and then there’s one Greek Jew. Her name is Hannah and she has so little to sing—“This star they pinned on me, this star I have to wear is the fatal mark of my death,” is most of it—that she’s easy to miss.

The opera, coming to the Park Avenue Armory in New York for three performances starting July 10, reflects convolutions of Holocaust memory through the middle of the 20th century—years when the monumental term did not yet exist, when the word was the less imposing atrocities. In the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, separate political realities suggested different memories on the war years. And yet this minimally Jewish Auschwitz comes with acridly soaring music that weaves visceral terror with pathos. Weinberg fled to the Soviet Union as Hitler’s forces invaded Poland in 1939 but lost his family to the Nazis. Some people hear that history in his music, finding traces of a Jewish sensibility. To me, it sounds less Jewish and more like a secular Modernist cry of human suffering under Hitler and Stalin.

To be sure I wasn’t missing some further evidence of Jewish presence, I watched a recording of the Houston Grand Opera’s production—the one coming to the Armory after giving the work its American premiere last winter—and read the libretto twice. I grew certain that the work that audiences at the Armory will soon see counters what many people would expect of a “Holocaust opera.” If one defines Holocaust as the genocidal catastrophe that the Nazis inflicted on Jews for being Jews, The Passenger betrays the definition.

Shostakovich, in fact, first suggested that Weinberg and his Russian librettist, Alexander Medvedev, adapt a Polish novel, also titled The Passenger, by a writer who’d survived three years at Auschwitz. Her name is Zofia Posmysz. Today she’s 91 and lives in Warsaw. She’s a Polish Catholic. Reading that, people familiar with the politics of Holocaust memory in Poland and the Soviet Union—especially those familiar with Polish film since the end of World War II—will recognize what is at work here and understand. There’s a stark contrast between this opera and the recent Polish film Ida, which has been noted for how the specifically Jewish element holds its center. But for those who don’t have that film interest, the opera’s omission of the Jewish focus offers a new touchstone for questions that never get conclusively resolved: Can art that excises the full picture of the Nazis’ main group of victims be respected as a work of responsible witness? Are there no limits to art’s freedom to navigate a subjective path through its subject, when that subject is documented history?

***

The Passenger itself is a survivor. Given up for dead for decades after the Soviets canceled its premiere at the Bolshoi in 1968, it was resurrected by David Pountney, a British opera director who gave the work its first theatrical performance at the Bregenz Festival in Austria in 2010. Since then, his general production has been on a world tour. Critics have described it as a powerful piece about a subject opera rarely explores. In 2011, the London run provoked vigorous debate—summed up in a comprehensive piece in Haaretz—after Stephen Pollard, the editor of the city’s Jewish Chronicle, questioned the appropriateness of an opera set in Auschwitz. Opera commentator Norman Lebrecht, in a response that appeared in the Jewish Chronicle and elsewhere, called The Passenger “a near-masterpiece,” arguing that Weinberg defied his restrictive, anti-Semitic environment in the Soviet Union, projecting oblique hints of Jewish expression in a work of “almost irreconcilable tensions.”

The opera’s aching, granite-like textures don’t offer easy listening. They tempt comparisons to Shostakovich—and frustrate them. The story is dramatic. The central character, named Liese, is a former SS Aufseherin, or overseer, at Auschwitz. She is traveling to Brazil by ship with her husband, Walter, in the 1950s. She spots a woman on deck and is sure she’s a former camp inmate named Marta, a young Polish woman on whom she had an almost romantic fixation and thought had been shot. Another Polish inmate named Tadeusz is Marta’s fiancé, and Liese’s interactions with the other two build into a dark, finally deadly story of jealous manipulation—and revelation. Walter, a German diplomat proud to be on his way to a new job representing a postwar Germany, has no idea of his wife’s SS past until she can no longer suppress her haunted conscience and tells him. The whole story—it can easily be seen as a dramatic metaphor for Germany’s brutal behavior toward Poland in the war and its attempt to escape history during the “German miracle” of the 1950s—emerges from the SS officer’s guilty memory.

On stage, the opera unfolds mostly on a two-tier set split between the postwar present and the past. An upper level is the sleek white deck of the ocean-going ship where scenes between the former SS officer and Marta occur. The lower level recreates the grim visual elements of Auschwitz that audiences will know from photographs and films—train tracks, a stark platform for arrivals, a bare wooden barracks warehousing inmates. The lower area also turns into the ship’s cabin where Liese tells Walter her story, interrupted by long flashbacks to the camp that take place mainly in the Frauen Konzentration Lager, the women’s barracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Pountney said in a recent interview from Bregenz, where he’s artistic director of the festival, that his interest in the opera began when he got a flyer about the score from a music publishing company in 2007. He had never heard of it or of Weinberg, whose enormous body of symphonic work and chamber music was just starting to get the revival that is now in full bloom. “I realized it was a difficult subject,” Pountney said. When he learned of Weinberg’s story, and that the story came from a novel by a woman who was in Auschwitz, he said he “felt these two people were authentic and had integrity.”

One person associated with the production said its chorus of inmates should be assumed to include Jews, though that isn’t mentioned in the libretto. The inmates welcome arrivals from the latest transports but only identify them by their various national origins. One recites a Polish poem. Another sings a Russian folk song. There’s no Jewish prayer or song.

The main program essay for the American premiere of The Passenger at the Houston Grand Opera last January goes farther than the blatant publicity material to sell the work as an example of Holocaust expression. Published at the Huffington Post under the byline of Mena Mark Hanna, the assistant artistic director at the Houston Grand Opera, the piece argues for The Passenger as an example of the “challenge art has faced after the horrors of the Holocaust.” To start off, Hanna, who is scheduled to take part in one of two planned Lincoln Center panels, quotes Adorno’s famous statement that poetry—civilized expression—after Auschwitz “is barbaric.” He links the opera to work by Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi. Well-intentioned as his effort might be, it’s misleading. These Jewish writers, while they wrote as witnesses to the Holocaust as a universal moral catastrophe, permitted no doubt about the centrality of the Nazis’ genocide of the Jewish people.

***

The story in which the opera is rooted begins with Posmysz. She’s the one who first assembled this composite of presences and absences that Weinberg turned into song, and she’s the only member of the opera’s creative team who remains alive. From Warsaw, Posmysz recently answered questions I asked by email ahead of a trip she plans to New York for the opera and the panel discussions on July 8 and 11, the first of which will include a screening of the 1963 film version of The Passenger by the Polish-Jewish director Andrzej Munk. I’ve also drawn on a 2010 interview she gave to the German publication OSTEUROPA, where I sometimes found her answers more complete.

The story came to Posmysz in 1959, in Paris. Walking in the Place de la Concorde, Posmysz heard a German tourist call out and thought it was the voice of an SS camp guard named Analiese Franz, an Aufseherin who supervised kitchen areas at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and whom Posmysz describes as “my superior for the last year and a half of my time at Birkenau.” The voice that day wasn’t Franz’s, but it unlocked Posmysz’s memories of almost three years at Auschwitz and a sub-camp, a time in which she says she barely survived brutal slave labor and typhoid.

Her story-telling has a complex history, starting with a 1959 radio play—The Passenger From Cabin Number 45—that inspired the Munk film (which had to be completed by others after the director died in a car crash in 1961). In 1962, Posmysz turned the radio play into a novel, which appeared in Russian in the Soviet Union. Shostakovich read it and told Weinberg it had the stuff of opera. Along the way, the story changed under shifting artistic and political pressures, from Polish ambivalence toward the Jewish dimension of the Holocaust to the Soviet exclusion of it. The Moscow premiere was halted in part because the piece was deemed to show signs of “abstract humanism.” One dynamic that has stayed intact through the story’s several iterations, including the Weinberg opera, is its point of view. After her imaginary encounter in Paris with the SS Aufseherin, Posmysz switched the roles of the observer and the observed, so the perspective belongs to the fictionalized officer, renamed Liese. And now, the opera stemming from an Auschwitz story written without Jews, recreated through a Soviet Jewish composer’s music, is arriving at the Armory as a work of “authentic” witness to the Holocaust.

Posmysz’s time in Auschwitz followed her arrest by the Nazis in 1942, on charges of association with people who distributed anti-Nazi leaflets. She has a lot in common with Marta, an alter-ego based on a close friend at the camp who also survived. Both were young Polish Catholics. Both lived in the women’s camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Posmysz talks of how her faith enabled her to “endure what seemed unendurable,” and threads of Christian suffering and redemption weave through both her novel and the opera.

“God does not hear my voice,” a young Polish woman named Krystyna laments in the opera, wondering if “it could be that Christ came down to earth again and was murdered here in Auschwitz.”

I asked Posmysz—who asserted in her interview with me that she wrote her novel “with no interference from the censors”—about the opera’s general lack of Jews. From her home in Warsaw—a translator at the Polish Cultural Institute in New York rendered her answers into English—she wrote: “The novel ‘The Passenger’ is not a documentary about the whole history of Auschwitz or about the Holocaust, it doesn’t claim to have such status. The opera is even less of a documentary, it’s an autonomous artistic genre, governed by its own laws. So it makes sense, at least to me, that not everything in ‘The Passenger’ conforms to standard images of Auschwitz.”

Her novel hasn’t been translated into English. I read it in the German edition, whose title is Die Passagierin. The cover drawing shows a black-clad SS woman facing a mass of women in striped camp garb. The novel and the opera share the basic story, but the unsettling novel also dissects interactions among Auschwitz SS women and probes the question of collective German guilt. It even suggests compassion for Franz by making her the sole witness to her own experiences, which include seeing children being sent to the gas chambers and a camp officer who has climbed onto the roof of one to pour Zyklon-B pellets through an opening. The victims are never identified, as Jews or otherwise. A Jewish baby is smuggled into the women’s camp, but that’s about it.

Both the interviewer for OSTEUROPA and I asked Posmysz about the general absence of Jews in the various versions of her Aufseherin Franz-Marta-Tadeusz story. “In your story, Jews just aren’t there,” the German interviewer says pointedly. He or she—I couldn’t find a byline—notes the scene with the Jewish baby in the barracks but presses about why “both protagonists in the camp are stereotypical Poles: Tadeusz and Marta.”

Posmysz told OSTEUROPA that she understood that the fate of Jews at Auschwitz was “much, much worse than our fate.” (“Viel, viel schlimmer als unser Schicksal,” in the German, which Posmysz speaks, a skill she credits with helping her to survive.) She told me of two Jews she knew in the kitchen areas at Birkenau, where they belonged to a “close-knit group” that got the relatively safe work.

The characters in the novel, she added in the German interview, were based on “the people whom I was closest to in the camp. I was very closely bound to Marta and Tadeusz. That was my experience. When we speak of Auschwitz, we must be careful to not compare sufferings. Auschwitz was a horrible experience for mankind. I don’t deny that the Jews were treated the worst, but many other people were sent to the gas chambers. Think of the Romani.”

In Posmysz’s email to me, she stresses that “the only thing I have the right to speak of” was the women’s camp, adding: “From the perspective of a prisoner, Auschwitz was limited to the barracks, the work brigade, to a cell in a bunker. People lived in small groups, going back and forth between barracks was unsafe.” Writing her novel, she says, she “presented the environment I knew best.”

Zofia Posmysz, author of the novel ‘The Passenger.’ (© Bregenzer Festspiele/andereart)

Who can disagree with her statement that “Auschwitz was a horrible experience for mankind”? The German visual artist and shot-down Luftwaffe flyer Joseph Beuys, went further, saying: “Auschwitz is a condition that outlasts Auschwitz into the world that surrounds us in ways we do not care to see. People must see that to prevent another Auschwitz, they must change themselves.” That this condition—I assume he meant murderous oppression of the powerless by the powerful—comes palpably alive in The Passenger is its achievement, indistinct as its victim demographic is. But why doesn’t she take more responsibility, even in interviews decades after she wrote her novel, for its silence about who was being killed in the greatest numbers? Scholars agree that nine out of 10 of the roughly 1.4 million people who died at Auschwitz were Jews. Isn’t Posmysz evading her story’s omission when she insists the novel had no obligation to be “a documentary about the whole history of Auschwitz or about the Holocaust,” and that the opera made from it is “an autonomous artistic genre, governed by its own laws”?

Let’s take at face value Posmysz’s assertion in interviews of her freedom to limit her Auschwitz perceptions into her personal, most self-immediate experience. In that case, I don’t question her right to creative freedom, just the limited consciousness with which she’s used it to paint out the sheer dimension of specifically Jewish death that surrounded her for three years. That Auschwitz had a sizable slave-labor element—the other five major camps, all of which the Nazis placed in Poland, were mainly machines built for giant amounts of death—is a big reason we have Holocaust survivor tales at all. The gassed millions left no stories of their last moments alive in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Sobibor, and other extermination sites. Her story and that of the opera give a rare view of what happened, and she’s open in interviews about what permitted it, her privileged status as a non-Jew who spoke German, made a good impression on German officers like Aufseherin Analiese Franz—and got work in the kitchen areas that kept her fed and relatively safe.

Her assertion of the opera’s “autonomy” also implies that her story and the opera live separately from the layers of historical context that envelop them. In fact, they beg for context. Poland lost about one-fifth of its population to the Nazis, including roughly 3 million Jews. Michael Steinlauf, a professor at Gratz College who wrote about how Poles responded to that history after the war in a 1997 book titled Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust, makes it clear that creative autonomy in Polish politics and culture in the decades after WWII meant excluding the Jewish part of the story. The Nazis conquered Poland for their lebensraum, aiming to eradicate all opposition. Poles were witnesses to the disappearance of Jewish neighbors. As Steinlauf, a son of Polish Holocaust survivors, writes: “To witness murder on such a scale, at close range, for such a long time, cannot lead to simple responses.”

Steinlauf details how the Jewish dimension of Holocaust memory got displaced in Poland by that of Polish losses. In predominantly Roman Catholic postwar Poland, to a degree unusual for the Soviet bloc, Steinlauf says, religious life persevered and merged with Communist forms of memory. The fate of Auschwitz as a memorial site repeatedly mirrored disputes over the relative numbers of the victims, or where to focus preservation efforts at the complex—whether on the labor component where many Poles worked or on the main extermination camp where mostly Jews died. Conflict surrounding a Carmelite convent that was situated at the place Poles call Oswiecim erupted into headlines around the world in the late 1980s, shining a spotlight on the divide between Jewish and Polish memory. “The Polish Communist narrative, which monopolized the symbolism of Auschwitz until the 1980s,” Steinlauf writes in his book, “turned this site into a monument to internationalism that commemorated the ‘resistance and martyrdom’ of ‘Poles and citizens of other nationalities.’ ”

I emailed Steinlauf and he agreed to watch digital copies of the Houston Grand Opera’s production of The Passenger and to read the libretto. I told Steinlauf that Posmysz told me she wrote her novel “without interference from the censors,” that the opera largely reflects the novel, and I read him her email to me explaining her writing about Auschwitz.

Auschwitz identification photo for Zofia Posmysz, author of the novel ‘The Passenger.’ (© Bregenzer Festspiele)

“She is not saying this is a Holocaust opera,” he said. “And it isn’t, not if you understand the Holocaust as what happened to the Jews. And the minute it is billed as a Holocaust opera, you have trouble. Because this is reality viewed through Polish eyes. You get this Polish and Polish Catholic story, a martyrdom story. In this narrative, the Jews were there, too. But it is about the Poles. It isn’t about anything most New Yorkers would recognize.” He added, “I was moved by the opera. I found the set and the music really powerful. But it’s amazing to me that something that is so vintage, such an artifact of early Soviet-era Polish consciousness, would be landing in New York in 2014.”

***

David Fanning, Weinberg’s biographer, also a recognized Shostakovich expert, spoke in an interview of the pressures Weinberg and Medvedev faced in the Soviet Union, with its history of anti-Semitism and a view of the war that overlooked the Jewish disaster in favor of Soviet triumphalism. “The opera had to take account of Socialist Realism, which means it couldn’t overemphasize certain things like the Jewish experience. If he’d tried [stressing a Jewish perspective], it wouldn’t have even been considered for a production. He would not have been able to write it.”

Fanning says the composer would have lived with chilling memories of being arrested by the KGB in early 1953, on a charge of “Jewish Bourgeois Nationalism,” as described in Fanning’s 2010 book Mieczyslaw Weinberg, In Search of Freedom. He was held in Lubyanka Prison for almost three months. Shostakovich worked to free him, but Fanning’s research suggests that Stalin’s death also helped, coming just before his release.

Fanning, completing a more extensive biography for publication in 2015, plans to reveal in greater depth why the 1968 opening of The Passenger got canceled. Dmitry Kabalevsky, head of the Union of Soviet Composers, best-known in the West for children’s music, “was one of those who contrived to have it not performed,” said Fanning, adding: “The phrase that was used to denigrate the piece was ‘abstract humanism,’ though what that means is open to debate. What it may mean is that Medvedev and Weinberg hadn’t stressed the positive roles of the Soviet Union in bringing the war to an end and in liberating Auschwitz.”

The opera’s music wasn’t heard until a concert performance in 2006, organized by Medvedev, the librettist, in the Svetlanov Hall of the House of Composers in Moscow. The current production embodies Medvedev’s ideas for the physical design of the two-tiered set, which critics have praised as a major source of the production’s overall impact.

In the OSTEUROPA interview, Posmysz recounts that Medvedev visited her in Warsaw while working on the libretto. She says she took him on a tour of Auschwitz—as she did Pountney as he prepared his production—but she also says she had no input on the libretto beyond her novel. In the OSTEUROPA interview, the writer says Medvedev added touches of Soviet-style internationalist heroism to her Auschwitz women: “One Pole, one Jew, one Russian, one Yugoslavian. … It was agit-prop. It wasn’t in my book.” One creative leap the Medvedev-Weinberg team made was a powerful climax in which Tadeusz, now a violinist, is pressed into performing the camp kommandant’s favorite waltz for him—but claims his access to a higher German soul by playing instead the radiant Chaconne from Bach’s Partita for Violin No. 2.

Weinberg never heard his opera performed. Medvedev never lived to see the two-tiered physical design he had conceived. Fanning talks at length about the amount of music Weinberg wrote with Jewish content: symphonies and vocal work. After The Passenger, he made an opera based on “Mazel Tov,” a comic tale by Sholem Aleichem. It finally premiered in 1983. He apparently gave no indication of a commitment to Judaism as a faith, engaged as he was with Jewish culture. Meanwhile, he converted to the Russian Orthodox faith of his second wife shortly before he died, at 76, in 1996, though Fanning says his reason for his conversion remains unclear.

In the mid-1960s, Posmysz says, she visited Weinberg in Moscow while he was writing the music for The Passenger. Besides sharing some “excellent herring,” he wanted to talk with her about Auschwitz. “He would ask about details that seemed unimportant to me, but when I spoke to him he would look at me as though he wasn’t listening to what I was saying,” she related to me. “Looking at me and listening to my words, he saw something else.”

She continued: “Later, much later after I returned to Poland, I came to understand, for I found out his tragedy. In September 1939 he managed to escape eastward from the German invasion and survived. His parents and sister didn’t make it. They were murdered in the Trawniki [extermination] camp near Lublin. I understood then: Hearing my stories of life in Auschwitz, he was seeing his nearest and dearest; he was living through it along with them.”

***

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Lincoln Center Presents an Opera Without Jews, Set in Auschwitz

‘The Passenger’ is a moving Polish Jewish-Catholic Soviet hybrid with a glaring omission. But is it a ‘Holocaust opera’?