Musical ‘masterpiece’ captures horror of Auschwitz

An Auschwitz survivor who wrote a novel based on her experiences in the camp has told the Observer that only the opera based on her book, which is due to have its UK premiere at the English National Opera this week, can adequately capture the horror of her time there.

Zofia Posmysz, a devout Catholic, was arrested aged 18 and tortured by the Gestapo before being sent to the death camp for “three years and 21 days”, merely for being with someone carrying Polish resistance leaflets. She said only her faith gave her the courage to survive, despite suffering the “greatest extremes of degradation”.

Her semi-autobiographical novel, The Passenger, inspired the Polish-Jewish composer Mieczys?aw Weinberg to write the opera, which he completed in 1968.

Despite being hailed by the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich as a “perfect masterpiece”, the opera was banned by the Soviet Union and it did not receive its world premiere until it was staged in Bregenz, Austria, last year.

Harrowing retelling
Set in the 1960s, the opera tells the story of a chance encounter between a former SS guard at Auschwitz and a former inmate, who are trapped together as passengers on a liner that is sailing for Brazil. With harrowing flashbacks to Auschwitz, it is an exploration of guilt and denial, a depiction of the camp from the perspective of perpetrator and victim.

Weinberg always regretted that he never heard it performed, speaking of it just two days before his death in 1996. Its rediscovery came after the British opera director David Pountney came across it by chance and staged the Bregenz premiere. He was so overwhelmed by its quality that he describes Weinberg as “the third man”, alongside Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

Posmysz, now 88, wrote her novel in 1962 after a chilling experience in Paris three years earlier when she mistook the shrill yelling of a German tourist for one of her Auschwitz guards: “It wasn’t her— But still my heart stopped beating for a moment. And then I thought: what would I have done if it had been her?”

Indescribable horror
She was haunted by the same question during the trial in Krakow of the Auschwitz camp supervisor Mandel and Kommandant Höss, wondering if her own block warder might be among them. But justice never caught up with her. “Leave judgment to God,” she said. In writing the novel, she focused on the psychological drama, rather than the struggle to stay alive: “To reproduce the reality of Auschwitz, one would have to describe— how one makes it through 15 minutes.” Words, she said, cannot describe the full horror. Nor painting. “Perhaps only music.”

She nearly died of typhoid, but believes that a “vision” of a chalice with the eucharist gave her strength. The slightest glimmer of humanity gave strength — as when she overheard an SS guard express shock at her tender age after she had collapsed from hard labour. “I held on to those grains of humanity as tightly as I could,” she said.

Her enduring memories include the prisoners who killed themselves by electrocution on the barbed wire and the musicians playing as people went to be gassed. “This was worst of all. These people were going to their deaths, they didn’t know. The orchestra playing happy pieces – a terrible deceit.”

She recalled three groups of people running the camp: “Born sadists, who did it for pleasure, the administrators just doing their job— and those showing some sign of humanity.”

She felt unable to talk about Auschwitz for many years. “I lost a lot of friends, the most important people in my life.” On being released, she was tormented still further learning that her father had been shot in 1943.

She has never left Auschwitz, she said. “I turn the radio on and there’s a piece of music that was played in Auschwitz – and I’m there immediately. Something always reminds me. I never leave it.”

Awful inevitability

One scene in the opera depicts a prisoner designing a medallion. Some prisoners had to produce jewellery for the SS. One of them risked his life secretly making her a delicate pendant that features the head of Christ crowned with barbed-wire and inscribed “Auschwitz 1943”. She wears it to this day.

Pountney consulted her extensively in devising his staging, visiting Auschwitz with her. He described the opera as “incredibly powerful”. While the music has a “profound kind of melancholia”, he said, Weinberg is acutely restrained in musical terms about the awful inevitability of the camp.

Weinberg, whose parents and sister perished in the war, once said: “Many of my works are related to the theme of war. This, alas, was not my own choice. It was dictated by my fate, by the tragic fate of relatives.”

Shostakovich tried in vain to get The Passenger staged, writing that he would “never tire” of it: “It is a perfect masterpiece— The music— stirs the very soul — I understand this opera as a hymn to humanity.”

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