I was one of the brave souls who attended a performance of the opera, ‘The Passenger,’ by Mieczyslaw Weinberg. I did so mainly because a friend of ours was the revival director of the production by the Israel Opera, and not because I’m a ‘glutton for punishment,’ as I have been accused of being (due to my inordinate consumption of Holocaust literature).
However, I’m not sorry I went. The subject is undoubtedly difficult, if not well-nigh impossible to convey in any meaningful artistic way, yet the performance left me with a heightened sense of awareness of and identification with the experience of life in a concentration camp. The combined impact of Weinberg’s music, the text (based on a novel by a non-Jewish Polish woman who was in Auschwitz herself), and the ingenious set, staging, costumes and scenery was greater than the sum of the individual parts. The soloists—a mix of imported and local talent—acted and sang with feeling and skill. It cannot have been easy for Israelis to evoke the experience of being prisoners in a concentration camp or members of the SS.
The author, Zofia Posmysz, wrote the novel originally as a radio script after having heard, while on a visit to Paris, what she thought was the voice of the German woman who had been her supervisor in Auschwitz. Posmysz was imprisoned there as a young woman for the ‘crime’ of reading and distributing anti-Nazi leaflets. The idea was taken up by the Polish-Jewish composer Weinberg, and the libretto was written by Alexander Medevdev. Weinberg had managed to reach Soviet Russia before the Germans invaded Poland, but his entire family was murdered by them.
The action of the opera is set in two different places and two different points in time: on board an ocean liner in 1958 and in Auschwitz in 1943. The first staged performance took place in Bregenz in 2010, directed by David Pountney, a British and Polish theatre and opera director. The set, which shows both locations, involves large sections of scenery which move together with the singers, constitutes a combination of imaginative reconstruction and engineering ingenuity. The railway tracks at the front of the stage serve as a constant reminder of Auschwitz.
The prisoners who form the focus of the opera are a mix of women from the various countries conquered by the Germans and each one performs in her own language. As we watch them move and sing, wearing the striped concentration-camp garb, their heads shaven, we are exposed to their touching stories and relationships, to their individual humanity and the comfort they find in their friendships.
Some scenes also expose the mental processes of the SS, managing to convey their diabolical combination of brutality and efficiency—as well as stupidity in some cases. The impossible love between two of the prisoners is shown in a way that is touching without being unduly sentimental, and the moment when the tones of Bach’s chaconne are played in defiance of the commandant’s request for a schmaltzy waltz is unbearably moving.
Artistic licence notwithstanding, it seems odd that the presence of Jews is barely mentioned, and when it is (by the woman from Salonika, who points to her yellow star as ‘the mark of death’), it is misrepresented, as she sings in Yiddish. The Jews of Salonika, who fled Spain in 1492, continued to speak their Judeo-Spanish language, Ladino.
Weinberg’s music is not inaccessible to the untrained ear, and in many instances it sounds as if it could have been written to accompany a film, which is in fact what Weinberg did for a living in Russia. He was a friend of Shostakovich’s, and it is possible to discern some similarities between the music of the two.
Over and beyond the dramatic impact of the opera, the fact that it exists at all, and can—and hopefully will—continue to be performed for generations to come plays an important role in the task of never forgetting what happened or allowing the Holocaust deniers to prevail. ‘The Passenger’ stands as an eternal reminder of the depths to which mankind sank in order to perpetrate unspeakable horrors against other human beings, as well as the heights which the human spirit can attain in overcoming adversity.
There is no happy end to this opera, which concludes with a lone voice ringing out to assert that we must never forget or forgive.
Amen to that.