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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.

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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’?