Opera about Holocaust in New York City


This video from the USA is called Houston Grand Opera’s “The Passenger“.

The Passenger [Photo ©Stephanie Berger/Lincoln Center Festival]

By Fred Mazelis in the USA:

The Passenger depicts the Holocaust and its aftermath in opera form

25 July 2014

Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s 1968 opera The Passenger recently had its New York premiere as part of the annual Lincoln Center Festival. The performances showed that this challenging work, dealing with the Holocaust and its aftermath, deserves a permanent place in the operatic repertoire.

Weinberg, born in Warsaw in 1919, narrowly escaped the Nazi invasion of Poland, arriving in the Soviet Union before his 20th birthday. His parents and younger sister were sent to the Lodz Ghetto and later perished in a concentration camp. Weinberg, who lived the remaining 56 years of his life in the USSR, was a prolific composer of symphonies, string quartets, operas and film music. Among his film scores was that for the award-winning The Cranes Are Flying.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg

(Interestingly, one of Weinberg’s cousins, following the Russian Revolution, was the secretary of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Baku Soviet commune and was executed by counterrevolutionary forces in September 1918 along with the other 26 Baku commissars.)

In eight scenes over two acts, The Passenger tells the story of a prosperous German couple in the early 1960s, Liese and Walter, who have embarked on an ocean voyage to Brazil, where the husband, a West German diplomat, is to take up a new post.

The Passenger [Photo ©Stephanie Berger/Lincoln Center Festival]

In the midst of what should be a time of satisfaction and happy anticipation, however, Liese observes a mysterious passenger onboard, and becomes convinced that this is in fact Marta, who as a young Polish woman was an inmate of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Liese was an Auschwitz guard, something she has tried to leave behind and suppress psychologically, and has never even spoken about to her husband.

The opera, with a libretto by Alexander Medvedev and music by Weinberg, then compellingly develops the theme of the Holocaust and its aftermath. The action takes place on two levels, both in its staging and in its time frame. The upper level is the ship itself, including Liese and Walter’s private cabin. Stairs lead to a lower level, the concentration camp barracks and the railroad tracks leading to the camp. The scenes alternate, forcefully depicting the memories that increasingly haunt Liese as the story progresses.

We are soon introduced to Marta as a young concentration camp inmate. Her fellow prisoners include Tadeusz, Marta’s beloved, whom she finds after a separation of two years. Liese is the only character that appears on both levels of the opera, with the events of nearly 20 years earlier clearly seared into her memory. In her role as a camp guard, she threatens and taunts the prisoners, and in particular tries to take advantage of Marta and Tadeusz’s relationship for her own purposes.

The work explores the issue of the aftermath of the Holocaust, for both victims and perpetrators. The Passenger is set in the early 1960s, in the midst of the postwar economic boom in Germany, and also in the shadow of the Eichmann trial in Israel, which brought the issue of the Holocaust and its architects before a new generation of Germans as well as to a global audience. A generation of young people in Germany, as elsewhere, were radicalized by the war in Vietnam in particular as the 1960s unfolded and attempted to come to terms as well with their own traumatic national history. This was the period that saw the publication of some of the best-known novels of German writers such as Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll, as well as the first films of Rainer Maria Fassbinder, Volker Schlöndorff and others.

The Passenger [Photo ©Stephanie Berger/Lincoln Center Festival]

The historical issues are deliberately not spelled out in The Passenger. The story is presented without even settling the issue of whether the mysterious woman is in fact Marta, or perhaps only the vivid reflection of Liese’s guilty conscience.

The opera also does not portray Liese as a kind of stand-in for Germany as a whole, a symbol of collective guilt. It does, however, show the impossibility of ignoring the past. It raises the inevitable issues of the causes of the descent into barbarism. The portrayal of both the younger and middle-aged Liese suggests the self-satisfied layer of the middle class that finds itself, under definite social and political conditions, capable of the most monstrous crimes.

The opera is based on a novel by a Polish concentration camp survivor, Zofia Posmysz. Posmysz, alive and well at the age of 90, has been involved in the belated production of the opera, and appeared at the New York premiere.

Arrested as a young girl because of an association with an anti-Nazi group, Posmysz spent three years as a prisoner. Some years later, as a journalist on assignment in Paris, she thought she saw someone who had been a guard at Auschwitz. This episode led first to a radio play, which was later turned into a novel, in which the relationship is reversed, with a conscience-stricken former guard believing she has glimpsed a former inmate.

The novel became enormously popular in Poland. This was a time of political ferment following the working class protests in Poznan in 1956. The book was turned into a film— Passenger (1963)—by the talented young Polish director Andrzej Munk (Man on the Tracks, 1956), completed by colleagues after Munk’s untimely death in an auto accident in 1961. Somewhat later, Weinberg’s close friend and colleague Dmitri Shostakovich urged him to consider a project based on the novel.

Weinberg’s music is impressive, as we have had occasion to note in the past. It reflects his lifelong association with Shostakovich, whom he first met in 1943, when he was only 23 years old and Shostakovich himself was 13 years older. Highly dissonant at times, the score remains tonal and emotionally involving. The composer is especially effective in combining and alternating several styles while still adhering to a distinctive musical language.

The influence of Shostakovich is clear, but the music is not derivative. Weinberg depicts the growing apprehension and panic of Liese, the concern of her husband for his career prospects, and above all the suffering and heroism of the prisoners. The music is at times anguished, jazz-influenced in its depiction of some of the shipboard activities, and briefly but strongly lyrical in the reunion of Marta and Tadeusz.

If there is one major weakness, it is in the vocal writing itself. In an opera, this is of course an issue that can’t be overlooked. There were times, especially in the opera’s first act, when an emphasis on orchestral writing, and an imbalance between the orchestra and performers, tended to detract from the dramatic action. The second act was more affecting, especially the exchanges between Marta, Tadeusz and Liese.

Both Marta and Tadeusz resist Liese’s attempts to enlist their cooperation, even though it will mean their deaths. A high point of this act, and the climax of the entire opera, comes when Tadeusz, a violinist, is commanded to play the camp commandant’s favorite waltz, and instead defiantly performs the famous Bach Chaconne from the Second Partita for Violin, before being led off to his death.

Weinberg’s orchestration is masterful. Strings and winds are joined by powerful writing for the brass section, and above all, a percussion section that includes almost every imaginable instrument, including timpani, triangle, tambourine, whip, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, bells and glockenspiel.

The Houston Grand Opera production was also striking. Director David Pountney was responsible for the English translation of the libretto. The opera, originally presented in Austria in 2010, was staged in Houston last winter, and it is the Houston production, including the orchestra under Patrick Summers, that was brought to New York for three performances. The opera was first presented in Moscow in concert version in 2006, nearly 40 years after it was written.

The New York performances took place in the historic Park Avenue Armory, in a building dating to 1880 and for decades the headquarters of the 7th New York Militia Regiment, which had fought in the Civil War. The huge vaulted space of the Drill Hall, at the center of this building, is a music venue unlike any other in New York. The size of the space made some amplification of the voices necessary, a rare occurrence in the opera world. In this case it was carried off in so understated and effective a fashion that some listeners would not even have been aware of it. Although the opera was sung in English, the use of supertitles was also effective, as was the unusual placement of the orchestra, to the side of the two-tiered set.

The singers were uniformly excellent, particularly soprano Melody Moore as Marta. Tadeusz was sung by Morgan Smith, Katya by Kelly Kaduce, Liese by mezzo soprano Michelle Breedt and Walter by tenor Joseph Kaiser.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg is one of the “lost composers” of the twentieth century. Strictly speaking, he is not of the generation that came of age musically between the imperialist world wars, or whose career was interrupted by the rise of fascism during those decades, including some promising composers who perished in the Holocaust. Although Weinberg was younger and had a full musical career, the environment in which he worked was shaped by the tragedies of this era.

In connection with the belated appearance of The Passenger, little has been said about why it languished in obscurity for decades. Shostakovich was enormously taken by the work, but for reasons that were not spelled out, it was not staged, although many other works of Weinberg were regularly performed in the Soviet Union.

The Stalinist regime, which still used a heavy hand in cultural matters in this period, may have decided that an opera that focused on concentration camps and dealt with Polish victims did not mesh with its own continuous efforts to build up nationalist feelings. The authorities decreed that emphasis had always to be placed on the Russian and Soviet toll in the war, which of course was massive, to the exclusion of others. It was for this reason that Shostakovich encountered such official opposition to his 13th Symphony, subtitled “Babi Yar,” dedicated to the Jewish victims of Nazi extermination at this site in Kiev.

Weinberg’s life was shaped in no small part by horrific Nazi barbarism on the one hand, and the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian Revolution on the other. While he and many others found refuge in the Soviet Union, they also confronted the regime of the counterrevolutionary bureaucracy, which used anti-Semitism for its own purposes.

British government insults World War II veterans


This video from Britain is called Arctic Convoys commemoration 22.08.11.

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

WWII convoy veterans banned from receiving Russian bravery medal

Monday 14 January 2013

Heartless ministers today banned thousands of WWII veterans from receiving Russian bravery medals for their service on Arctic convoys.

Three thousand British servicemen provided vital supplies to the Soviet Union to aid their fight against nazi Germany on the eastern front.

The Russian government has recognised the men’s bravery on what Winston Churchill called “the worst journey in the world” and offered them Ushakov medals.

But the Foreign Office says the veterans can’t accept them because they are in line to receive a British medal for their service and because it was more than five years ago.

Veteran Fred Henley said the government’s decision was “insulting.”

Russian diplomats say they can’t award the medals because of “British red tape.”

From Associated Press:

Britain says no to UK arctic convoy veterans accepting Russian medal for bravery in WWII

By Gregory Katz, The Associated Press January 14, 2013 11:50 AM

LONDON – Reay Clarke, who risked his life on World War II Arctic convoys, doesn’t understand why the British government wants him and other elderly veterans to turn down a medal for bravery offered by the Russian government.

“I honestly feel sore about it,” said Clarke, 89. “I think it’s disgraceful that we can’t just say yes to the Russians and tell them to go ahead and issue the medal. I think they are kind and thoughtful to remember what we did. We should just say, ‘Thank you very much.'”

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office said Friday that British sailors cannot accept the Ushakov Medal because they are in line to get a medal from the British government, and also because the events took place more than five years ago.

It is not surprising that the Russian government wants to honour — again — the sailors who participated in the convoys, which helped bring vital equipment to Soviet troops fighting a desperate battle against Hitler’s troops on the eastern front.

The weapons they delivered, including more than 7,500 fighter planes and 5,000 anti-tank guns, helped turn back Hitler’s invading forces, altering the course of the war, said Jacky Brookes, a manager of the Russia Arctic Convoy Museum Project, which plans to build a museum at the spot in northwest Scotland where the convoys were based.

“There were some 3,000 casualties,” she said. “Winston Churchill called it the worst journey in the world. Hitler was keen to sink as many of them as he could. It was an awful experience — they were attacked by U-boats, and ships, and from the air as well. Plus the weather was atrocious. A lot of people just perished from the cold.”

Brookes also feels the government should have allowed the men to receive the Ushakov Medal. She said about 400 are still alive.

“We think they should be allowed to wear it,” she said. “We support any recognition for these brave men, they fought so hard, and many gave the ultimate sacrifice.”

She said the Russian government had periodically honoured the Arctic convoy veterans from Britain and other nations.

Prime Minister David Cameron announced last month a medal will be created and awarded to veterans who were active on the convoys.

But Clarke frets that many veterans will pass away while the details are worked out.

“He’s taken an awful long time,” he said. “There aren’t many of us left.”

Hitler’s holocaust in the Soviet Union, photos


From TIME magazine in the USA:

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

By Simon Shuster

World War II Through Soviet Jewish Eyes

Grief, Kerch, Crimea, January 1942

Grief, Kerch, Crimea, January 1942

One of the earliest Holocaust liberation photographs, Grief was originally a news photograph that circulated widely in the Soviet press throughout 1942. At the time it was taken, the photographer, Dmitrii Baltermants, was documenting Nazi atrocities for a traumatized Soviet population. Soviet wire services sent the image around the world, but few news outlets picked it up, fearing that the photograph was Soviet propaganda. The image re-appeared in the 1960s, when the Soviet Union began remembering World War II, or the Great Patriotic War as it was known there, as the great triumph of Communism.

In 2003, a young American historian named David Shneer was conducting 
research in Moscow when he heard about an exhibition of photographs called Women at War. At the time, displaying photography on gallery walls was still a fairly novel concept for Russia, and the exhibit was
 not meant to be a blockbuster. To get inside, Shneer found that he had 
to ring a doorbell at a nondescript building, at which point a raspy 
voice came over the intercom and demanded: “Who are you? What do you 
want?” But the images inside astounded him.

Not only had they been taken with incredible skill—arranging light
 and form in a way that would put to shame many of today’s war 
photographers—but they were from the Soviet battlefields of World
 War II, which made the surnames of their authors seem all the more
 strange. About four out of five of them, Shneer noticed, were Jewish
 surnames. “How is it possible,” he thought, “that a bunch of Jews, who
 are supposed to be oppressed by the Soviet Union, are the ones charged 
with photographing the war?”

As delicately as he could, Shneer put the question to one of the curators, who in typical Moscow style had a glass of wine in one hand
 and a cigarette in the other. “She looked at me like I’m an idiot and 
said, ‘Yes, the photographers were all Jewish.’” It turned out she was 
the granddaughter of one of them, Arkady Shaykhet, and their 
conversation that day is what led to the exhibit that opened on
 Nov. 16 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. It has the
 same title as the book Shneer wrote from his research—Through
 Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War and the Holocaust.

The show explores the way World War II was covered in the pages of
 Soviet newspapers such as Pravda, casting light on a side of the Holocaust that often gets short shrift in western history books. The 
genocide against the Jews, usually associated with images of Nazi 
death camps and gas chambers, was also perpetrated through mass 
shootings across Eastern Europe. Later termed the “Holocaust by 
Bullets,” it took more Jewish lives than the concentration camps, says Shneer, and it was documented most poignantly by the Jewish 
photographers of the Soviet press.

Although none of them are still alive to tell their story, Shneer spent the better part of a decade tracking down their relatives in 
Moscow and collecting nearly 200 works from their family archives. The
 prints were often no bigger than a pack of cigarettes, taken with 
beat-up cameras and two roles of film allotted for each battle. There
 are more faceless soldiers in these frames than intimate portraits of victims, and the most common theme is emptiness, at once bleak and monumental. But given their historical context, what seems most 
striking is the duality that runs through the lives and works of these 
photographers. On the one hand, these are works of Soviet propaganda,
 glorifying the Red Army in the tradition of socialist realism. “They 
needed photos of nurses doing good work on the home front, patriotic
 soldiers conquering territory,” says Shneer. “And their Jewishness rarely appears in that kind of material.”

But it does appear when they go off assignment to explore the Jewish
 ghettos in places like Ukraine and Hungary. There they found survivors 
living among the ruins of Europe, the yellow Stars of David on their 
overcoats still marking them for death. In the Budapest ghetto, the photographer Evgenii Khaldei found the corpses of his fellow Jews strewn about the floor of a gutted shop, a scrap of butcher paper covering the face of a man whose body lies in the doorway. Images like
 this did not appear in the mainstream Soviet press, but they were
 published in Eynikayt, or Unity, the Yiddish-language newspaper of the USSR. “We have this image in our heads that Jewishness was completely suppressed in the Soviet Union,” says Shneer. “But that’s really a
 post-war image of the country.”

Pudovkin’s Storm over Asia, on Mongolia


This video is from the movie Storm over Asia by Pudovkin.

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

Pioneering Pudovkin

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Warren Davies

The current Russian Film Pioneers season at the British Film Institute (BFI) in London includes Vsevolod Pudovkin‘s 1928 film Storm over Asia, considered an overlooked masterpiece by some. If like me you don’t live in the capital you can buy the film for less than the price of a pint in a cheap DVD release which is readily available and which even has a surprisingly atmospheric original soundtrack.

It’s one to save up for the next time Labour let us down and fail to effectively oppose the Con-Dem’s latest assault on public services because it’s a movie which reaffirms trust in the values of common people, whatever their leaders and rulers may do and it’s captured by Pudovkin in one joyous moment of filmmaking.

Liberate a friend or relative’s “big- screen-multi-whatever-home cinema system for the screening – it’ll do them good to share it and you’ll be better able to join with hero Bair and his thousand Mongolian riders against the occupiers of their land. And this is why the film is special. Pudovkin wants you to be thrilled and his vision is fabulous, epic and action-packed. Bair’s is a frontier adventure story wrapped up in a storm-wracked fable.

As the first film to be shot in Mongolia, Pudovkin and screenwriter Osip Brik produced a study of colonialism and national liberation which stands as a corrective to a Eurocentric view of the Russian revolution.

Set during the Civil War, Pudovkin and Brik took the decision to recast the occupation of Mongolia as a British rather than the historically accurate White Russian invasion under Baron von Ungern-Sternberg. The film’s screening, incidentally, coincides with the 90th anniversary of his terror regime’s defeat by Red Army and Mongol forces. Is this typecasting or a salutary reminder that it is the British ruling class who are, even in those regions untouched by the Union flag, still most closely identified in folk memory with Imperialism?

It is a dramatic device fully exploited by Pudovkin in 1928. Frontier capitalism arrives on the end of a British bayonet and it is Bair the herdsman’s relationship to this that provides the central narrative.

Unsurprisingly, the British Board Of Film Censors banned and sought to stop the movie being shown outside the USSR. Storm… was an insurrectionary challenge to Western imperial bourgeois culture, a celebration of Bolshevism and revolution amongst racially inferior Asiatic hordes insolently depicted as agents of their own destiny who expel Westerners. Ilya Ehrenburg is quoted as having summed up the official response to the film in the West as: “Mongols chasing white men? Where’s the justice in that?”

Through Bair, Pudovkin and Brik tell a story for all people resisting colonisation and oppression. Valeri Inkishnov, magnetic in the lead role, uses the silence of the medium to intensify the quiet stoicism of his character. He is victim of chance and circumstance until the point at which he is resurrected by the science of his enemies.

Bair’s silence is transformed as his captors nurse him back to health with the intention of setting him up a puppet ruler. Inkishov captures Bair’s frustration and seeming impotence to oppose his enemies – alone he lifts himself from his throne, staggers and falls into a fish tank, where he lies amongst the asphyxiated fish. He continues to silently observe, watching to discover the nature of his enemies, caged in his tailor’s measurements, a novelty oriental, dressed for dinner, fascinating and exciting the imperialist’s daughters. When local chiefs are presented to the new Khan, swearing the allegiance of 40,000 riders, it takes one more brutal murder for Bair, who came only seeking a fair price for his pelts, to lead the revolution as the heir of the great Khan.

For contemporary audiences this was an exotic movie. The restored version to be shown shown at the BFI allows a modern audience to appreciate its quality as travelogue. Shot in a land steeped in the mythology of the “Golden Horde”, Pudovkin’s masterpiece is also a semi-documentary record of the Moscow film crew’s own expedition.

For Valeri Inkishinov making the film was an opportunity to discover his own family’s heritage and the actor had his own father cast as Bair’s for the opening scene and learnt to ride “Mongolian” style for the critical final montage.

The footage of the film crew’s convoy crossing the tundra is transformed into the British delegation travelling to the Grand Lama. Commissar Ashirov, who acted as guide, was heavily responsible for this dimension of the film. He dealt with the customs and folktales, explained them to Pudovkin and Brik and took them to where landscape could best be exploited for the action scenes or to establish mood. It would be fair to deduce that it was Ashirov who negotiated the Grand Lama’s concession of allowing the team to film in Lamasery of Tomchinsk and so captured for posterity the annual ceremonial dance there.

Pudovkin’s editing faithfully records this custom while simultaneously generating a montage juxtaposing the ritual dance, the negotiations between the British and the Lamasery and the partisan ambush of the British stealing the herdsmen’s cattle.

Pudovkin’s equally studied approach of British imperial ritual encourages speculation that he had studied newsreels produced for British audiences bringing their Empire into the high street. Pudovkin’s point is well made – elite imperial culture is as strange, alien and separated from the everyday lives of the audience who’d watch the film in 1928 or the new 2011 version as the ceremonies of Tomchinsk Lamasery.

But this is not a simple propaganda film. It has a political and ethnographic core contained within a genuine action-adventure movie and it is also a study in emotion.

The energy and visual audacity of Pudovkin’s final montage is overwhelming as he juxtaposes the realism of his documentary style with the fabled “storm over Asia. As it breaks the occupiers, their flags, drums and bayonets are caught up in the visual maelstrom which carries the revolutionary “red horde” to victory.

This isn’t the dominant moment in Pudovkin’s masterpiece. What remains in the mind is the memory of a British Tommy, desolate and sickened by the prison of his uniform hanging off him as it drags through the mud, who has no pride left as he returns from the crime he has committed in his name.

Moments as richly suggestive as this run through the film and that’s why the BFI are to be congratulated on bringing its merits back to public attention.