An Auschwitz survivor tells her story through music

The novel 'The Passenger,' by former Auschwitz prisoner Zofia Posmysz inspired the opera of the same name and Posmysz was recently able to tell her story at a performance of 'The Passenger' in Frankfurt.

Czarek Sokolowski/AP/File
A Warsaw performance of 'The Passenger'

Hundreds came to the Frankfurt Opera recently to listen to a Polish woman tell her story – the incredible story – that had inspired the opera they were about to see, “The Passenger,” by Polish-Russian composer Mieczysław Weinberg.  

One day, the story began, 16 years after World War II, Zofia Posmysz was reporting a piece for Polish Radio at the Place de la Concorde in Paris when a German voice brought her back to a horrifying past. Was it that of a warden at the Auschwitz concentration camp, where she had been imprisoned from 1942 to 1945? The thought inspired her to write “The Passenger,” a novel about the unexpected re-encounter between a former SS guard and an inmate while on a cruise.

Far away in Moscow, Mr. Weinberg read “The Passenger” and asked Ms. Posmysz to visit. Only music could tell the story, their story, he said. His own family had perished at Auschwitz. “He wanted to know every detail about life in the camp,” Posmysz recalled. He wrote “The Passenger” opera to a libretto by Alexander Medvedev. 

Weinberg, who had composed prolifically, considered “The Passenger” his best work. But it was censored by the Soviet regime, and not until 2010, long after he died, did “Passazhierka” première at the Bregenz Festival in Austria. It was a hit. “And it’s traveled the world since, and I with it,” Posmysz told the Frankfurt crowd. 

“The Passenger” tells of the suffering but also the human bonds formed at Auschwitz. Its music thrusts the audience into themes of guilt, denial, retribution, and absolution. That Posmysz still travels to tell her story is a gift. Could she forgive? It’s difficult to forgive Hitler and Stalin, she said. But those who sent her to Auschwitz? “I’m inclined to forgive.” 

“The Passenger” will be staged at the Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit in November and at the Florida Grand Opera in Miami in April 2016, after running in Houston, New York, and Chicago.

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