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ClassicsOnline Home » HEGGIE, J.: Out of Darkness (Music of Remembrance)
In Out of Darkness, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer accomplish something remarkable. They convey the vastness of the Holocaust’s scope through emotionally rich portraits of those caught in its grasp, without reducing them to caricatures of martyrdom. The three chapters of this work relate stories that offer compelling musical witness to survival in the face of unimaginable adversity. Another Sunrise tells the amazing story of Krystyna Żywulska who, after being captured as a member of the Polish resistance, created poems and songs in Auschwitz that circulated secretly and became anthems of defiance amongst her fellow prisoners. Farewell, Auschwitz adapts Krystyna’s lyrics, with their exhortations to preserve a sense of humanity in a place defined by inhuman behaviour. The deeply moving song cycle For a Look or a Touch illuminates Nazi persecution of homosexuals, informing historical realities through an intensely intimate story of memory and loss.
Jake Heggie (b. 1961) and Gene Scheer (b. 1958)
Out of Darkness
The Holocaust was an unspeakable tragedy, and nearly seventy years after the end of the Third Reich the world is still learning its countless stories. With the passage of time, it becomes too easy for us to reduce the individuals caught in the Holocaust’s grasp to caricatures of tragic victimhood or heroic resistance. We forget that each of those people—the millions—was wrenched from everything they knew as normal, and thrown into an unfathomable hell where old rules lost their meaning. They lived or died not only through luck or circumstance, but also through anguished decisions they were forced to make in situations we cannot begin to comprehend.
This recording’s three works by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer were commissioned and premièred in 2012 and 2013 by Music of Remembrance. Together, they offer compelling musical witness to the will to survive even in the face of unimaginable adversity. Another Sunrise is an intense musical monodrama that tells the story of Krystyna Żywulska. After escaping the Warsaw Ghetto, Żywulska joined the Polish resistance but was captured and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau as a political prisoner. She hid her Jewish identity, and survived with the help of a sympathetic Kapo who secured her a relatively safe job in a warehouse sorting the confiscated possessions of doomed women on the way to their deaths. While in Auschwitz she created poems and songs that circulated secretly and became anthems of resistance among her fellow prisoners. Farewell, Auschwitz is Heggie and Scheer’s brilliant adaptation of those actual lyrics. For a Look or a Touch illuminates the Third Reich’s vicious persecution of homosexuals through the eyes and memories of Gad Beck, who recalls the loss of the freedom he briefly enjoyed as a young gay man in pre-Nazi Berlin, and remembers the idealistic love he shared with Manfred Lewin—sent as a homosexual and a Jew to his death in Auschwitz.
Heggie and Scheer tell these stories with uncompromising emotional honesty, and with deep compassion that never descends to pathos or sentimentality. Their music, of heart-stopping beauty, conveys a wisdom that helps us to appreciate those touched by the Holocaust in all of their complicated humanity.
Music of Remembrance (www.musicofremembrance.org) is a Seattle-based chamber music organization founded in 1998 to remember the Holocaust through music. In addition to presenting music from that period, it has commissioned more than twenty new Holocaust-inspired works by some of today’s leading composers.
We offer special thanks to Krystyna Żywulska’s son Tadeusz Andrzejewski for granting us permission to share his mother’s story with the world.
Another Sunrise (2012)
World première: 14 May, 2012, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA, at Music of Remembrance’s Holocaust Remembrance concert. Another Sunrise was commissioned by Music of Remembrance and is dedicated to its founder and artistic director, Mina Miller. Another Sunrise was made possible by a generous gift from the Clovis Foundation, Mary Winton Green, Jonathan Green & Brenda Berry.
The woman we know today as the author and lyricist Krystyna Żywulska was a Holocaust survivor with an astonishing, complex, sometimes baffling history. Born Sonia Landau in 1914 to a Jewish family in Lódz, Poland, she was studying law at Warsaw University when World War II erupted. In 1941, she and her family were relocated to the Warsaw ghetto. One day, seeing a window of opportunity, Sonia and her mother bravely walked out of the ghetto in broad daylight, leaving her father behind. She adopted the name Sophia Wisniewska and worked for the underground resistance until she was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943. Refusing to name names to the Nazis, she changed her own name to Krystyna Żywulska (born in 1918 rather than 1914) and was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau as a political prisoner—not as a Jew.
As a prisoner, with no experience as a writer, Krystyna crafted lyrics of protest and survival and set them to well-known folk tunes and popular melodies. Since it was suicide to write them down, her lyrics were passed along by word of mouth from inmate to inmate throughout the camp. A fellow inmate in a position of authority was moved by Krystyna’s work and decided to save the “camp poet.” After a year of disease, lice, and backbreaking labour in the fields, Krystyna was given one of the few choice jobs inside the Effektenkammer (warehouse of personal effects).
Here, she and her coworkers took inventory and took charge of the possessions that thousands upon thousands of Jewish women and children from all over Europe brought with them to the camp. Often, once their possessions had been taken and catalogued, these prisoners were marched next door to the ovens for execution. Krystyna heard the screams and cries, saw the smoke, smelled the stench, and had to live in an almost unimaginable situation: to survive, she had to take and catalogue the personal belongings of Jewish women and children, then hear them murdered next door.
At the end of the war, during a death march when the camp was being evacuated, Krystyna once again escaped and survived. After the war, she chronicled the atrocities she witnessed in a startlingly candid memoir, I Came Back (also titled I Survived Auschwitz), published in 1946. However, she still did not claim her Jewish identity or ancestry. In the book, one feels strongly that Krystyna wanted to explain what happened without holding back.
The book is honest, revealing and profoundly moving. It also, curiously, compels one to wonder about the nature of memory and the parts of the past that remain in the shadows despite one’s best efforts. It is those shadows, those empty places, Another Sunrise explores.
Krystyna Żywulska died in 1993, having reclaimed her Jewish identity in the 1960s. Late in her life, she was interviewed by Professor Barbara Engleking for her book Holocaust and Memory (published in Polish in 1994 and English in 2001). In Żywulska’s responses to Engleking’s questions, one can sense her frustration in trying to find language that might adequately describe the enormity of what happened, or the extraordinary complexity in a fog of memories.
In that interview, a woman whose words had saved her life now struggles to find words to describe what happened. It is this irony that prompted the idea for Another Sunrise.
Of course, it is not that she could not find words: it is that none could ever truly describe what she and millions of others experienced. The past is thus clouded not by a lack of willingness to define what happened, but rather by the limits of language itself. Like the uncertainty principle that governs the quantum heart of the world, history too seems to be ruled by immutable paradoxes. If you measure something, you change it. If you describe something, you change it as well—even the past.
Another Sunrise is about the struggle to describe harrowing, unimaginable situations to people who weren’t there. It is also about what it is to survive. Like many who make it through a war, Krystyna survived not through grand acts of heroism, but through near-maddening acts of survival. We do whatever it takes to live another day: to see another sunrise.
We thank Mina Miller for bringing Krystyna Żywulska’s story to our attention and for giving us the opportunity to create this new work for Music of Remembrance. Another Sunrise is lovingly dedicated to Mina, who reminds us all what it is to remember.
Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer
(used by permission)
Farewell, Auschwitz (2013)
World première: 14 May 2013, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA, at Music of Remembrance’s Holocaust Remembrance concert. Based on Polish lyrics by Krystyna Żywulska written when she was imprisoned at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Farewell, Auschwitz was commissioned by Music of Remembrance and made possible by generous gifts from Jonathan Green & Brenda Berry, Lloyd & Janet Cluff, and John & Bernice Lindstrom.
Before being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau as a political prisoner in 1943, Krystyna Żywulska had not written a single song. Writing lyrics and setting them to familiar folk, classical and popular tunes became her creative way to cope with the horror of life in the camp. She did not invent lyrics to save her life, but amazingly, they did just that. Appreciated by her superiors as the camp poet, she was given a premium job in the Effektenkammer (Room of Personal Effects): when a fresh transport arrived, she took inventory of the new prisoners’ belongings before these hapless women and children were sent to their deaths in the ovens next door.
Another Sunrise portrayed Krystyna and her struggle to tell the truth of what happened to her; to try to find the words to describe the indescribable, what she had endured in the camp, and what was required to survive—to see another sunrise. Farewell, Auschwitz is a companion piece to Another Sunrise that allows us to explore some of the actual lyrics that Krystyna wrote. Thirty two complete song texts survive from Krystyna’s time in the camp. There are an additional 54 fragments in a piece entitled Wiązanka z Effektenkammer (Medley from the Effektenkammer). Most of the lyrics for Farewell, Auschwitz are drawn from this extraordinary document.
In 1944, Krystyna crafted a long name-day card, which contained her texts and colourful drawings by fellow inmate Zofia Brato. Krystyna and 72 other prisoners signed and presented this remarkable gift to fellow prisoner, Kapo Maria Grzesiewska-Wojciechowska. On 8 September, four inmates—including Krystyna—performed the songs for their beloved friend. (Source: Barbara Milewski: Krystyna Żywulska: The Making of a Satirist and Songwriter in Auschwitz-Birkenau is Discovered Through Camp Mementos, Swarthmore College Bulletin, July 2009.)
Krystyna’s lyrics describe a broad array of experiences that prisoners faced each day. Her subjects range from whimsical gossip in the barracks to profound fears as well as dreams of rescue, survival and triumph. These lyrics are a window into the torturous psychological strain the prisoners faced as they tried desperately to hold onto their humanity while being forced to live in a place that defined the most inhuman behaviour. Mostly, Krystyna’s songs speak to the power of music and the imagination to liberate one from even the darkest despair.
The lyrics in the original Medley were set to well-known tunes of the day. Rather than attempt the almost impossible task of identifying the original tunes and creating translations from Polish to fit them perfectly, Gene made free poetic translations which Jake has set in a variety of ways: sometimes imitating music of the period, acknowledging the influence of Kurt Weill and film music, sometimes with very folk-like melodies, and in two cases by using classical tunes: Liszt’s La Campanella (after Paganini) and Chopin’s Waltz, Op. 64, No. 2. As prisoners in a camp might do, the singers sometimes imitate instruments to fill in the blanks.
Gene’s poetic translations are based on literal translations graciously made by his in-laws, Zbigniew and Anna Lechowski.
For a Look or a Touch (2007/13)
World première: 14 May 2013, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA, at Music of Remembrance’s Holocaust Remembrance concert. The song cycle version of For a Look or a Touch was commissioned by Music of Remembrance, Mina Miller, Artistic Director.
Lyrics and texts based on entries from Manfred Lewin’s journal in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and on interviews from the film Paragraph 175, directed by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman, copyright Reflective Image Inc., used by permission. All rights reserved.
Homosexuality had been considered a crime in Germany since the late 1800s, and Paragraph 175—the pre-Nazi legislation outlawing it—remained in effect for years after the war. The Reich considered homosexuality a symptom of “racial degeneracy,” and homosexuals were incarcerated in prisons and concentration camps. Through the rigorous enforcement of Paragraph 175, the Nazis murdered thousands, and shattered the lives of countless others. Homosexuality remained illegal in Germany until 1970, making it impossible for many gays persecuted under the Third Reich to speak openly of their suffering. This persecution—with some of the last untold stories of the Holocaust—has recently begun to emerge from historical neglect, thanks in large part to the revelatory 2000 documentary film Paragraph 175.
For many years Music of Remembrance had envisioned commissioning a work that would address this tragedy. Jake Heggie, collaborating with librettist Gene Scheer, was the ideal composer for this challenge, and in 2007 MOR premièred the original version of their For a Look or a Touch. Drawing on true stories they discovered in the documentary, Heggie and Scheer based their title on the reality that a suspicious “look” or “touch” was sufficient grounds for arrest by Nazi authorities. They were also inspired by the lives of Gad Beck and Manfred Lewin. Those two young men were lovers in Berlin until Manfred and his family were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz. Gad joined an underground group that helped Jews escape to neutral Switzerland, but he was betrayed and incarcerated in the final months of the war. He managed to keep and preserve Manfred’s poetic diary, which he donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1999. Gad died in Berlin in 2012, a week shy of his 89th birthday. He is thought to have been the last known Jewish gay survivor of the Holocaust.
In For a Look or a Touch, Heggie and Scheer crafted a musical drama where Manfred (sung by a baritone) returns as a ghost to an older present-day Gad (portrayed by a non-singing actor). Gad wants only to forget the horrors he lived through; Manfred’s ghost wants only to be remembered, for Gad to treasure their powerful, timeless love. Manfred implores Gad to recall the exuberant freedom they enjoyed in pre-Nazi Berlin, and he also tells Gad of the atrocities he witnessed in Auschwitz. In the end, Manfred and Gad embrace in the liberating release of shared remembrance. For a Look or a Touch accomplished something extraordinary, illuminating essential historical realities through an intensely intimate story of deep personal emotion. The work has entered the repertoire and touched the lives of people around the world, and is available on CD (Naxos 8.559379).
The evolution of For a Look or a Touch into the new song cycle version on this recording is an interesting one. The original musical drama generated immediate interest in settings of the work that could reach even broader audiences. Music of Remembrance encouraged the Seattle Men’s Chorus to commission a choral arrangement, for which Heggie added a new number: A Hundred Thousand Stars. The choral version, including this emotionally gripping new song, brought further attention to the need for a solo vocal setting that could be performed in a recital venue, or the intimacy of a salon. This deeply moving song cycle, premièred by Music of Remembrance in 2013, speaks with beauty and eloquence to profound questions of love, loss and remembrance.
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HEGGIE, J.: Out of Darkness (Music of Remembrance)