Friday, September 23, 2011

The Passenger speaks

In the JC this week I have an interview with Zofia Posmysz, author of the semi-autobiographical novel on which Weinberg's The Passenger is based. She is quite remarkable: poised, radiant, eloquent and forgiving. Read the piece here. I'm going to see the opera tomorrow.

The interview contained more interesting material than there was space, so here is one of the out-takes, which was not directly relevant to The Passenger, but will be of great interest to anyone who is preoccupied, as I often have been, by Alma Rose - Mahler's niece - and the Auschwitz women's orchestra that she conducted.

JD: Did you have any contact with the Auschwitz women's orchestra?

ZP (via interpreter): "Yes, I did. It was when Alma Rose started conducting the orchestra that it gained some sort of status and quality. She searched among the prisoners – they were very educated people, professors, artists, all sorts. She looked for prisoners who had a musical education – for instance, there were two excellent, wonderful singers, they were Hungarian Jewish. And since I was working in the kitchen and I had access to some of the products there, I would sometimes go to the orchestra block and take them something. 

"I had a friend who’d helped me along in the past, helped me survive through some of the hard labour outside the camp at first, helped me persevere another 15 minutes and then another 15 minutes; this friend was a violinist and I managed to persuade Alma Rose to consider taking her into the orchestra. She said: "Let her come, but I have to listen to her." And I told my friend: "Listen, I’ve found this fantastic thing for you. You can play in the orchestra and it will give you a chance to survive." She was so thin by then that she was on her last legs. And to my great surprise and regret, she said: "Am I to play here for those people?" To this day I don’t know what she was thinking about. What happened was that there was a ramp that led to the gas chambers and the crematorium, and the orchestra had to stand by the ramp and play these tunes for the transports so that people didn’t know what was happening at all - it was a deceit. I don’t know whether my friend didn't want to play for the people in this situation, or in the concerts for the SS men. Either way, she didn’t agree. A few months later she died."