Sonia Landau – who was born to a Jewish family in Lodz, Poland, in 1914 – walked out of the Warsaw Ghetto and worked for the resistance until she was arrested and sent to Auschwitz as a political prisoner in 1943.
She took the Polish name and identity of Krystyna Zywulska, while she was being interrogated by the Gestapo. It wasn’t until the 1960s that she reclaimed her Jewish heritage.
Two short operas, Another Sunrise and Farewell, Auschwitz, by American composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, explore Zywulska’s story of surviving in the camp. Both works will have their Canadian premiere at the Beth Tzedec synagogue in Toronto on Feb. 10 and 11.
In Auschwitz, Zywulska thought up poems of defiance and lyrics about everyday life in the camp, and set them to folk tunes and popular melodies. Writing the words down would have been suicide, so the inmates passed the songs around by word of mouth. “They gave the prisoners hope,” Heggie said.
When Zywulska contracted typhoid, a kapo saved her life by giving her one of the “easier” jobs at the camp: taking inventory of the possessions that Jewish women and children brought with them. She worked in a building next to the crematoria, where the corpses of gassed Jews were burned.
“Music and words saved her life and at the same time, became a source of despair for her, because she was surviving in an environment of death and suffering,” Heggie said.
Mina Miller, the artistic director of the Seattle-based classical music ensemble, Music of Remembrance, commissioned Another Sunrise and Farewell, Auschwitz. When Heggie heard Zywulska’s story, it struck him as a deeply human one.
“Very often, people who survive terrible tragedies are called heroes, that they were heroic for surviving. But they very often don’t feel like heroes. In fact, sometimes surviving is just surviving,” Heggie said.
“And sometimes it means taking the piece of bread from someone else or not sharing it with someone else. There are many ways people survive and they’re not always heroic. And I wanted to explore the nature of survival, that part of survival that doesn’t get spoken of very often, with regards to the Holocaust.”
When Zywulska was interviewed by Barbara Engleking for her book, Holocaust and Memory, which was published in Polish in 1994 and English in 2001, she was often at a loss for words to describe her experiences at Auschwitz.
In Another Sunrise, a one-woman opera starring soprano Sara Schabas in the role of Zywulska, “Krystyna continually tries to find the words to express what happened to her and how she survived and why she made the choices she did. And she’s at a loss for the words, so she keeps shutting out the past, and as a result, it’s always going to be haunting her in a way,” Heggie said.
Some experiences are beyond words, though, which is why we have music to help us describe those events, he said. “Another Sunrise starts with a tune that has been haunting Krystyna all her life and she has never been able to find the words for it. In the end, she realizes that for some melodies, there are no words.”
In the companion opera, Farewell, Auschwitz, three singers – Schabas, mezzo-soprano Georgia Burashko and baritone Sean Watson – perform some of the songs that Zywulska wrote in Auschwitz. Thirty-two song texts, which Zywulska wrote down after she was released from the camp, survive.
Heggie set Scheer’s poetic English translations of the lyrics to music, since it was impossible to identify the original tunes. Of the half-dozen songs in Farewell, Auschwitz, two of the tunes are classical melodies. “The other ones I invented. And I wanted to invent tunes that sound maybe like something that could have been done at the time. One of them is even an Andrews Sisters kind of trio,” Heggie said.
The Electric Bond Opera Ensemble presents Another Sunrise and Farewell, Auschwitz, staged by Aaron Willis, with an ensemble of five instrumentalists from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra – including Mark Skazinetsky, Eric Braley, Igor Gefter and Michael Chiarello – led by Michael Shannon. The performances will take place at the Beth Tzedec synagogue on Feb. 10 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 11 at 2 p.m. For tickets, visit anothersunrise.ca, or call 416-781-3511.