Zofia Posmysz, whose Holocaust story has reached opera stage, dies at 98

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Zofia Posmysz, a Polish radio journalist on a mission to Paris, was crossing Place de la Concorde in 1959 when she heard a voice among a group of tourists that shattered the beauty of the place. The speaker, a woman, was German. Briefly—excruciatingly—Mrs. Posmysz thought she recognized in his voice that of the Aufsherinor guard, who had supervised her at Auschwitz.

Ms. Posmysz, a Catholic, was 18 when she was arrested along with other students in 1942 and spent more than two years in the Nazi death camp in occupied Poland. A few days before the liberation of Auschwitz in January 1945, she was sent on a death march and transferred first to Ravensbrück then another camp in Germany, where she was imprisoned until the end of World War II in Europe.

The voice that Mrs. Posmysz heard that day Place de la Concorde did not belong to her former foreman. Yet the encounter disrupted the peace Ms Posmysz had found in the decade and a half since her release.

“I started thinking: what should I do? she told the Chicago Tribune years later, recalling the times when she thought she had come face-to-face with her former guard. “Should I report her immediately to the police, as a former Nazi SS? Or should I go up to her and ask her, “Wie geht’s, Frau Aufseher”, which translates to: “How are you, Frau Overseer?” ”

Ms. Posmysz, who died August 8 at age 98, went on to a remarkable career as a writer, exploring the Holocaust in fiction and drama. She turned her Parisian experience into a radio play and then into a 1962 novel, “Le Passager”, in which the central character, a former concentration camp guard, boards a cruise ship and meets a fellow traveler who looks like undeniably to an inmate – a bit like Mrs. Posmysz – whom the guard had thought dead.

The story was adapted for film by Polish director Andrzej Munk, who died in 1961 during production, and later that decade for the operatic stage by Polish-born composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg and Russian librettist Alexander Medvedev.

Dmitry Shostakovich, the Soviet-era Russian composer, is said to have called the opera a “perfect masterpiece”. But the communist censors of the Soviet Union, apparently deeming the work insufficiently laudatory of Soviet sacrifices during World War II, let the opera languish for decades until it nearly died out.

It wasn’t until 2010 that the work premiered as an all-stage production, at the Bregenz Festival in Austria under the direction of David Pountney. Performances in Warsaw, London, Houston, New York, Chicago, Tel Aviv and elsewhere followed. Writing in The New Yorker in 2011, music critic Alex Ross described the opera as “a work of concentrated power that trumps most other attempts to dramatize the Holocaust”.

Survivors and scholars have long debated the morality of attempting to depict the Holocaust in fiction, music, and art. One of the most famous entries in the canon of Holocaust literature is William Styron’s 1979 novel, “Sophie’s Choice,” about the tortured past of a Polish Catholic survivor of Auschwitz. The novel, which won a National Book Award, was made into a 1982 film starring Meryl Streep and a 2002 opera by British composer Nicholas Maw.

“I also thought that no words could express such an experience,” the London Guardian said, quoting Ms Posmysz. “But that has changed, because even if a hundredth of the truth is told, a fragment will live on in future generations. This is what we owe to those who died there.

Zofia Posmysz (her name was pronounced ZOH-fyah POH-smish) was born in Krakow on August 23, 1923. She had just turned 16 and was attending a high school specializing in business and economics when Nazi Germany invaded the Poland in September 1939. , triggering the outbreak of World War II.

After the Nazi occupation, Mrs. Posmysz’s school was closed. To avoid deportation for forced labor, she worked as a waitress in a government cafeteria. Wishing to continue her studies, she took clandestine courses organized by the Polish resistance. When she and the other students were arrested, one of them was carrying leaflets printed by the Polish resistance, an offense which also led Ms Posmysz to stand trial.

She was sent to Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi death camps in Europe, where more than 1.1 million people, including almost a million Jews, were murdered. As a Catholic, she said, she was “undoubtedly” spared the extent of the torture suffered by Jews in the camp. But after another inmate escaped, Ms. Posmysz told The New York Times, her entire work unit was moved to an Auschwitz subcamp called Budy, where she was subjected to forced labor that left her there. almost killed her.

She was then assigned to work in a kitchen and warehouse in the Birkenau section of Auschwitz. There, she was watched for more than a year by the guard whose voice then seemed to echo over the Place de la Concorde.

“She always made sure I had clean clothes and linens,” Ms. Posmysz told NPR in 2011. “Lice and fleas were very common, so I think she did that for her too. own comfort.”

There were other sounds from the camps that echoed in Ms. Posmysz’s memory — the screams of inmates throwing themselves over electrified fences, the haunting tune of a Jewish man she saw one night with his arms raised. towards the sky, singing a prayer for the dead. He was surrounded by bodies – living or not, she couldn’t tell. The next morning, she told The Times, “all we saw was smoke coming from the chimney of the crematorium.”

After her liberation in May 1945 from Neustadt-Glewe, a sub-camp of Ravensbrück, Ms. Posmysz walked 800 km to her home in Krakow. Shortly after, she returned to Auschwitz with her mother to explain what she had endured during the war. She showed her mother the bunks where she had slept when she was sick.

“That was it,” Ms. Posmysz told The Times. “She didn’t want to see anything anymore and didn’t ask any more questions. Back home, she cried and said, “You should never go back. You should forget it. ”

After the war, Ms. Posmysz studied Polish literature at the University of Warsaw and became a journalist. His first newspaper article, according to the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, a state-run Polish cultural organization, was about the trial in Germany of SS officers who had worked at Auschwitz. Instead of her name, she signed the article with the number tattooed on her arm at camp: 7566.

Ms. Posmysz then worked for Polish State Radio, where she became director of the news editorial section in 1958. She also embarked on more literary writing projects, including the radio play based on his experience in Paris, “The Passenger in Cabin 45,” broadcast in 1959.

Ms. Posmysz wrote several other radio plays and books, many of which examined the emotional trauma of the Holocaust. “At Auschwitz I met people who I have no doubt were saints,” she said. “I think it’s the only subject that’s still worth writing about.”

She set the action of “The Passenger” on an ocean liner rather than a Paris square, she said, so the sitter couldn’t run away from his past.

“All these people, they still have power over us. We can’t get out of this. We cannot break free,” she told NPR. “Our oppressors are present in our lives just like our heroes. We simply cannot drive them out of our lives.

The novel has been translated into more than a dozen languages. Shostakovich is said to have read the Russian version and passed it on to Weinberg, a Jew who fled Nazi-occupied Poland for the Soviet Union and lost his family in the Holocaust. Weinberg began work on his opera in 1967, completed it the following year, and died in 1996 without ever seeing it staged. Medvedev, the librettist, died days after the 2010 premiere.

Ms. Posmysz was then in her late 80s and traveled with the opera production as it traveled around the world, often receiving standing ovations.

Ms. Posmysz was married, but a full list of survivors was not immediately available. Due to exposure to toxic substances in the camps, she told the Tribune, she was unable to have children.

A representative from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland confirmed the death of Ms Posmysz, at a hospice in the nearby town of Oswiecim, but did not cite a cause.

“For me, the most important thing was that the memory of Auschwitz does not disappear, that it is alive when we, the witnesses, are no longer there,” Ms. Posmysz told the Polish edition of Newsweek in 2019. I was convinced that music, more than a written word, a film or any other kind of art, can do this.

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