For the last five years I have been working on this opera, Helena Citrónová. I cannot get the subject out of my mind. The true story of a Slovak Jew in Auschwitz who had a passionate and searing relationship with an SS-man has so many things to tell us today. It asks questions that make us question all that makes us human.
Questions like: What is love, in the end? And, Can love possibly exist in a situation as extreme as Auschwitz?
The lesson I have learned from this story is that in the end, the Holocaust was not only about telling someone they should starve, that they should be tortured, that they should be worked to death, that they should be gassed and cremated. It was really about telling someone, "You are not a person."
If your life's work consists of telling people, day in, day out, "You are not a person," then in the end it will happen to you too. You, who steal humanity from your victims, must inevitably lose your own humanity.
This then is a story about a woman who, though trapped in the darkest of possible hells, would not give up her personhood.
It is the story of a man who should have given up his personhood, but instead found redemption in this woman's refusal, redemption in the very thing that he had been taught not to regard as a person.
I was born a few years after the Second World War ended, in a place far from the events of this opera. But several times in my life I have had vivid dreams about Auschwitz. Since I saw an interview with Helena on a BBC documentary, she has haunted me.
THE TRAIN JOURNEY
The overture to Helena Citronova is a terrifying depiction of the train journey to Auschwitz.
During selection, Helena has a chance encounter with Franz Wunsch, with whom she will later have a beautiful and terrifying relationship. The scene of violence plays out against the sound of a prison orchestra that plays café music to mask the sound of violence.