Helena’s Journey

Some years ago, when the Terminal 21 shopping mall was new, I spotted a statue of Adolf Hitler in front a clothing store, dressed to look like Ronald McDonald.  Around the same time, I learned that there had once been a restaurant called Hitler Fried Chicken in Ubon Rachatani.  And that nice young college men and women were dressing up in Nazi gear for school parades.  It led me to ask some of my students if they knew whether Thailand won or lost the Second World War.

They didn’t know.  

It was really this that led me to work with embassies in Thailand — Israel, Germany, Austria, Czechia, and others — to try to put on performances that would help teach the reality of what, supposedly, “everyone” knows — but which, it seems, they do not.

The journey of Helena Citronóvá was far more torturous.  From the hellish Slovakia Transport to the extermination camps, to an intense, morally ambiguous relationship with an SS-man, to a death march, to being a refugee fleeing to Israel across a devastated post-war landscape, hers was a life that beggared belief — not just that she lived it, but that she survived it.  Hearing her speaking, years later, in a matter-of-fact, collected voice, about these horrors, in an interview in the BBC’s landmark Auschwitz documentary, was profound.

It’s not that I had not thought about Auschwitz ever before.  I knew about it from school.  I’ve had vivid nightmares about Auschwitz all my life, every few years.  For me, though Auschwitz was an icon — the central mystery, the central trauma of the twentieth century.  Six million is a vast number, incomprehensible in human terms.

Helena was not one of the six million slain — she was one who survived.  Yet while six million is a number, one is a person.  In hearing her story I understood that there were six million separate, individual stories about human beings.  There was not one of those six million who didn’t want to live.  Somehow, she did.  It was a story of a person who, no matter what, kept her personhood intact.  I don’t know if this was what redeemed the SS-man, Franz Wunsch. I don’t know where the truth falls, between the two extremes of an idealized love between opposites —or  a desperate transactional relationship between two people trying to cling to an illusion of normalcy in a world gone mad.  We will never know this because we’ll never know what either of them was thinking.

An opera is not about reality.  No one walks around singing with a symphony orchestra backing them up.  But opera is about truth.  I composed this opera because the truth haunted and tormented me. Many of my friends hope this opera will “teach people about the Holocaust”.  I hope so too, but I also hope that the past will teach us about ourselves, and about the earnest longing in all of us for a better, more compassionate world.

SP Somtow‘s landmark opera Helena Citronóvá opened to rave reviews in Bangkok on January 16. The full performance can be seen in the link.

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