A meeting with two Holocaust survivors in the mid-1990s left Philadelphia composer Janice Hamer profoundly struck by the lingering impacts of the horror Holocaust on generations of descendants of the survivors. She and her cousin, Baltimore librettist Mary Azrael, eventually teamed up to write an opera titled “Lost Childhood” that will run Saturday, Nov. 9 at The Music Center at Strathmore, in Bethesda. It is loosely inspired by the real-life friendship of a Polish Jew named Yehuda Nir, who survived concentration camps, and Gottfried Wagner, a German descendent of composer Richard Wagner who became very critical of his family’s involvement with the Nazis.
Here Hamer, 66, explains more about the opera’s evolution and why she thinks it pertains to other conflicts.
Q: What gave you the idea to write a post-Holocaust opera?
A: We wanted to write an opera based on a Holocaust memoir, and considered the story of Anne Frank, but we thought that might be a little claustrophobic on stage, because there is little dramatic action.
At the time I’d become friends with two real men who are loosely the inspiration … [Wagner] saw an ethical calling toward speaking truth. He was called upon to not just atone but to compensate for the behavior of his family by working toward dialogue between Jews and Germans after the war.
We said: ‘What’s really interesting is these two men.’ And how do these traumas of the past carry themselves into the present? How can we listen to one another and one another’s narratives in a way that they can be resolved? Is there any way looking back we can begin to listen to the other and stop demonizing the other, stop having prejudice, stop seeing the other as a stereotype?
Who should we forgive? Who can ask for forgiveness? Is it appropriate for Germans to wish for the forgiveness of survivors; the guy wasn’t born during the war. Another issue is revenge, what does it mean to take revenge?
Q: Are we still in a “post-Holocaust” phase? Are issues of the Holocaust still being sorted out?
A: We’re in the second or third generation. It’s been 75 years. We are now looking back at it from a distance. But we are now looking at other conflicts, with the same kinds of traumas, rejections, demonizing of the other. We have hopefully in this opera an understanding that develops between the two men that could be relevant.
We have Syria, Israel and Palestine, Sudan and Sudan South, Egypt, we have millions of horrible world conflicts that are just as devastating for children involved is this one was.
Q: Why did you personally want to do this? Do you have some personal history here?
A: In my family this wasn’t spoken of. I think in some way my idea of doing this was in part a kind of atonement for that, to allow this Holocaust survivor in this story to speak. [The Jewish character] doesn’t want to at first and it takes the whole opera to trust this German colleague.
It wasn’t like today where we have so much emphasis on trauma and getting people to speak about trauma.
Q: How does the Holocaust, specifically, still trickle down?
A: A lot of countries in Europe, including Germany, they did a wonderful job educating the younger generation about it, even though the younger generations feel sometimes great pain and shame as a result. Because they realize their parents, grand-parents were involved in terrible things; they can’t feel proud of them. I think in Poland it’s just starting, an opening of consciousness. The Poles were badly treated by Germans, and they just now are opening their own suffering. They also had their own anti-Semitic tendencies.
Q: How has this impacted our society?
A: I think it has affected how we teach issues of social justice. The notion of not being a bystander, but standing up when someone is being bullied, mistreated, not being willing to go along with group-think. I think a lot of those ways we teach are a function of what we learned from the Holocaust.
Q: Did doing this opera change your perspective about the Holocaust?
A: I’ve become very educated about it. When I talk to survivors I say: ‘I think I know as much as anyone who wasn’t there, which is to say nothing. I know nothing compared to those who went through it.’
Image courtesy of Philippe AMIOT.