A People’s Opera – Seth Morgan In This Way For The Gas, Ladies & Gentlemen
The Life And Death Orchestra, Brighton Perform This Way For The Gas Ladies & Gentlemen on Latest Tv to Commemorate 75 Years Since the end of the Holocaust
In 2000, I made Songs for the Betrayed World with The Life and Death Orchestra. On that album is the song ‘This Way For The Gas’, which Angi Mariani and I adapted from the short story by Tadeusz Borowski. I was totally fascinated by Borowski and his friends in the underground Essentialist Club, based in Warsaw in the early 1940’s, when ‘going clubbing’ was a capital offence. That sounds trite but is starkly true. The poets, musicians, writers and artists who attended risked their lives every time they went.
How could the cruelest acts be undertaken by seemingly the most civilised people, they played Schubert but killed composers like Pavel Haas. The twentieth century was not medieval, it was more evil,with more people killed by genocide than in any previous century, and the Holocaust was unique in the annals of a long collection of evil genocides. Where does this evil, come from. Is it still in us? If so, in which of us? And how can we rid humanity forever of genocide? Our opera asks this.
One of the great Holocaust chroniclers, the painter and writer Arnold Daghani, who was from a German-speaking Jewish family in Suceava, Romania, actually came to live in Brighton and Hove, and the story of how he painted his works in secret and subsequently – with the help and support of his wife Nanino – smuggled them out as they made their escape from a forced labour camp at Mikhailowka in the Ukraine, where everyone else was murdered, would make a great film in itself. Daghani’s message is entirely conveyed in his depictions of the camp. As he wrote, I have preferred setting out the facts to interpreting them. I have provided plenty of nails. May others hammer them in. I based two of the characters in the opera on Arnold and Nanino Daghani.
The world is ruled by neither justice nor morality; crime is not punished nor virtue rewarded, one is forgotten as quickly as the other. The world is ruled by power Tadeusz Borowski
There are many books about the Holocaust and to those who say it’s an ‘industry’, all I can say is: I do not agree. There are not enough. It is the most important thing you could ever write, paint, compose about. The message to live and let live needs constant repetition. The album’s title, Songs For The Betrayed World outlines my own conclusion and the words are from a poem by Zbigniew Herbert with a translation by Czeslaw Milosz in which he talks about offering ‘the betrayed world a rose’. My aim was to do that in both the album and opera.
Can there be art about Auschwitz? Anne Frank, Lee Miller,Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi and films such as Life is Beautiful,Schindler’s List, The Pianist make the case. However, while I was making the album I had correspondence with Elie Wiesel about using words from his great book, Night, as a song. We talked about whether music demeans suffering. Is the complete experience impossible to transfer? In the end he did give permission to use his words on the album.
If you cannot create music to express suffering, however extreme, we would never have had any protest music, whether it be ‘Strange Fruit’ by Billie Holliday, ‘Babi Yar’by Dmitri Shostakovich, ‘The Slave’s Lament’ by Robert Burns. I guess the question arises because of Theodor W. Adorno’s now-famous quote, ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz isbarbaric’. Adorno is saying, how can you express the inexpressible? But for me and many others there is a greater imperative: the need to give voice to your feelings at the horror. If it is unspeakable, it is hidden from history.
Tadeusz Borowski whose slender volume This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen continues to occupy a place apart in Holocaust literature and he and his resistance member girlfriend and then wife Maria Rundo were the basis for the story in our opera. He describes in everyday fashion the truth about what it was like to work in and around the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Its power is its ordinariness. As a composer I tried to underline that ordinariness by giving the song version of his words an everyday ballad feel. The tune comes over and over again, to emphasise the repetitive nature of what happened there as ordinary and everyday. A few chilling chords, however, tell a different story. He outlines his seeming selfishness….
A long column of automobiles stationed itself at the end of the avenue and waited for streetcars, like a tiger tracking antelope. We spilled out of the moving trolley bus like pears and tore diagonally across afield newly planted with vegetables. The earth smelled of Spring and in the city on the other side of the river as in adeep jungle people were being hunted.
I lie against the metal and dream of my bunk suddenly I see the camp as a haven of peace others may be dying but I’ve still strength and food for this living moment,for today. It’s this way for the gas.
However, we refute any guilt for anything that happened there. The truth is that people want to survive, that is absolutely natural, but it is the environment that determines how people act. Put prisoners into a monstrous world and by necessity, whether it be Borowski or you or me,we will act what can seem selfishly in cosy retrospect. What is also amazing about Borowski and his colleagues at the Essentialist Club and the underground university in Poland is that they tried to carry on with their artistic lives as if the Nazis had not invaded Warsaw. There were Nazi tanks and soldiers and police in the streets,there were posters saying, ‘By order,no cabarets, no theatre, no schools,no universities, no dancing, no speaking Polish’. People were hunted as he recalls: Borowski believed that an artist’s role was to tell the truth. Their club was called the Essentialist Club. He was a moody, melancholic,sometimes angry young man, a bohemian in any age, although he was always smartly be-suited. What do bohemians brilliantly do in any age? They scoff at everything, they write melancholy poems, they try to love a lot! and all the time they smoke. Borowski was the original existentialist.
Nowadays there are many bohemian clubs, many gay clubs. It used to be risky to go to them, and in some parts of the world it still is. That was the everyday life for Borowski and his fellow clubbers, the only difference being that if they were caught at their club, they risked certain execution. Their attitude was, if we don’t go we might as well be shot.
At the same time as Borowski was a street poet; some of his colleagues were street fighters in the Resistance. Eventually, his fiancée Maria Rundo, a member of the Resistance, was captured by the Nazis, and Borowski himself was arrested when he went looking for her: he with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in his pocket, she arrested with a book of Borowski’s own poems. They were both sent to Auschwitz, and they were sent there, as the guard says in the film of the opera, because ‘it’s not what you’ve done, it’s what you are.’ Our opera tells their story.
Just after Auschwitz Borowski wrote one of the great love poems of all time, a song of longing for the girlfriend that he spent many hours with,on her bunk in Birkenau, after getting a job as a collector of infant corpses in the women’s prison. Here is an excerpt:
“The Sun of Auschwitz I remember your smile as elusive as a shade of the color of the wind, a leaf trembling on the edge of sun and shadow, fleeting yet always there. So you are for me today, in the sea green sky, the greenery and the leaf-rustling wind. I feel you in every shadow, every movement,and you put the world around me like your arms. I feel the world as your body, you look into my eyes and call me with the whole world.”
You would never know from reading this poem that they were in an extermination camp. You could read it as escapism, but it is not, because the subject of this poem is true love and nothing else impinged on that feeling. There were love affairs in Auschwitz. It was the real world and everything was there – football fields, factories, a brothel, concert halls and gas chambers. It was an upside-down world, ruled by criminals and power-hungry madmen. These were the people you were supposed to look up to and admire. Borowski spells it all out and makes it everyday real so we can easily see ourselves there.
I hope our people’s opera does justice to one of the greatest poets of all time. As John Keats said, another genius poet, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
The album, Songs For The Betrayed World by The Life & Death Orchestra is available on Latest Records, itunes and all e-music sites. See also www.lifeanddeath.org for names of the writers and artists and permissions The people’s opera is on Latest TV for Holocaust Memorial Week– see TV Listings for days and times