The plot of Mieczysław Weinberg’s opera The Passenger is set both on a luxury liner at the beginning of the 1960s as well as during the Second World War. A German couple – Lisa and Walter – are making their way across the ocean to Brazil, where Walter is to take up a diplomatic post. At some point, Lisa recognizes among the many passengers on board a woman called Marta – an inmate at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where Lisa had been a guard.

An opera about Auschwitz seemed impossible at the time. Although many works had been written that directly or indirectly referred to the Second World War (among them, Dmitri Shostakovich’s symphonies, Krzysztof Penderecki’s Death Brigade, Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, Polish Requiem, Luigi Nono’s Ricorda cosa ti hanno fatto in Auschwitz, Arnold Schönberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, Oliver Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, and Grigory Frid’s The Diary of Anne Frank), juxtaposing on stage the barracks of Auschwitz with the unfailingly beautiful tones of operatic voices seemed beyond the imagination. And yet…

The Passenger – an opera set to Alexander Medvedev’s libretto based on Zofia Posmysz’s novel of the same title (1962) – was written by Mieczysław Weinberg (1919–96). He was a Polish composer of Jewish descent, born in Warsaw, who lived in the Soviet Union (today’s Russia) from 1939, and died in Moscow. His mother was an actress, and his father a violinist. Weinberg gained his first musical experiences in the Jewish theatres of Warsaw, where his father worked. In 1939 he escaped the city. In 1943, thanks to Dmitri Shostakovich’s help, he moved to Moscow. A year after the end of the war his music was accused of being too pessimistic with too few references to folklore. In 1953, he was arrested for his ‘Jewish bourgeois nationalism’, but was released two months later, again thanks to Shostakovich’s intercession. He took to writing film scores, for example for the war movie The Cranes are Flying (directed by Mikhail Kalatozov), which won a Palme d’Or at the Cannes festival in 1958.

Weinberg completed The Passenger in 1968, but did not live to see the premiere. The associations it conjured up with Soviet forced-labour camps were a little too close for comfort and the Party would not agree to it being shown to the public. The world heard the opera for the first time in a concert version in Moscow on 25 December 2006, and the first staging (directed by David Pountney) was held in Bregenz on 21 July 2010. Several months later the opera was staged in Warsaw, followed by performances in London, Houston, New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Yekaterinburg… On each occasion, the ending of the opera was met with dead silence, followed only then by rapturous applause.

Zofia Posmysz – the author of the novel The Passenger – was herself a concentration camp survivor. For her, writing was a way of giving testimony; however, more than ten years would pass before her stories saw the light of day. Indeed, the first to be heard was her radio drama (Passenger from Cabin 45, 1959) adapted for television, and later as a film. It was directed by Andrzej Munk, who died in a car crash in 1961, having managed to shoot only part of the script (mainly the war scenes, shot in the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum). Witold Lesiewicz, Munk’s collaborator, edited the material, which included a commentary by the poet Wiktor Woroszylski that was performed by the actor Tadeusz Łomnicki. The film had its premiere on 20 September 1963 – the second anniversary of the director’s tragic death.

The plot of the opera The Passenger (two acts, eight scenes plus an epilogue) is set on a luxury ocean liner at the beginning of the 1960s as well as during the Second World War. The liner carries a German couple – Lisa and Walter – on their way to Brazil, where he is to take up a diplomatic post. At some point, among the many passengers on board Lisa recognizes Marta – an inmate at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where she had been a guard. Seeing Marta drives Lisa almost insane, stirs up memories and leads to a marital crisis – Lisa confesses to her husband what she did during the war.

The war scenes mainly revolve around the relationship between Lisa and Marta, as well as the relationship between the latter and another inmate – Tadeusz. They also tell a story about music: Tadeusz is a violinist who has to perform the camp commandant’s favourite waltz in a special concert. In the penultimate scene we return to the ship. The German couple decides to behave as if nothing has happened; however, Lisa starts panicking when Marta plays the commandant’s favourite waltz during a dance party. In the last scene, we are back in the camp: the concert is on, and Tadeusz moves from the waltz to Bach’s Chaconne – the dance of death…

Weinberg’s music follows the plot. It is diverse: realistic and symbolic, intimate and powerful; it assumes a certain mood when it accompanies conversations on board the sunlit ship, and shifts to another when it conveys the hell of Auschwitz. The inmates are of different nationalities; therefore, their solo songs – like the brilliant seven-part Song of Life and Death – are multilingual. Particularly striking are two fragments: Marta’s song in scene no. 6 (Act Two) and all of scene no. 8 – the transition from the Viennese waltz to Chaconna. It is quite possible that only someone who, as David Pountney said, had ‘spent his life writing music in memory of lost loved ones’ was capable of composing such music.

It is worth recalling here the words of the French philosopher Pascal Quignard, who said that music turned out to be the only art form that collaborated with the Nazis in the camps. Tadeusz refuses to cooperate and pays for it with his life. At the moment of his death, the opera choir – like a chorus in a Greek tragedy – intones The Requiem of the Black Wall, i.e. the site of executions in Auschwitz. And then there is time for the epilogue: a song – a message from Marta, standing by the river, recalling the words of the poet Paul Eluard (which are the opera’s motto): ‘If the echoes of their voices fade away, then we too will perish.’ The world should not forget. It must not forget. As the title of Luigi Nono’s work declares: Remember What They Did to You in Auschwitz.