The Emperor of Atlantis

I met R, who was in her eighties, through my work.   She was a quiet,  friendly woman who had emigrated to Canada after the war and worked as a nurse here.   She often went to seniors’ events at community centres and enjoyed long walks.   I would sometimes see her in Stanley Park. 

 R. had trouble sleeping at night due to severe nightmares.  Once, when I asked her about it, she said only something like, ‘Terrible, terrible things…’   Others heard her crying out at night and she would often leave her room rather than sleep.  It was clear she was having disturbing, possibly psychotic, episodes at night. We found out that R. was an Auschwitz survivor.

The other night, I went to see the ‘Emperor of Atlantis’ – a chamber opera with music by Viktor Ullman and libretto by Petr Klein. The opera was composed in Theresienstadt, which was a transit camp  for Auschwitz.   It was hard to wrap the mind around the conditions in which this opera was created.

The story is simple.   Death goes on strike, repelled by the slaughter demanded by the Emperor of Atlantis.  Death agrees to return only if the Emperor agrees to be the first one to die.  It is a short work, just over an hour and the production was very well done.   Cabaret motifs were used in costume and staging, although the music draws on classical sources – Mendelssohn, Bach and Schoenberg.   Five talented people sang and acted well – and two young dancers were used wonderfully to enhance the story. 

I felt privileged just to see this work performed.  The musicians were incredibly courageous to thematically attack Hitler while in a concentration camp.   The Nazis closed the production after one rehearsal and sent the musicians to Auschwitz.   The composer, Ullman, knew he was going to die and gave all his music – in a small suitcase – to a friend.   The friend survived and died in England as an old man, saying little about his war experiences.  After his death,  the man’s son found the suitcase and the music was discovered.

The book,  “A Life Interrupted  – the Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum” is an inspiring work I have never forgotten.  Etty was a young Dutch Jewish woman who was killed in Auschwitz in November 1943.    She was a vibrant, gifted free spirit who taught Russian and lived a somewhat bohemian life.  When the Nazis started rounding up her friends and family, Etty worked within the Jewish community, offering support and bearing witness to the monstrous catastrophe they all faced.  Her writing is passionate, insightful and full of humanity.  While imprisoned in a grim transit camp, Etty wrote:  “Despite everything, life is full of beauty and meaning.”   Her last postcard, flung from the transport train to Auschwitz and mailed by farmers, said, “We left the camp singing.”


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