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Zofia Posmysz, whose Holocaust story reached opera stage, dies at 98

Her semi-autobiographical novel, “The Passenger,” which centered on the reunion of an Auschwitz survivor and her former Nazi guard, inspired a noted opera

Zofia Posmysz at her home in Warsaw in 2020. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)
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Zofia Posmysz, a Polish radio journalist on assignment in Paris, was crossing the Place de la Concorde in 1959 when she heard from among a group of tourists a voice that shattered the beauty of the scene. The speaker, a woman, was German. Briefly — excruciatingly — Ms. Posmysz thought she recognized in her voice that of the Aufseherin, or guard, who had overseen her at Auschwitz.

Ms. Posmysz, a Catholic, was 18 when she was arrested with other students in 1942 and spent more than two years at the Nazi death camp in occupied Poland. Days before the liberation of Auschwitz in January 1945, she was sent on a death march and transferred first to Ravensbrück and then another camp in Germany, where she was imprisoned until World War II ended in Europe.

The voice Ms. Posmysz overheard that day in the Place de la Concorde did not belong to her former overseer. Still, the encounter unsettled whatever peace Ms. Posmysz had found in the decade and a half since her liberation.

“I started to think: What should I do?” she told the Chicago Tribune years later, recalling the moments when she thought she had come face-to-face with her former guard. “Should I report her to the police immediately, as a former SS Nazi? Or should I go to her and ask, ‘Wie geht’s, Frau Aufseher,’ which translates as, ‘How goes it, Frau Overseer?’ ”

Ms. Posmysz, who died Aug. 8 at 98, went on to a noted career as a writer, exploring the Holocaust in fiction and drama. She turned her experience in Paris into a radio play and then a 1962 novel, “The Passenger,” in which the central character, a former concentration camp guard, sets sail on a cruise ship and meets a fellow traveler with an unmistakable resemblance to an inmate — much like Ms. Posmysz — whom the guard had thought was dead.

The story was adapted for film by Polish director Andrzej Munk, who died in 1961 during production, and later that decade for the opera stage by the Polish-born composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg and Russian librettist Alexander Medvedev.

Dmitri Shostakovich, the Soviet-era Russian composer, was said to have declared the opera a “perfect masterpiece.” But Communist censors in the Soviet Union, apparently deeming the work insufficiently laudatory of Soviet sacrifices during World War II, allowed the opera to languish for decades until it nearly disappeared.

Not until 2010 did the work have its premiere as a fully staged production, at the Bregenz Festival in Austria under the direction of David Pountney. Performances in Warsaw, London, Houston, New York, Chicago, Tel Aviv and elsewhere followed. Writing in the New Yorker in 2011, music critic Alex Ross described the opera as “a work of concentrated power that outweighs most other attempts to dramatize the Holocaust.”

Survivors and scholars have long debated the morality of attempting to represent the Holocaust in fiction, music and art. One of the most famous entries in the canon of Holocaust literature is William Styron’s 1979 novel, “Sophie’s Choice,” about the tortured past of a Polish Catholic survivor of Auschwitz. The novel, which received a National Book Award, was made into a 1982 film starring Meryl Streep and a 2002 opera by British composer Nicholas Maw.

“I also used to think no words could express such an experience,” the London Guardian quoted Ms. Posmysz as saying. “But that’s changed, because even if a hundredth of the truth is told, a fragment will live on in future generations. That is what we owe those who died there.”

Zofia Posmysz (her name was pronounced ZOH-fyah POH-smish) was born in Krakow on Aug. 23, 1923. She had just turned 16 and was attending a high school that specialized in business and economics when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, prompting the outbreak of World War II.

After the Nazi occupation, Ms. Posmysz’s school was closed. To avoid deportation for forced labor, she worked as a waitress at a government cafeteria. Eager to continue her education, she attended underground classes arranged by the Polish resistance. When she and the other students were arrested, one was carrying leaflets printed by the Polish resistance, an offense that also landed Ms. Posmysz on trial.

She was sent to Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi death camps in Europe, where more than 1.1 million people, including nearly 1 million Jews, were murdered. As a Catholic, she said, she was “beyond any doubt” spared the extent of torture visited upon Jews in the camp. But after another female inmate escaped, Ms. Posmysz told the New York Times, her entire work unit was moved to an Auschwitz sub-camp called Budy, where she was subjected to hard labor that almost killed her.

She was later assigned to work in a kitchen and stockroom in the Birkenau section of Auschwitz. There, she was overseen for more than a year by the guard whose voice later seemed to echo across the Place de la Concorde.

“She was always making sure that I was wearing clean clothes and clean laundry,” Ms. Posmysz told NPR in 2011. “Lice and fleas were very common, and so I think she did it for her own comfort, as well.”

There were other sounds from the camps that echoed in Ms. Posmysz’s memory — the cries of inmates who threw themselves on electrified fences, the haunting melody of a Jewish man she saw one night, his arms raised to the sky, singing a prayer for the dead. He was surrounded by bodies — alive or not, she could not tell. The next morning, she told the Times, “all we saw was the smoke coming from the crematory chimney.”

After her liberation in May 1945 from Neustadt-Glewe, a sub-camp of Ravensbrück, Ms. Posmysz walked 500 miles to her home in Krakow. Not long after, she returned to Auschwitz with her mother to explain what she had endured during the war. She showed her mother the bunks where she had slept when she was sick.

“That was it,” Ms. Posmysz told the Times. “She didn’t want to see any more and didn’t ask any more questions. Back home, she cried and said: ‘You should never go back there. You should forget about it.’ ”

After the war, Ms. Posmysz studied Polish literature at the University of Warsaw and became a journalist. Her first newspaper article, according to the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, a state-run Polish cultural organization, was about the trial in Germany of SS officers who had worked at Auschwitz. In place of her name, she signed the article with the number tattooed on her arm at the camp: 7566.

Ms. Posmysz later worked for the Polish state radio, where she became director of the news editorial section in 1958. She also branched into more literary writing projects, including the radio play based on her experience in Paris, “The Passenger in Cabin 45,” which aired in 1959.

Ms. Posmysz wrote several other radio plays and books, many of them examining the emotional trauma of the Holocaust. “In Auschwitz I met people who, I have no doubt, were saints,” she said. “I believe that it is the only subject that is still worth my writing about.”

She placed the action of “The Passenger” on an ocean liner rather than in a Parisian square, she said, so that the guard could not run from her past.

“All these people, they still have power over us. We can’t get out of this. We can’t set ourselves free,” she told NPR. “Our oppressors are present in our lives exactly the same as our heroes. We just can’t throw them out from our lives.”

The novel was translated into more than a dozen languages. Shostakovich was said to have read the Russian version and passed it on to Weinberg, a Jew who fled Nazi-occupied Poland for the Soviet Union and lost his family in the Holocaust. Weinberg began work on his opera in 1967, completed it the next year and died in 1996 having never seen it staged. Medvedev, the librettist, died days after the 2010 premiere.

Ms. Posmysz was in her late 80s by then and traveled with the opera production as it moved around the world, often receiving standing ovations.

Ms. Posmysz was married, but a complete list of survivors was not immediately available. Because of exposure to toxic substances in the camps, she told the Tribune, she was unable to have children.

A representative of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland confirmed Ms. Posmysz’s death, at a hospice center in the nearby city of Oswiecim, but did not cite a cause.

“For me, the most important thing was that the memory of Auschwitz should not disappear, that it should be alive when we, the witnesses, are no longer there,” Ms. Posmysz told the Polish edition of Newsweek in 2019. “I was convinced that music, more than a written word, a film or another genre of art, can do that.”