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Jewish World


By Tibor Krausz, Bangkok

A Thai composer IN A little-known episode from Auschwitz, It is early afternoon, but the composer is
a young Jewish woman from Slovakia still bleary-eyed and somewhat disheveled.
has given an named Helena Citrónová came to owe her He prefers working at night and rising late,
operatic treatment life to an SS officer who fell for her. Re-
flecting on the choices she had to make,
he notes apologetically.
“Decades later Helena said that at certain
to an unlikely affair Somtow Sucharitkul, a celebrated Thai points she did love him,” Somtow explains,
composer who has written an opera about reclining on a sofa. “If that was the case,
between a Jewish Citrónová, gets visibly emotional. you have to wonder: what is love? Is what
prisoner and a “It’s not just a case of someone who
would do anything to survive,” Somtow,
we mean by love even possible in this kind
of circumstance?”
German guard a Buddhist who once was ordained briefly
as a saffron-robed monk, says in his book-
This question has intrigued him for years.
In 1942 Citrónová, then a fetching
shelf-lined study in his house in Bangkok. 20-year-old woman, caught the eye of
“It’s not a case of Stockholm syndrome, Franz Wunsch, a young German guard.
either.” The notorious Nuremberg Laws of 1935


A scene from ‘Helena Citrónová,’ an opera
by Thai composer Somtow Sucharitkul,
during a performance in Bangkok

began warming to him when one day the Somtow spent years living in the US, his
German officer dashed off to save her sister, second home, where he hobnobbed with the
Rozinka, from being gassed, although he likes of Isaac Asimov and Psycho author
couldn’t do the same for Rozinka’s young Robert Bloch, both of whom were Jewish
son and daughter. The Nazi extermination and had an influence on his fiction. Som-
machine at Auschwitz considered children tow’s father, a prominent lawyer, served as
who couldn’t work to be instantly dispos- Thailand’s ambassador to Israel in the early
able. Both Helena and Rozinka survived 1980s.
World War II.
“Early on in their relationship Helena was “THE NAZIS didn’t just murder Jews.
summoned to his office and told to do his They wanted to destroy their humanity, their
nails. She refused,” says Somtow, who has personhood. Yet Helena refused to give up
read everything he could find on the two’s her humanity,” Somtow says. He pulls up
unlikely love affair to write his opera’s li- his shirt to dab at tears that begin welling
bretto, in English. “He pulled out his gun up in his eyes. “This meant that no matter
and told her, ‘I could kill you right now and what they did to her, she did not give up be-
you won’t even do my nails!’” ing a person,” he elucidates. “That scene in
This act of defiance by the Jewish woman, Frank’s office is in the opera and that to me
who was at that moment facing the prospect was the reason I had to write the opera.”
of summary execution, riveted the compos- Somtow’s “Helena Citrónová” debuted
er when he first learned of Citrónová from in late January at a Bangkok cultural center
British historian Laurence Rees’s six-part on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of
2005 documentary on Auschwitz for the Auschwitz. The performance was attended
BBC. “I realized that if she’d been killed by the Israeli and German ambassadors.
there and then it would have been her own “This unique production, using the univer-
choice,” he explains, his voice cracking sal language of music, tells such a delicate
with emotion. story during the darkest period in human
An amiable, paunchy man with graying history,” Meir Shlomo, Israel’s ambassador
shoulder-length hair and large spectacles to Thailand, noted in a letter to Somtow. “It
prohibited relationships between ethnic that accentuate his owlish mien, Somtow, was, for the Thai public, a rare opportunity
Germans and “racially impure” Jews on 67, comes across as a casting director’s to be exposed to the Holocaust, and to the
punishment of death, yet Wunsch began dream of an aging enfant terrible. He has daily lives of Jews in Auschwitz.”
courting Citrónová furtively, slipping love something of Liberace’s flamboyance about The opera has yet to be performed abroad,
notes and bits of food to her in the barracks. his mannerisms and he’s well-read, witty yet news of it has already been spreading
The SS man helped save the Jewish wom- and articulate. These latter qualities have beyond Thailand’s artistic scene. A critic for
an by ensuring she stayed assigned to a spe- served him well in his parallel career as a the Financial Times has called Somtow’s
cial female prisoners’ unit, whose members novelist who has been specializing in sci- score “an eclectic mix of atonal themes and
worked in warehouses sorting the belong- ence fiction, horror and magical realism period popular music (punctuated by an on-
ings of newly arrived deportees destined with some 70 books to his name — or rather stage klezmer band).”
straight for the gas chambers. The women pen name, S.P. Somtow. The riotous tonal milieu was Somtow’s
could let their hair grow, were treated rela- He speaks flawless English courtesy of calculated choice in the service of his
tively well and ate better thanks to food they an education obtained at Eton and Cam- opera’s heroine and her conflicted emo-
took from pieces of luggage. bridge in the United Kingdom. Hailing tions during her tribulations in Auschwitz.
At first Citrónová, as she recalled decades from a well-heeled Bangkok family related “There’s a lot of twelve-tone technique in
later, rebuffed Wunsch’s advances, finding to Thailand’s royals (his grandfather’s sister the opera and I used a tone row to represent
him repellent for being an SS man. Yet she was married to King Vajiravudh of Siam), Helena,” he explains. “I rarely use serialism


Jewish World

in my work, but I wanted to represent the together,” he explains. “I had to construct

way the Nazis thought, reducing everything scenes where they had something like a
methodically to numbers. At the same time I duet, but they weren’t in the same room.”
wanted to be subversive so I underscored all In one poignant scene, the two lovers
these serial passages with sweeping roman- come under suspicion. As Citrónová (played
tic chords underneath.” by American diva Cassandra Black) is be-
The opera’s onstage band of musicians, ing tortured at one end of the stage, Wunsch
too, serves an important purpose. “I decided (German baritone Falko Hönisch) is being
early on that I’d have a band on stage be- interrogated at the other. The characters
cause in the concentration camps the Ger- don’t share the same space but they share
mans had these prisoner bands. Half the Vi- the same stage. This allows them room for
enna Philharmonic was in Auschwitz. They a plaintive duet despite their seeming iso-
were great musicians,” explains the com- lation — like a lovelorn Romeo and Juliet
poser, who doubles as a conductor whose trapped in a death camp.
repertoire extends from Mahler to Wagner.
As artistic director for Opera Siam, he rou- AS WITH Shakespeare’s doomed lovers, a
tinely incorporates Thai and Buddhist ele- happy ending isn’t coming here either. In
ments into European compositions staged the opera’s closing scene, after Auschwitz
in Bangkok. Somtow is currently working has been liberated, Citrónová and Wunsch
on his musical magnum opus: a 10-part se- part ways — just as they did in real life.
ries about as many storied reincarnations of After the war, Wunsch searched in vain for
Siddhartha Gautama before he achieved en- the Jewish woman, who decided not to con-
lightenment as the Buddha. tinue the relationship. They would not see
“I thought I would have that little band each other again until 1972 when she testi-
because professional musicians were forced fied in his defense as he was being tried for operas about Auschwitz, the other being
to play music in Auschwitz accompanying war crimes in Austria. “The Passenger,” which was composed by
the most ghastly things. And I decided that Some camp survivors, serving as witness- Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Polish Jew, and
they would play happy music,” he elabo- es, described Wunsch as a sadistic brute, debuted in 1968 featuring a group of Jew-
rates. “So when the opera begins with peo- but Citrónová said she had never seen him ish women in the death camp struggling to
ple getting off the trains they hear this sort act violently. Wunsch was acquitted of war retain their sanity and humanity in hellish
of café music even as other people are be- crimes on technical grounds. “He said she conditions.
ing killed horribly,” he adds. “I thought this had redeemed him, but I don’t know if that A Thai Buddhist may seem like an un-
was a way to show realistically in musical was really true,” Somtow comments. “Over likely candidate for charting new artistic
terms the whole insanity of Auschwitz. So time he could have selectively remembered territory by writing an opera about the Ho-
I invented this 1940s-type pop music and I what he wanted [about his time in Aus- locaust. “It’s interesting that it ended up
added a little flavor of klezmer.” chwitz].” having to be a Thai person to do this,” Som-
Melodic choices weren’t the only ones Despite her initial aversion to the SS man, tow concedes. “Perhaps I am sufficiently
Somtow had to make in giving Helena’s Citrónová said she began to reciprocate his far removed from the events to have taken
story operatic treatment. Details of the feelings for her. “There were moments certain risks. I’ve been told by a German
concentration camp romance between the when I forgot that I was a Jew and that he critic that a German composer would never
Jewish inmate and the Nazi guard remain was not a Jew,” she said in an interview. have dared write this opera.”
sketchy with several unanswered questions, “Honestly, in the end I loved him,” she The Thai man could approach the Holo-
including their degree of intimacy within added. “The fact is that my life was saved caust culturally and emotionally unencum-
the camp. The affair is known from inter- thanks to him. I did not choose this. It sim- bered by the weight of memory because he
views conducted with Citrónová, in her ply happened.” is a descendant of neither victims nor perpe-
eighties, before her death in 2007 in Israel, In his opera Somtow introduces us to trators. Yet Somtow has long been “haunt-
where she emigrated after the war. Wunsch by showing him murder an el- ed,” as he puts it, by the methodical mass
Somtow was reluctant to fictionalize derly Jewish man in cold blood right in murder of Jews on an industrial scale. “All
parts of their relationship for his opera, front of Citrónová, who has just arrived my life I’ve occasionally had nightmares
although the nature of the musical genre in Auschwitz in a transport. The compos- about the Holocaust. It’s an odd thing,” he
necessitated some poetic license. “I wanted er invented that dramatic scene. “I had to says. “I had dreams of waking up in Aus-
to fill in as few blanks in their story as pos- start from a position where Wunsch repre- chwitz as a prisoner. I don’t know why. This
sible,” he stresses. That meant, however, sented the worst aspects of the Nazis,” he period of history seems somehow stuck in
that the composer ended up with an over- says. “Otherwise there could be no journey my mind. Since I finished composing the
riding technical problem. Romantic operas of redemption. But the opera isn’t really opera I haven’t had those dreams again.”
are supposed to have love duets. Yet “based about him. It’s about Helena. She’s in every Yet oneiric relief didn’t come easily. Som-
on the documentary record there was not scene.” tow composed his opera in what he calls
much opportunity for them to be actually “Helena Citrónová” is one of only two “obsessive bursts” over seven years during


Thais play Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz during a performance in Bangkok of the new opera ‘Helena Citrónová’

what proved to be an emotionally draining At cosplay events in Bangkok some ish-Jewish refugee’s assassination of a Ger-
process. “The Shoah [Holocaust] is the de- young participants dress up as Nazis, strut- man diplomat in Paris and the subsequent
fining event of the 20th century,” Somtow ting around in Wehrmacht and SS uniforms anti-Jewish violence during Kristallnacht in
argues. “So there was a certain burden and and raising their arms in the Sieg Heil sa- Nazi Germany in November 1938.
I often felt unworthy to tackle it. I would lute for photographs. “I love German uni- “At the first rehearsal for “Helena
charge into it, but then I would have to put forms from World War II,” a Thai univer- Citrónová” I asked the young musicians in
it aside for a while because the subject is so sity student wearing the uniform of an SS the orchestra what they knew about the Ho-
overwhelming. But writing the opera was a officer told me at one-such recent event in- locaust. They didn’t know much,” Somtow
mitzvah. I believe that.” side a posh mall in central Bangkok. “They recalls. “So I decided to give them a history
He refers to the Holocaust by its Hebrew were designed by Hugo Boss,” he added lesson. I started with the [future] emperor
name and he speaks of mitzvot — and these approvingly. Titus destroying the Temple in Jerusalem
aren’t one-offs. Somtow routinely uses He- (in 70 CE).” He laughs. “I told them about
brew words and Yiddish-isms, which lends SOMTOW, WHO founded a youth orches- the story of the Diaspora because that is the
his conversation a distinctly Jewish quali- tra called Siam Sinfonietta, has been seek- starting point for Helena’s own story. They
ty. Point this out to him, and he’ll chuckle ing to educate young Thais about the Holo- were very interested.”
heartily. “Some Jewish people have asked caust through music. Over the past years the Ultimately, however, he didn’t write the
me why I have so much Yiddishkeit, but Thai composer has staged several operas in opera just to educate his fellow Thais. He
culturally I’ve been very close to the Jew- Bangkok with Holocaust-related themes, had a more ambitious goal: a piece of music
ish community everywhere,” he says. “Asi- performed by local musicians. dedicated to the memory of the six million
mov said I was an honorary Jew. Maybe he In 2015, after realizing his student mu- Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.
thought so because I laughed at his jokes.” sicians knew nothing about World War II, “What I had with Helena’s story was one
The composer chuckles again. much less the Holocaust, he staged the chil- way to talk about the Holocaust. We keep
Somtow’s Judeophilia sets him apart in dren’s opera “Brundibár” by Czech Jewish talking about six million victims, but my
a country where most locals know, or care, composer Hans Krása, which was first per- opera is about one person. I felt that in a
very little about Jews, Israel or the Holo- formed by Jewish children at the Theresien- sense I could make this one person speak
caust. So-called Nazi chic is pervasive in stadt concentration camp in German-oc- for all those other people,” he says.
Thailand with swastikas and caricatured im- cupied Czechoslovakia. He followed it up Somtow turns somber again, a reflective
ages of Hitler routinely printed on T-shirts. with “The Diary of Anne Frank,” an operat- stance stealing back into his mood. “I tried
Nazi paraphernalia and pageantry are seen ic monodrama by Russian Jewish composer to create a character in Helena with a lot of
as “cool” by many young Thais who are Grigori Frid, and “A Child of Our Time,” ambiguity,” he says. “If I have done my job
taught next to nothing in school about Eu- an oratorio by British composer Michael well, the audience will identify with her and
ropean or world history. Tippett, which was inspired by a young Pol- understand the difficulty of her situation.” ■