New opera tells the story of love and survival during the Holocaust
By Cindy Mindell
In June 1943, Ina Soep, the wealthy and beautiful daughter of an Amsterdam diamond-cutter, met a married couple – a poor accountant named Jaap Polak and his vivacious wife, Manja – at the birthday party of a mutual friend. Six months later, Soep and the Polaks were sharing a barrack, and a love triangle, at Kamp Westerbork, a Nazi transit camp in northern Holland. As the couple’s marriage began to crumble, Jaap and Ina grew closer, later surviving Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and sustained by a budding romance that was captured in letters written with pencil stubs. All three survived the ordeal. The Polaks divorced, and Jaap and Ina were married in Amsterdam in 1946, immigrating to the U.S. five years later. In 2000, they published a collection of their letters, Steal a Pencil for Me, (Lion Books), adapted in 2009 as an award-winning documentary film.
The latest iteration of the story is an opera by the same title, with music by Gerald Cohen and libretto by Deborah Brevoort. The work premiered as a series of semi-staged concert opera performances in April 2013, at Shaarei Tikvah Congregation in Scarsdale, N.Y., where Cohen has served as cantor for nearly 30 years, and at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in Manhattan.
On Friday, March 21 at Temple Shearith Israel (TSI) in Ridgefield, Cohen and Ina Polak will present excerpts of a video created at the JTS performance. The program is part of TSI’s Music Shabbat Series, directed by Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray.
An award-winning composer, Cohen earned a BA in music from Yale in 1982 and a Doctor of Musical Arts in composition from Columbia University a decade later, studying privately along the way with renowned cantor Jacob Mendelson. While still in graduate school, Cohen began his tenure at Shaarei Tikvah. He is also on the cantorial faculty of JTS, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Academy of Jewish Religion.
The son of Jewish refugees who escaped the Nazis, Cohen says that the idea of composing an opera on the Holocaust had long been percolating in his mind, further inspired by the Polaks and other Holocaust survivors who are among his Shaarei Tikvah congregants. Jaap has been involved in Holocaust education for decades. At the Anne Frank Center USA in New York, he served as director, president, chairman, and finally chairman emeritus, and knighted for his involvement by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 1992.
“I really admired Jaap and Ina, and realized that here was a story that had been under my nose for years,” says Cohen, whose operas explore an intimate story against the backdrop of a larger one. His 2005 opera, Sarah and Hagar, is simultaneously a family drama and the immense story of the Jewish and Arab peoples.
“In the same way, this is an intimate love story as set against the larger historic context of the Holocaust,” Cohen says. “It is both tragic and hopeful, romantic with a happy ending but a complicated love story. It is very human and at the same time very inspiring, in spite of the horrors they were going through. It was a very special experience for me to write this opera about people that I knew very well.”
The Polaks served as consultants on the story. “They were very understanding and respectful of our need to tell the story in the way that would be most effective, as long as it was true in essence to what they went through,” Cohen says. The Polaks met the cast and had front-row seats at the debut performance, watching their own story unfold a few feet away.
Cohen says that one of the most encouraging comments in response to the opera touches on the notion of “Holocaust fatigue.”
“While doing the research for the opera and writing it, I found that, for me, it’s not ‘fatigue,’” Cohen says. “Rather, it kicks you in the gut again and hopefully you always have some of that feeling of surprise and horror that human beings could have been so horrible to each other – and yet, there is still the humanity that breaks through. Seeing that the survivors are now almost all very old and there are fewer around, it’s our job to keep telling the story. I’m certainly not someone who feels that you have to tell the story by wallowing in it or being angry about it all the time. Rather, we must always have the capacity to be shocked by it, no matter how much we already know, and at the same time, have compassion for what happened.”
The March 21 musical Shabbat service will also feature several of Cohen’s liturgical compositions.
Music Shabbat Series with composer Cantor Gerald Cohen: Friday, Mar. 21, 7:30 p.m., Temple Shearith Israel, 46 Peaceable St., Ridgefield. For information call (203) 438-6589.
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