For many people in Asia, the Holocaust is not a commonly studied piece of history. Most don’t know about it, and those inclined to learn more are hard put to do so in their native languages. Which is why the recent debut of “Helena Citrónová” by Bangkok’s Opera Siam was such a revelatory event.
The opera was written, composed, and conducted by Thailand’s celebrated novelist, classical composer, and librettist Somtow Papanian Sucharitkul, also known as S.P. Somtow, to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Described as “Thailand’s enfant terrible of opera” by the Associated Press, Somtow based the opera on the true saga of a love affair between an Austrian SS sergeant and a Czechoslovakian Jewish inmate.
Largely inspired by the 2015 BBC documentary, “Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State,” Citrónová represents the culmination of a torturous five-year struggle to come to terms with a relationship that defied reality and, indeed, the imagination.
Citrónová arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942 and was sent to a sub-camp which the inmates nicknamed Canada because of its more tolerable living conditions. There, she was set to work sorting the provisions and valuables Jews and others were stripped of upon arrival. Citrónová ultimately survived the war and settled in Israel.
In the documentary, she recounts that the romance began after the SS sergeant, Franz Wunsch, slipped her a note declaring his infatuation.
“I destroyed it right there and then,” she said. “I thought I’d rather be dead than be involved with an SS man. For a long time afterwards there was just hatred. I couldn’t even look at him.”
Desperate to survive, however, Citrónová recast her gaze, cultivating the relationship and even sleeping with Wunsch in the hope of saving her sister, Rozinka, and her two young daughters. Wunsch pulled Rozinka from the crematorium and reunited the two, but was unable to save Rozinka’s children, who were sent to the gas chambers.
Wunsch began to slip biscuits and other small amounts of food to Citrónová, an act which, if discovered, would mean death for the both of them.
“Here he did something great,” Citrónová would tell Lawrence Rees, the British documentarian behind several films on the Holocaust. “There were moments where I forgot that I was a Jew and that he was not a Jew and, honestly, in the end I loved him. But it could not be realistic. But the fact is that my life was saved, thanks to him. I did not choose this, it simply happened.”
Citrónová died in 2005. But in 1972 she testified on Wunsch’s behalf at a war crimes trial. The court described him as a brutal Jew hater. As was typical in Austria, however, which remains reluctant to grapple with its own Nazi past, Wunsch escaped punishment, ostensibly due to a statute of limitations. The couple did not maintain their connection after the war.
There were moments where I forgot that I was a Jew and that he was not a Jew and, honestly, in the end I loved him
Somtow, whose father was the Thai ambassador to Israel during the 1980s, told The Times of Israel in a series of e-mails that Citrónová’s “relationship with Franz Wunsch wasn’t the stuff of romance novels. Rather, it was a dark, complex thing.
“Her story asked many tough questions — questions about what love really is, whether love is even possible in such a situation. I became obsessed with trying to find a way to answer these questions. In my opera, there are no easy answers to anything,” wrote Somtow.
For the Thai polymath, who continues to maintain a foot in three countries, there rarely ever are easy answers.
Although he downplays his lineage, the 67-year-old Somtow is connected to the Thai aristocracy — his grandfather’s sister was a cousin and consort of King Vajiravudh, who ruled the country in the early 20th century.
A child of privilege, Somtow grew up in England and attended Eton and Cambridge — no easy feat for any young Southeast Asian. He launched his writing career with a poem published in The Bangkok Post when he was 11. Addressing a conference for Southeast Asian writers in 2006, Somtow said that the poem eventually caught the eye of Shirley MacLaine because of the line “I am not a man.” Assuming it was crafted by a dead female poet, the actor reprinted it in her 1970 memoir, “Don’t Fall Off the Mountain.”
Somtow moved to Los Angeles during the late-1970s and swiftly became a fixture in the United States science fiction, fantasy and horror scene. He is the author of many acclaimed genre novels, including “Mallworld,” “Vampire Junction,” and “Moondance.” Somtow supplemented his income writing for cartoon series such as “Dinosaucers,” and “Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers.”
Concluding a two-year stint as president of the Horror Writers of America in 1990, Somtow wrote, directed and starred in a high-camp zombie bloodfest set in Mexico called “The Laughing Dead.” Playing a Mayan death god fond of ripping the hearts out of sacrificial children, Somtow memorably described his gruesome calling as “exhausting work… but exhilarating.”
The same can be said of his subsequent pursuits in Thailand, where he returned in 2000, after “publishing as I knew it collapsed.”
Before moving to the US in 1978, Somtow had confounded the hidebound Thai musical establishment by exposing them to Stockhausen, Berio, and Boulez. Founding the Bangkok Opera in 2001, renamed the Opera Siam eight years later, Somtow continued to upend many of his countrymen’s musical expectations.
As artistic director, he cemented his iconoclastic reputation by applying Asian stagecraft to traditionally European operas, setting Verdi’s “Otello” in the Srivijaya Empire, and employing references to Thai mythology and the country’s mercurial politics in his version of Wagner’s “Ring.”
In 2012, Somtow began work on a 10-opera cycle linked to the 10 lives of the Buddha, which he hopes to complete in the next two years. Thailand’s English-language newspaper, The Nation, has called it “the largest integrated work of classical music (ever).” To render the pieces accessible to modern audiences, Somtow paced them like modern Hollywood movies.
Somtow’s predilection for radical innovation has not always served him well. In 2006, for instance, his adaptation of the revered Indian epic “Ayodhya” ran afoul of the sensibilities of the Thailand Cultural Surveillance Center, a censorship body appointed by the Thai military regime after it seized control of the country in a coup.
Per The Guardian, the overzealous government agency threatened to shut down the production for bringing “bad luck” by staging the killing of an iconic character onstage.
“They said that if anything happened to anyone in power it would be blamed on ‘Ayodhya,'” The Guardian quotes Somtow as saying.
After much back and forth, Somtow came up with a technical fix that resolved the issue. “I merely used the lighting to conveniently have him vanish, so no one would see him dying,” he said.
The experience may well have steeled him against any controversy the production might generate. There certainly could be no denying his discerning approach to the Holocaust in other operas.
In 2015, for instance, Somtow directed Hans Krása’s “Brundibár,” which was set in Theresienstadt, where the Czech composer and the children’s choir Krása directed were subsequently murdered. In 2016, Somtow mounted Russian composer Grigory Frid’s “Anne Frank.” Both productions received plaudits in such international trade magazines as London’s Opera Magazine.
“Citrónová,” however, presented a different challenge. Somtow contacted the central character’s family in Israel, whom he says expressed pronounced discomfort with the project. They eventually resolved the issue when he added a disclaimer to the program book noting that the opera did not actually chronicle Citrónová’s experiences, but was inspired by them.
Somtow, for his part, entertained few misgivings of his own about dramatizing the story.
“Six million,” he told The Times of Israel, “is just a number to most people. ‘One’ is a person. The opera is about what ‘being a person’ really means. Helena is a hero to me because no matter what, she refused to give up her personhood.”
Somtow’s concerns were ultimately allayed after the opera’s premiere when Dieter Topp, chairman of the Berlin-based Europa Kultur Forum, told him that “You’ve created an opera that no opera director in Germany would have dared to put on. And yet it is an opera that had to be written, but only be composed by someone who is neither Jewish or German.”
A letter from the Israeli ambassador to Thailand, Meir Shlomo, attested that “It is not only your vision and outstanding artistic skills but also your willpower and hardship… that made the entire project possible. This unique production, using the universal language of music, tells such a delicate story during the darkest period in human history. It was, for the Thai public, a rare opportunity to be exposed to the Holocaust, and to the daily lives of Jews in Auschwitz.”
Somtow was most surprised when Joseph Ciechanover, a member of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity who also attended, expressed enthusiasm for the possibility of bringing the show to Jerusalem — possibly, said Somtow, under the aegis of Israel’s Holocaust memorial center, Yad Vashem.
But not, Ciechanover implored the composer, until the opera had run its course in Thailand. The current generation of Thais, Ciechanover said, have little or no sense that their country aligned itself with the Axis powers during World War II, and what that means in terms of complicity in one of history’s greatest crimes.
“You must tell them,” Somtow recounted Ciechanover saying, insisting that the composer alone would have to shoulder the task of better informing Thais about the Nazi eradication of European Jewry.