Under a perpetual shadow of death, as train after train was sent to Auschwitz, Viktor Ullmann and Peter Kien, imprisoned in the Theresienstadt Ghetto, composed a searing opera satirizing the awful reality in Europe. Both were murdered, but a suitcase filled with Ullmann's works survived to tell the story of the human spirit’s triumph over death
In 1943, as the Nazi regime presided over its network of concentration and death camps, as Jews were sent to their deaths on train after train, two prisoners in the Theresienstadt Ghetto secretly composed an opera decrying what was happening in Europe. The two were Viktor Ullmann, a rising Austrian composer of Polish-Jewish origin, and Peter Kien, a promising young painter, poet and playwright. Their opera was never performed in this “model” ghetto, which to cover up its sinister purpose, housed a fully operational theater and a full schedule of productions. The opera’s composers and cast were all murdered eventually, but miraculously the libretto and music survived, and in the 1970s the opera was even produced on stage. How did this miracle happen?
Sent together to Auschwitz
Viktor Ullmann was born on January 1, 1898 in Teschen (Czech Republic), an area that was then part of to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ulllmann’s parents had converted to Christianity before he was born, enabling his father to pursue a military career. When Viktor was 11 years old, the family moved to Vienna, where he continued his studies in music theory and piano. Viktor was discharged from the army in 1918 after a short period of military service during World War I, and went to study law and musical composition. A year later he left for Prague, where he devoted himself to music. He conducted a choir and worked as a rehearsal pianist. This was how he made a living as he wandered across Europe before returning permanently to Prague in 1933. After the Nazi occupation in 1939, he managed to smuggle two of his children to England on the kindertransport, although both died there at a young age. Ullmann was deported to Theresienstadt in September 1942 along with his third wife and their young son. He was reunited there with his eldest son who had already arrived. Some of Ullmann’s works from this period have been preserved.
Not long after arriving in the ghetto, Ullmann became one of the central figures in the musical scene that developed in Theresienstadt. He wrote music reviews, organized concerts and wrote musical compositions, 16 of which have been preserved and four that have apparently been lost forever. In the ghetto, Ullmann began to integrate Jewish motifs into his music. Some claim his works show a musical identity that combines all his national identities—Jewish, German and Czech. Ullmann kept his musical works and writings in a suitcase which he gave to the ghetto librarian, Professor Emil Utitz, before his deportation to Auschwitz. Utitz, who survived the war, moved to England, and thus saved Ullmann’s works.
Peter Kien was born in 1919, coincidentally also on January 1. Kien was born to a Jewish family living in Varnsdorf, on the Czech-German border. The family moved to Brno, now in the Czech Republic, in 1929. His artistic talent was noticeable from a young age. At 14, his paintings were already being displayed at exhibitions. Graduating from high school with honors and special recognition for his talent in painting and writing, he immediately began his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. In 1939, he was expelled due to the Nazi racial laws, after which he began teaching art in the Jewish community. He tried to immigrate to Mandatory Palestine but did not receive the coveted certificate due to a heart condition. In 1940, he married Ilse Stransky, who was four years his senior. His attempt to immigrate with his family to the United States and Turkey also failed.
In December 1941, he was deported to Theresienstadt where he was assigned the job of assistant director of the technical drawing department. Unsatisfied with the technical work, Kien risked his life by stealing office stationary which he used for his art. Most of the paintings he left are painted on both sides of the page. He gave his paintings to Helga Wolfstein, a fellow artist with whom he was having an extramarital affair in the ghetto. Helga kept the suitcase containing the approximately 500 paintings and drawings in the ghetto clinic’s department of infectious diseases, where her mother worked. After the war, she took the suitcase back to her hometown of Brno, where it was confiscated by the communist authorities. The works are now in the memorial museum in Terezin.
Kien and Ullmann were deported together on the transport that left Theresienstadt on October 16 and arrived in Auschwitz two days later.
“The Kaiser of Atlantis”: A timeless protest from the depths of the ghetto
In Theresienstadt, Kien and Ullmann wrote an opera called The Kaiser of Atlantis (or The Emperor of Atlantis). Kien wrote the libretto and Ullmann composed the music. The opera has only one act and just four scenes, but every detail is meaningful and the deeper one looks, the more layers of meaning one finds. The words and music were written on the backs of papers containing prisoner lists and prisoner requests, which were apparently stolen at great personal risk from the ghetto offices. The opera begins with all the singers coming on stage with suitcases. The cry “Hallo! Hallo! Achtung! Achtung!” comes over a loudspeaker, evoking the announcements in the camps, everyone is assigned a role and each person then leaves to go and dress accordingly. In this scene one might recognize the erasure of identity that happened in the camps, the arbitrariness of determining people’s fates based solely on their origin, or perhaps the idea that evil exists in every person. We can only assume that this is exactly the message the opera’s creators were aiming for.
The story is set in an imaginary Atlantis, where Emperor Überall (loosely translated – “Emperor Above-All”, a name that recalls the Nazi anthem “Deutschland über alles”) elects to wage a total war—everyone against everyone. The Angel of Death then decides to go on strike because of humanity’s attempt to usurp his job, decreeing that no one will die. The executions ordered by the emperor fail. A soldier and a young woman fight and wound each other almost to the death, but somehow fall in love at the same time. In the end, all the characters ask for death, even the emperor, who explains to Death itself that people cannot live without it.
In the face of the unbearable overcrowding, epidemics of dysentery and typhus, hunger and forced labor, the opera’s sarcastic tone and biting criticism of the tyrant—of any tyrant from any period of time and place – flowed forth effortlessly. The opera ends with the Angel of Death agreeing to end his strike. He slays the emperor first, followed by all the other characters, who die while singing that the name of Death must not be taken in vain. Death prevails, but perhaps the people who asked for death and accepted it proudly and with dignity are also the victors. It is heartbreaking to think that none of the opera’s writers or performers survived. If their final wish was to die with dignity, one can only hope that at least this was granted them.
A creative spark remained even in the darkest gloom
Terezin, the small garrison town designed to house about 7,000 people, was the only ghetto in Central Europe and at its peak housed about 59,000 Jews. The Theresienstadt Ghetto became known as a “model ghetto” because the Nazis used it for the purpose of propaganda. A delegation from the Red Cross was brought there to show how good conditions were for the Jews, and to debunk the rumors of mass extermination. In practice, it was a ghetto that the SS ran like a concentration camp. About 155,000 Jews passed through Theresienstadt, 35,440 of them perished there, and another 88,000 were sent on to the death camps.
Ullmann and Kien decided against all odds to stage this opera in the ghetto, or as Ullmann wrote in one of his surviving letters: “No matter what, we did not sit and cry by the river of Babylon, our pursuit of art is as our desire to live.” That was indeed the case. In the overcrowded conditions of the ghetto, surrounded by hunger, death, disease and forced labor, creativity did not cease for a moment. Nothing stopped the creative desire even in the midst of the darkest gloom.
Like the story of its creators, the story of the staging of the opera in the ghetto did not end well. Rehearsals began in May 1944, with a limited number of singers and musicians. In August 1944, SS officers present at a rehearsal of the opera announced then and there that it would never be performed. On October 16, Viktor Ullmann and Peter Kien were sent to Auschwitz. Ullmann was immediately sent to the gas chambers. It is not clear if Kien was sent as well, or whether he died later of an illness.
Yet, sometimes, what seems like the end is not. A copy of the opera, which was never performed in the ghetto, ended up in the hands of British orchestra director Kerry Woodward. At his initiative and encouragement, the opera was staged for the first time in 1975, 31 years after the murder of its creators. Since then it has been performed around the world and continues to warn against tyrants, war and absolute human evil.