by Andrea Kurtz
For many years, Gerald Cohen, the cantor at Shaarei Tikvah Congregation in Scarsdale, wanted to write an opera about the Holocaust. In the interim, he’d composed a two-act opera about Sara and Hagar and a shorter one about a post-apocalyptic Adam and Eve but capturing the Shoah remained a fixed goal. He waited until he hit upon an approach to the subject, which would strike his audiences as novel and riveting.
Ironically the key he’d searched for was in front of him for twenty-five years. Set in Amsterdam during the Nazi era, the unorthodox love story of his good friends and congregants, Ina and Jack Polak, combined all the elements of great opera: life, death, war and forbidden love. Once this realization struck him, his opera, (composed with librettist Deborah Brevoort), flowed. In the space of a year, just in time for Ina’s 90th and Jack’s 100th birthday celebrations, the work was ready to be presented. On April 28th at Shaarei Tikvah on Fox Meadow Road, and April 30th at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, “Steal a Pencil for Me,” had its first staged readings.
In many ways the Polaks’ love story fits the traditional boy meets girl mold. Jaap (Jack) sees Ina at a friend’s birthday party and realizes she is the girl he was meant to marry. There are of course obstacles to the path of true love. Ina Soep is there with her beloved boyfriend, Rudi Acohen. The unhappily married Jaap is there with his flirtatious, excitable wife, Manja. Most importantly the Nazis are randomly deporting Jews to “the East,” to face unknown fates.
The opera is set from June 1943 to June 1945. It opens with the leitmotif that will wind through its two acts. It counterpoints normal social interactions with the shadows of unknown terrors and tragedy. The party where Jaap first spies Ina is a birthday celebration where the hostess, Lisette, admonishes her guests to remove their identifying Jewish stars and pretend all is normal. The music is carefree with a slight underlying air of menace; the Nazis raid the party and cart off some of the celebrants including Rudi, who is never seen again.
Months later, Ina and her parents are taken to Westerbork Transit Camp. Jaap, along with his wife and parents, is already there. He is delighted to see her but because he’s married, she rebuffs him. Later, however, she conjures up Rudi and becomes certain he’d want her to do everything she can to stay alive. When Jaap proposes sharing the details of their daily life to keep sane, she agrees. Finding a discarded pencil stub, he begins writing to her. With Lisette as their courier, they keep up a daily correspondence. As Jaap says, although the Nazis may have their bodies, he won’t let them have their minds, hearts and souls.
While life in Westerbork was hard and uncertain, there were also lighter moments. Many of the inmates were young and needed the distractions of humor, flirtations and gossip to keep them sane. Cantor Cohen says Ms. Brevoort was instrumental in juxtaposing comedic scenes with those depicting the grim reality of the dreaded transports. An especially effective example of this technique is last scene of Act One. Lisette performs a saucy cabaret act for the camp’s Commandant, including choice bits from Jaap and Ina’s letters. The jazzy music and party atmosphere end abruptly when the Commandant reads the names of the next Tuesday transports. Jaap, his parents and Manja are included in the list for Bergen-Belsen.
Act Two opens at the hellish Bergen-Belsen as Ina and her parents arrive there as well. Jaap and Ina sneak behind the barracks and in a beautiful duet, begin to dream of a future where they can share ordinary things, like coffee and bread. Ina’s father and Manja, sensitive to the scandalous gossip the relationship is causing, urge the pair to quit seeing each other. Cantor Cohen uses Jaap’s phrase from Act One, “this is the girl I should have married,” and intertwines it with the musical themes of Ina, her father and Manja, to produce a stirring evocation of the clashing passions and points of view of the quartet. Ms. Brevoort’s keeps her lyrics simple, yet they are powerful distillations of each character’s slant of mind.
Jaap and Ina agree to now pursue their relationship through only their letters; however, they have no pencil in this new camp. Since the Nazis have made use of Ina’s knowledge of shorthand and German, she has access to a pencil. Each realizes the importance of their correspondence in keeping their spirits whole and Jaap urges Ina to “steal a pencil for me.” She agrees and their words sustain them through Ina’s subsequent discovery of the deaths taking place in their own camp and Auschwitz. In April, 1945,when they finally receive orders to leave Bergen-Belsen, they are put on trains with fellow inmates ill with typhoid fever. Jaap and Manja’s train is headed east while Ina’s is going west. Although they are now liberated, Jaap is almost dead from typhoid.
Act Two ends in June 1945 with the “lucky” survivors trying to connect with their loved ones. Manja seeks out Ina to tell her Jaap has barely survived his illness and that she will grant him a divorce. She tells Ina, “You’re getting a good man.” A feeble Jaap enters and before he and Ina can finally intertwine their lives, each lets go of the past. The music, tender and tinged with sadness at first, soars as the spirit of Rudi relinquishes Ina to a new love and Manja releases her hold on Jaap. The fears, regrets, and despairs of the past are now overridden by the hopeful intensity of their new love. Their horrible ordeal has made their bond stronger and they have prevailed over adversity. They touchingly sit down to eat their first “ordinary breakfast” together.
Although both productions unfolded seamlessly, there were many hurdles to overcome. Initially, Cantor Cohen had to explain to the Polaks his vision of how their story would be portrayed on the stage. There were issues to be resolved before the couple would allow their life to be portrayed as an opera.
Although the Polaks were used to telling their story to the public, it was never artistically presented in a fictionalized version. For 25 years as Chairman of the Anne Frank Center, (now Chairman Emeritus), Jack had visited every state to tell children about the realities of the Holocaust. In 2001, their unedited letters, written in the camps, were published. In 2007, Michele Ohayon made a documentary about them, also entitled “Steal a Pencil for Me.”
While these projects had awakened Cantor Cohen to the dramatic potential of their lives unfolding in operatic form, he knew their story would have to be condensed and reshaped for the stage. He and Ms. Brevoort would need to fictionalize and combine characters. Jack was initially wary but Ina, an inveterate theatergoer, conceded this was the way to proceed.
Jack wanted to make sure Cantor Cohen included Manja’s good qualities even though the couple had argued often and agreed to divorce after the war. He also felt Rudi, Ina’s boyfriend who perished in the camps but remained in her heart, should play a pivotal role. Of equal importance was his desire to have daily life in the camps, both high and low, depicted with fidelity.
Staged readings such as the two presentations have many limitations. Rehearsal time is short; the nine principals, eight chorus members, four instrumentalists and their conductor had less than two weeks to master all the elements of the opera.
Cantor Cohen wanted six instrumentalists but logistics and budget kept the number at four. Conductor Ari Pelto’s wonderful sensitivity to nuances and pacing brought out extraordinary performances from Sasha Margolis on Violin, Chris Finckel on Cello, Lynn Baker on Piano and Vasko Dukovski on Clarinet, (whose seamless playing betrayed no need to draw a breath). In future productions, Cantor Cohen would like a 20-piece chamber orchestra to capture the full complexity of the score.
Ilana Davidson’s beautiful soprano effortlessly captured Ina’s growing strength of character, while Robert Balonek’s thrilling baritone made Jaap a charismatic force. Both Toby Newman, as Manja, Jaap’s man-crazy wife, and Cherry Duke, as Lisette, the go-between who secretly reads the love letters, managed the difficult task of conveying humorous insouciance while ultimately displaying hidden depths to their characters. Nils Neubert’s rich tones made Rudi understandably an unforgettable presence in Ina’s emotions. As Ina’s father, Abraham, Matthew Singer’s full, strong voice conveyed his character’s commanding presence. Ricardo Rivera, the Commandant, was realistically evil and manic in his portrayal while Miloslav Antonov and Enrico Lagasca were perfect as his lackies.
The eight members of the chorus used their fine voices to depict the sense of unease, worry, hope and tragedy that dogged Amsterdam’s Jewish population at all times.
The audiences at both readings gave standing ovations to the performers and creators of the piece. The Polaks attended both performances and their enthusiastic reaction to the opera was palpable. At the final performance Jack Polak stood before the audience and declared, “When I see the greatness of what Cantor Cohen has done with our lives, I believe this opera is one of the best ways to approach the Holocaust.” As he received thunderous applause, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.