Viktor Ullmann was born in 1898 and studied under Schoenberg and he developed his own unique style. In 1942 Ullmann was deported to Terezin where he continued to compose music. He was murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. His music is not ‘easy listening’, but it is quite brilliant. A new CD of his piano sonatas has just been recorded by Maria Garzon and she will be playing some of those pieces for us, and the actor, Sam Dastor, will read some of his poetry.
When I hear, see, read the creative brilliance of some of genocide’s victims, I think of how all that is noble and good in humanity is almost eclipsed by the murderous intent of the perpetrators. Yet, struggling to shine through we find a glimmer of hope in the life-stories of genocide’s victims, those who resist, the brave and courageous individuals who do not succumb to the darkness, the survivors.
I am drawn back, again and again, to Dan Pagis’ short yet striking Hebrew poem:
WRITTEN IN PENCIL IN THE SEALED FREIGHT CAR
Here, in this carload, I, Eve, with my
son Abel. If you see my older boy,
Cain, the son of Adam, tell him that I
This poem, written as if unfinished, temporarily scrawled in pencil, is a poem about humanity. Jewish texts are full of the sadness and protest of the first murder in the Bible’s history – fratricide. From within the same family, just one generation down from the origins of life, human beings take one another’s life. Some rabbinic texts dare to ask, ‘Where was God?’, others reflect on the motifs so common to hatred and strife – property, jealousy, self-importance. Yet, in the voice of Eve, the mother, the symbol of life (for her very name in Hebrew is derived from the Hebrew meaning life), we hear of the yearning for ‘ben Adam‘ – the son of Adam. Adam is both the name of Eve’s partner but is also a word in Hebrew that means humankind. It’s as if she is saying:
“If you see MY older son, Cain, the son of MAN, tell him that I”
Both sons are her sons, they are both from the same source, they are both human beings, not sons of gods, not something inhuman. Humankind can sink to the depths of genocide and yet they are still human – depraved, evil, maybe, but human nonetheless.
There is one other comment I would make on the Hebrew. The word for ‘carload’ is mishloach which is really a package, something sent or delivered, a consignment. Eve is both sending a message to her son through the poem, but is the message itself – TELL HIM THAT IT IS ME.
How far can human beings go before what they are doing is no longer human? The answer is that we must face up to the near breaking point that is witnessed in human behaviour towards other human beings through genocide and still remember it is part of us, all of us. The Holocaust, Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia, Armenia – no matter the dehumanisation that the perpetrators try and inflict on their victims – we must remember and we must recommit always to those words ‘Never Again’, for that is a commitment to something better and the sparkle of nobility that we are also all capable of. We must not lose sight of our hope for בני ובנות אדם – sons and daughters of humankind.
I hope that our programme of music on Sunday will help us shine a light of goodness in the darkness of our remembrance.