'How do you heal?': Density512 presents 'Eva and the Angel of Death: A Holocaust Remembrance Opera'
After a two-year break in production, Austin’s Density512 is finally ready to present the world premiere of Eva and the Angel of Death: A Holocaust Remembrance Opera. The chamber orchestra collective was ready to stage the work (which is based on the life of Auschwitz survivor Eva Mozes Kor) in March of 2020, but for obvious reasons the premiere was put on hold and only recently restarted. In the intervening time, Density512 produced a documentary film about the production of the opera and, according to musical director Jacob Schnitzer, gained an even deeper understanding of the subject matter.
“I think, above all, having time to sit with it has just deepened the work and deepened our relationship,” Schnitzer says. “And in particular, we were able to have a greater relationship with Eva’s family and friends and [we] were able to do more research and actually got a lot of archival materials and footage and pictures. And I just feel that we more deeply know Eva for who she is because of the time we spent sitting with her story.”
Kor was the founder of CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors), and spent many years working to educate the public about the Holocaust and speaking on the power of forgiveness. “It’s not only a piece about healing the trauma from the war and what she had experienced, but it’s Eva’s process of reconciliation with the past,” says director Heather Barfield. “And the way that she goes about reconciling with her past – the way she personally goes through that process – is through an act of forgiveness. And this is where she is the most controversial within many communities, because she takes this grand gesture of creating a declaration of amnesty for the Nazi doctors who experimented on her and her sister, and returned to Auschwitz and proclaimed this there. And I think that this is the main thought piece to the production, is how do you heal? Is this way of healing, through this path of forgiveness, good for everybody?”
Schnitzer says he still struggles with those questions himself. “She says ‘not for anybody else, but for me,’” he says. “It’s a way of restoring your sense of who you are, so that you can go on and live. Because you’ve made the empowering choice not to be a victim, but to forgive, to be healed. And truthfully, there are days where I believe it 100 percent and there are days where I doubt. The only thing I know for sure is that grappling with this question has made me a better person.”
“I think for me… [as] the composer and somebody who’s really sat with this work the longest in a lot of ways, and thinking about now presenting it to audience members,” says composer Thomas Yee, “What I want to communicate is for the audience members to consider the story of someone who in many ways is very much unlike any of us, [who] has gone through experiences that far outstrip, in many ways, what we may experience in our lifetimes. And yet, at the same time, is so very much like us, having gone through these things and processing them as a real, living human being – someone who I got to meet shortly before her death and interview about this project. And to see the humanity behind this person.”
“Eva and the Angel of Death is one survivor’s story,” Schnitzer says. “We’re not telling the entire story of the Holocaust. We’re telling one person’s journey and seeing through her eyes what it was like to – in some small way – experience what she experienced and grapple with that as an adult. And I hope that, above all, audiences ask questions and consider Eva’s example. What would I do? And how can apply this to my life? And I think that people will walk away with more questions than answers.”