German Opera Honours Nazi Resisters

Roundup: Talking About History

William Littler, The Toronto Star, 11-30-04

The names of Hans and his sister Sophie Scholl do not occupy much space in histories of World War II. Theirs was scarcely a moment in time.

Students at the University of Munich, they belonged to a small resistance movement known as White Rose. Caught distributing anti-Hitler propaganda, they were turned in by the superintendent of the university and decapitated in February, 1943.

That their names are remembered today is largely the consequence of post-war documentary accounts such as The White Rose: Munich 1942-43, published by their surviving sister Inge Scholl.

Another avenue of remembrance is a one-act opera by the distinguished German composer Udo Zimmermann, performed Sunday evening in the University of Toronto's MacMillan Theatre as part of Toronto's 24th annual Holocaust Education Week.

Zimmermann, who is also Intendant of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, wrote the work while still a student, much of it in the atonal style of the Second Viennese School.

There are only two characters, the Scholls, and the story is set in Stadelehin Prison, hours before their execution.

Not that there is much of a story. The opera consists largely of their reflections and memories and in staging it, Judy Kopelow opted for the utmost simplicity, outfitting the stage with a bouquet of white roses, a couple of tables and matching chairs, a colour image of Jesus Christ and a series of poster-size black and white photographs.

Each of the photographs was worth at least a thousand words, especially the one showing a frightened child behind barbed wire and another showing brother and sister together, looking serious and oh, so young in the summer of 1942.

The man who took that photograph, the only living survivor of White Rose, was to take part in the discussion following Saturday's performance, but the infirmities of old age prevented Dr. George Wittenstein from attending, save in the form of a letter read to the audience.

In the letter he wrote that"personal responsibility is a way of life." At the cost of their own lives, the Scholls accepted such responsibility at a time when most of their fellow citizens either saluted the F├╝hrer or remained protectively silent.

To read their story today is to be deeply moved. To hear it set so effectively to music, sung by performers as obviously committed as soprano Marta Matulewicz and baritone Matthew Zadow, with Sabatino Vacca conducting a 15-piece chamber orchestra, was to appreciate how thoroughly art can enrich facts with feelings.

While listening, memory took me back to an afternoon spent walking wordlessly and almost alone through the impeccably preserved barracks, gas chambers and crematoria of Mauthausen, one of the most notorious of the Nazi concentration camps in Austria.

The great question that haunted me that day and returned during Udo Zimmermann's White Rose was not"why." Historians have ably documented the whys of the Holocaust. What they have not yet fully answered is the companion question,"how." How could human beings have behaved this way toward other human beings?

The beginning of an answer is surely the recognition that they did. Keeping alive, through words and music, the story of Hans and Sophie Scholl, provides precious evidence that they didn't have to.

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