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Jul 9, 2022 |
sacred_in_opera  |

Forgiving the Unforgivable: a Central Theme in the Holocaust Opera "Eva and the Angel of Death," by Thomas B. Yee, Composer, and Aiden K. Feltkamp, Librettist

Eva Kor
The Holocaust, one of the defining events amongst many such genocides of the 20th century, and the culmination of centuries of antisemitism (but not the end), has inspired an abundant response of creativity in the arts. Literature, song, opera, and film continue to be created from this seemingly inexhaustible source. Stories are told from numerous points of view of a horrific shared experience, yet each story is unique. The stories share a common thread: man's inhumanity to those deemed different and inferior. The singularity of Eva’s story in the opera, Eva and the Angel of Death, arises from two threads: that Eva and her sister Miriam were the subjects of Dr. Joseph Mengele’s infamous twin experiments, and that Eva ultimately forgave her tormentors.

To say that the latter is unusual in the context of Jewish thought and practice would not be hyperbole. There is a wealth of scholarship on this topic, ranging from those who advocate for the mental health benefits of forgiveness for the survivors of trauma, specifically the case of Eva Moses Kor[i], to those who discount the value of such an emotional transaction between survivor and perpetrator. “Some writers, though, have asserted that forgiveness found its boundaries in Auschwitz; the Nazi crimes against humanity reached the pinnacle there and cannot be forgiven.”[ii] Yee addresses this central tenet of Eva’s story and its place in his opera in the introduction to his score. "For Eva," he writes, "forgiveness represented liberation from victimhood, choosing present life over past torment, and planting a seed of peace to break cycles of hatred and vengeance.” Eva’s own words about the process of forgiveness mention the things that forgiveness, for her, is not: not forgetting, not justice, not religion, and not amelioration of the perpetrator’s pain.

“It is a way of healing oneself from pain, trauma, and tragedy… we can forgive only after the violence has ended, and the victim is at peace with his or her surroundings and wants to heal that chapter of his or her life.”[iii]

Eva’s entire statement about her experience of choosing forgiveness can be found at the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center website. Fifty years after the sisters were liberated from the camp, Eva returned to Auschwitz to meet with and forgive Dr. Hans Münch, Mengele’s colleague, who had refused to participate in the experimentation and was subsequently pardoned after the camp’s liberation and the end of the war. Ultimately, she also forgave the deceased Joseph Mengele, in what might be perceived as an act of self-care and healing from her life-long trauma. 

Yee and Feltenkamp’s collaboration was brought to fruition by the contribution of many artists, including conductor Jacob Schnitzer, who co-directed the documentary Remembrance and Ritual: Reflection on Eva and the Angel of Death with Yee and Farid Zarrinabadi. This fascinating and rich documentary, available here, gives deep insight through interviews and narration into Eva's story. An especially startling and moving moment is Eva’s granting of amnesty to not only Mengele and Münch but "to all Nazis who participated directly or indirectly in the murder of my family and millions of others."

Thomas Yee’s opera, Eva and the Angel of Death: A Holocaust Remembrance Opera, finally saw the light of day when it premiered on April 23, 2022, at the Austin Central Library in Austin, Texas. The work was presented by Density512, a chamber orchestra/musicians collective whose mission is to promote contemporary music. The opera's premiere was performed with full orchestra and five singers; Page Stephens, mezzo-soprano (Eva Mozes Kor), Leah Hollingshead, coloratura soprano (Miriam Kor/Dorothy), Richard Novak, baritone (Mengele), Thomas Soto, tenor (SS Officer/Dr. Hans Münch), and Carol Brown, soprano (Jaffa.)

Yee and his collaborator, librettist Aiden K. Feltkamp, finished their opera in 2019. The titular subject, Eva Mozes Kor, died in the same year. Initially intended for a 2020 premiere, Eva was, like most creative projects of the past two years, postponed after the outbreak of the Covid pandemic. The two premiere performances can be viewed on YouTube here and here.

The first act of the opera follows the twins’ arrival in Auschwitz, where they are separated from their mother, whom they never see again. There are distressing scenes of interactions with Mengele and his medical experimentation with the twins. The act concludes with the sisters Miriam and Eva together again as Auschwitz is liberated.

The second act picks up the story many years later, as we follow Eva’s flight to Germany and her journey to meet and forgive Dr. Münch. In a critical moment in the story, Eva imagines a meeting with Mengele, in which she forgives her tormentor. Münch and Eva return to Auschwitz a year later to commemorate the liberation, and she announces her extraordinary statement of amnesty to all the Nazis who took part in the Holocaust.

Composer Thomas Yee’s doctoral thesis, “Eva and the Angel of Death- A Holocaust Remembrance Opera: the Compositional Staging of Ritual as Memory,” traces Yee’s musical influences, the structure of the opera, and his own moral and musical objectives for this story. I first became aware of the opera and this composer through my review for the Journal of Singing, the Anthology of New Music: Trans and Nonbinary Voices, Volume I (NewMusicShelf, 2021), which includes the aria, “The Smoke Curls into the Sky,” an “exceptional aria…with its evocative melismas and driving accompaniment . . .”[iv]

Yee’s stated objective was to move “Eva’s posthumous story into the realm of living cultural memory.”[v] With the choice of this decidedly unique story and its thought-provoking premise, that it is possible to forgive the unforgivable, he and librettist Feltkamp have added a startling and engaging work to the 20th and 21st- century responses to the Holocaust.


[i] Shira Diamond & Natti Ronel (2019) “From Bondage to Liberation: The Forgiveness Case of Holocaust Survivor Eva Mozes Kor”, Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 28:8, 996-1016.
[ii] Zenon Zsablowinski, “Between Forgiveness and Unforgiveness," The Heythrop Journal, Volume 51, Issue 3, (May 2010) 471-482
[iii] "Eva and the Angel of Death," Commemorative program booklet, 2022.
[iv] Kathleen Roland-Silverstein, Journal of Singing, Volume 78, no. 5 (May/June 2022), 665.
[v] “Eva and the Angel of Death," 2022.


Kathleen Roland-Silverstein

Kathleen Roland-Silverstein is a highly regarded scholar and concert soloist,  known for her performance of contemporary art music, and for her contribution to scholarly research on Scandinavian song. She has been a featured singer with many music festivals, including the Tanglewood and Santa Fe Chamber Music Festivals, and has sung in Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Cambodia, Vietnam and throughout the United States. Dr. Roland was a senior Fulbright scholar to Sweden in 2009, and is the author of Romanser: 25 Swedish Songs with Guide to Lyric Diction. Dr. Roland serves as music reviewer for the Journal of Singing, the official journal of the National Association of Teachers of Singing. She is a member of the faculty at the Setnor School of Music, Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York, where she teaches voice, vocal literature, and voice pedagogy.