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Gottfried Wagner on the Holocaust opera 'Lost Childhood'

Gottfried Wagner, author, director, musicologist and great-grandson of Richard Wagner, had a significant role in the development of "Lost Childhood," an opera about the Holocaust and its aftermath.

The work, composed by Janice Hamer to a libretto by Baltimore poet Mary Azrael, will be performed (in concert form) Saturday at Strathmore. Wagner, who inspired one of the two main characters in the opera, plans to attend the performance.

Prior to leaving his home in Italy for the trip here, Wagner replied to some questions I sent by email. Here are his comments.

Were you surprised to learn that you had helped to inspire an opera?  

Inspiration is the wrong word for Janice Hamer's, Mary Azrael's and my long cooperation. I began with Janice in November 1992 a cultural and political discussion from the point of view of Jews and non-Jewish Germans regarding the genocide of European Jews in Europe in the period of the Third Reich, in connection with our families’ stories. We did it under the motto of Primo Levi : "Do not judge any human being for the group he/ she comes from but see him/her as an individual person with his/her own life story." In 1994. Janice and I met for the first time personally and found agreement in our humanitarian positions, in connection with our topic,  expressed in the Human Rights Charter of 1948.


Janice and Mary [told me]: "You were crucial to us not only as the 'inspiration' but also for helping us think about the character of Manfred, and the sensibilities of educated second-generation Germans generally. AFTER we had already decided to have Manfred as a main character.  You helped us to understand what 2nd generation Germans went through, how they would feel and respond in a given situation!"

What are your impressions about this work and how it deals with the issues of the Holocaust and its aftermath?

I consider "Lost Childhood" a unique opera because of the combination of the Jewish Holocaust survivor Judah and the German Manfred, a descendant of top Nazis. Both recognize that at the end of their respective painful journeys through the past to the present, only the overcoming of collective  allocation of guilt will create a better world in the future. This common recognition makes sense for both the memory of Holocaust and all other genocides.

Mary Azrael's libretto, inspired by Yehuda Nir's autobiography and his discourse with me, in intimate unity with Janice Hamer's music, allows the character of the Holocaust survivor Judah to transcend his deep distrust of all Germans by confronting it with Manfred's suffering and hidden prejudices against Jews. Through the mutual listening and understanding the two men achieve, both can mourn and commemorate the loss of Judah's father as well as the losses of all innocently murdered in the atrocities of World War Two and its genocides. Their building of mutual respect and trust can be a bridge to the resolution of other crimes against humanity in the past and today.

Do you think that the young generation in Germany has much interest in the legacy of the war and the Holocaust?

Yes, the sensitive ones will, because the Holocaust is part of education in families, schools and media in Germany. But new approaches are necessary to avoid a kind of routinization of Holocaust memory, like the labels "descendants of the victims and perpetrators," labels which can create new resentments. Nobody is born guilty.

How do you think ‘Lost Childhood’ would be received by young – or older – people in Germany today?

Those young and old Germans who are really interested in this topic and understand the connection between German and family history will see it positively. Janice and I experienced that during our lectures about the opera-in-progress in Germany several years ago. Why not both today and in the future? It's now time for the opera [company] directors to understand the importance of "Lost Childhood." 

Would you like to be the director if there is a stage production of ‘Lost Childhood’ in the future?


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