Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

The Emperor of Atlantis

Patrick Lay for Berger Books at Dark Horse

My connection with the Theresienstadt concentration camp, or ghetto, is based on the fact that the grandmother I never knew, Regina van Son, was deported there from her home city of Hamburg in 1942, and perished there a few months later.

I have maintained my late father’s subscription to the Theresienstadt Memorial Museum in Kibbutz Givat Chaim Ihud, though have not visited the place for several years. My interest has focused primarily on the artistic and musical activities that were held in the camp under Nazi rule, and these were many and varied, many of them truly amazing. The prisoners, many of whom were acknowledged scholars and artists in a wide range of fields, managed to maintain a rich and diverse artistic and intellectual life there. Musical performances were held despite the difficult conditions, enabling the starving detainees to benefit from some kind of spiritual succour. Thus, performances of Mozart and Verdi operas were organized as well as lectures, chamber music concerts and recitals by individual artists. The performance of Verdi’s Requiem that was given there, despite the adverse circumstances, has gone down in history and even given rise to a contemporary organization which has revived and restored that stirring event. Over the years I have attended concerts at which music composed by prisoners at the camp have been played. These have always been emotionally moving for both performers and audience.

One of the composers incarcerated at the camp was Victor Ullmann, a rising star among Czech musicians, who had studied with Arnold Schoenberg and won several prizes for his compositions. Together with Peter Kien, who wrote the libretto, Ullmann composed the music for an opera entitled ‘The Emperor of Atlantis,’ an allegory of the Nazi regime, in which Death goes on strike in protest at the widespread killing of human beings by a power-mad ruler. The opera was performed in the Theresienstadt camp, but has rarely been performed since, though knowledge of its existence was widespread.

So imagine my surprise when I opened my morning newspaper a few days ago to find an extensive article about a graphic novel that has recently been published based on the text of the opera and original sketches used to illustrate it. The title of the book is ‘Death Strikes; the Emperor of Atlantis,’ which I feel is slightly misleading, as the meaning is unclear, or perhaps ambiguous. That may be deliberate, but I feel that a better title would be ‘Death Goes on Strike; the Emperor of Atlantis.’

Be that as it may, the point is that the American author of the book, Dave Maass, together with illustrator Patrick Lay, has managed to create a new work based on the original opera by Victor Ullmann and Peter Kien, providing a new kind of memorial for the artists of the camp who, as in the cases of Ullmann and Kien and so many others, were later deported to Auschwitz and murdered there.

The fact that works of artistic importance could be created in the conditions of a concentration camp provides a beacon of hope and consolation in dark times, revealing the strength of the human spirit and even, perhaps, the eternal resilience of the Jewish soul.

About the Author
I was born and brought up in England. I am a graduate of the LSE and the Hebrew University. I have lived in Israel since 1964. I am an experienced translator, editor and writer.
Related Topics
Related Posts