Zofia Posmysz, who wrote of life in concentration camps, dies at 98

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Zofia Posmysz, who wrote of life in concentration camps, dies at 98
Her radio play, “The Passenger in Cabin 45,” became a novel that was translated into 15 languages, a movie and an acclaimed opera.

by Richard Goldstein

NEW YORK, NY.- Zofia Posmysz, who endured three years of imprisonment in concentration camps for associating with the Polish resistance to Nazi occupation in World War II, then gained acclaim for her works on the Holocaust as a journalist, novelist, playwright and screenwriter, died Aug. 8 in Oswiecim, Poland. She was 98.

Her death, in the city where the remnants of the Auschwitz concentration camp have been preserved as a reminder of humans’ capacity for unfathomable evil, was announced by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.

Posmysz (pronounced POCE-mish) was born Aug. 23, 1923, in Krakow, Poland, into a Roman Catholic family. She was arrested by the Gestapo in May 1942 for associating with fellow students at an underground university who were passing out anti-Nazi leaflets. She was taken to Auschwitz, where some 1.1 million people, a vast majority of them Jews, would perish.

She survived brutality at Auschwitz but was later assigned to work at the camp’s kitchen and stockroom. In mid-January 1945, she was transferred to the Ravensbrück concentration camp and its offshoot Neustadt Glewe, from which she was liberated May 2.

With 20 other women, she walked back to Krakow and lived for many years in Warsaw, Poland, where she had an older sister.

Her writing career began when she was hired as a newspaper reporter and editor. She didn’t seek a byline for her first article, an account of the war crimes trials in Nuremberg, Germany. Instead, she signed off with her identification number at Auschwitz: 7566.

Posmysz began writing for Polish radio in the early 1950s. While on assignment in Paris in 1959, she walked in the Place de la Concorde among tourists, many of them speaking German.

“Suddenly, someone appeared behind me,” she recalled long afterward on “Stories From the Eastern West,” a Polish podcast. “It was the voice of my overseer. All this time she’s been living a peaceful life in Paris.” She quickly realized that the woman was not, in fact, her former guard at Auschwitz, but that moment “just wouldn’t leave me alone,” she recalled.

It spawned her best-known work, “The Passenger in Cabin 45,” later titled “The Passenger.” It was released as a radio play in 1959; a novel published in 1962 that was translated into 15 languages; a motion picture, in which she collaborated on the script with the director, Andrzej Munk; and an opera.

The opera was composed by Polish-born Mieczyslaw Weinberg, who was Jewish and had lost his parents and a sister in the Holocaust, while the libretto was written by Alexander Medvedev, a Russian. It was conceived in the Soviet Union and completed in 1968; Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich praised the opera, but it was banned by the Soviets.

The opera reverses the moment in Paris when Posmysz thought she had come upon her former Auschwitz guard. It tells of Liese, a middle-aged German woman who is aboard an ocean liner bound for Brazil in the early 1960s, accompanying her husband, who is about to take up a diplomatic post there. Liese is stunned to see a fellow passenger who is staying in Cabin 45. She thinks it might be Marta, who was an inmate at Auschwitz when Liese was her guard.

It premiered at an Austrian music festival in 2010 and was performed by the Houston Grand Opera at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan in 2014 as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. Posmysz sat in the audience and received a prolonged ovation when she was introduced.

“Weinberg’s music daringly shifts from depicting the life of the well-heeled Germans aboard the ship to the horrors of the death camp,” Anthony Tommasini wrote in his review for The New York Times. “The hero of the evening and, truly, of the opera, was Ms. Posmysz, whose novel was drawn from her own experiences at Auschwitz.”

A listing of Posmysz’s survivors was not immediately available. She was married. Her father was shot and killed by Germans during the war, which her mother survived. She also had an older sister.

Posmysz was among former Auschwitz prisoners who welcomed German-born Pope Benedict XVI during his visit there in 2006.

In January 2020, the survivors attended a ceremony at the former death camp for the 75th anniversary of its liberation. The event came amid growing concern over a resurgence of antisemitism in the United States and Europe, as well as rising acrimony between Russia and Poland over who bore a major share of responsibility for Germany’s invasion of Poland, touching off World War II.

Posmysz was unable to attend the ceremony, but she was aware of attacks on Polish leaders by Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.

“I fear that over time, it will become easier to distort history,” she told the Times then. “I can never say it will never happen again, because when you look at some leaders of today, those dangerous ambitions, pride and sense of being better than others are still in play. Who knows where they can lead?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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