by Lera Auerbach, a Ukrainian-American pianist, composer, and conductor.
My mother was born in 1940 to a Jewish family in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. As Hitler’s army marched East in 1941, my grandparents abandoned all their possessions (including their beloved library and cherished collection of musical instruments). They boarded the train – heading towards Siberia. The news of ghettos and the fate of Jews in Hitler’s territories had reached them – all they could do was to flee into the unknown.
A few years earlier, my mother’s grandfather, Berl Fishbein, the head of the family, was tortured to death by Stalin’s secret police). His only “guilt” was being born Jewish. While my family evacuated, their train was bombed by Hitler’s armies. Another tragedy occurred: the family lost my mother’s grandmother Ettel Fishbein in the confusion and chaos. She was grief-stricken after the death of her beloved husband, frightened and confused over all the changes and sorrows that the war and evacuation brought. Somehow, after the bombing, she was no longer with my grandparents on the train. They never found her and never learned of her fate.
With my one-year-old mother, my grandparents deboarded in Chelyabinsk – a closed industrial city at the gateway of Siberia. I was born there some thirty years later. They never returned to their abandoned homes in Ukraine.
In today’s war, the invading army marches from the East, and more than a million Ukrainian refugees head West – to Germany in a mirror retrograde of history.
Earlier this year, I wrote a cello concerto, Diary of a Madman, inspired by Gogol’s famous short story about Poprishchin, a government clerk who gradually descends into insanity. The concerto was premiered last month by the Munich Philharmonic, Giedrė Šlekytė, and Gautier Capuçon. Nikolai Gogol (or, more correctly, romanized from Ukrainian – Mykola Hohol) – was a genius writer, born in Ukraine, father of Russian language literature, and a visionary far beyond his time. I have been fascinated by his work all my life. Ten years ago, while composing my opera Gogol, I read and re-read everything he ever wrote. After my opera’s premiere in Vienna, I received an open letter from Russia calling me “Vrag Naroda” (Enemy of the People) – the same terminology used against Shostakovich and many other artists years earlier. My website was hacked, erased, and replaced by the slogan “Death to Jews” and a skull. It felt terrible, but I was not afraid – since 1991, I lived in the West, and since 2001, I no longer had any relatives in Russia. I was responsible only for myself, my words, and my actions.
While composing the cello concerto Diary of a Madman, I did not think of Vladimir Putin. Now, Gogol’s tale carries an eerie resonance. Diary of a Madman is a story of a lowly government bureaucrat with a minimal, easily forgettable personality. In his increasingly demented diary entries, Poprishchin claims that a state cannot “be without a king.” As the storyline progresses, he becomes increasingly mad, starts having delusions of grandeur, and, finally, on the “43rd of April of the year 2000” he believes himself as the King. (V. Putin was first elected president of Russia on the 7th of May of the year 2000. Gogol wrote his story in 1835!) Finally, Poprishchin ends up in an insane asylum.
Perhaps, Gogol, the visionary and one of the greatest writers who ever lived – could see beyond the 19th and 20th century – into the heart of the 21st, where we are doomed to continue the eternal tale.
I think of my grandparents and my child-mother in Ukraine, leaving everything behind, heading into the unknown – evacuating from the onslaught of Hitler’s army. Could they have imagined that eighty years later, the land of their birth would face again a very similar nightmare and that refugees would now head West to Germany to save their children?
Gogol’s visions and nightmares become a reality, with the whole world turning into a lunatics’ asylum as the great tragedy unfolds. Who will stop the Madman?