In a nearly packed Auer Hall on Wednesday, an audience waited with bated breath to witness the premiere of Act I of the “The Mensch,” a new opera composed by Lauren Bernofsky, co-sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and the Borns Jewish Studies Program at IU.
When the house lights dimmed and singers occupied the four music stands by the piano, the audience was introduced to Anton Schmid — an Austrian man who saved nearly 300 Jewish people during the Holocaust.
Although he saved so many lives, the story of Schmid is not a commonly known one. Bernofsky herself discovered his story during a stay at her husband’s grandparents’ house in Bavaria. In a copy of “The Pianist” by Wladslaw Szpilman, Bernofsky’s husband found a yellowed newspaper clipping detailing the remarkable story of Anton Schmid.
Inspired by the story and struck by what felt like a lack of awareness surrounding Schmid, Bernofsky sought to bring his story to the operatic stage, finding composition as the best medium to display the hope and sadness experienced by Schmid and those he rescued.
“Music is so much more precise,” Bernofsky said, “it’s like having a fourth dimension to express those emotions through.”
The opera, a work in progress since March 2020, will follow Schmid from his electrical shop in Vienna to the Vilna ghetto where — after being drafted into the war— he used his position and resources to hide and smuggle Jewish people to safety.
The enchanting music of Act I was played solely on piano for the Sept. 6 performance. By itself, the score tells a story of humanity and loss. Accompanied by the vocalists, however, it transforms into something more.
“The first time I hear my music sung by an actual human, until that point it’s just me imagining it in my head,” Bernofsky said. “But when I have these glorious operatic voices singing it, it’s something I can’t even describe in words how amazing it is.”
Angelo Pollak, guest performing in the role of Anton Schmid, was drawn to the premiere performance to not only support modern composers, but also to bring stories to light surrounding the Holocaust. Pollak’s grandparents were imprisoned in a concentration camp during World War II, so the story of Schmid spoke to him powerfully.
Pollak was also unfamiliar with the story of Schmid, but quickly found inspiration in his bravery and desired to help those around him.
“We see people with courage can change the world,” Pollak said. “It’s those heroes who’ve made a difference in the last hundred years and I think it’s important that people see those stories.”
When rehearsing the work, Pollak saw how important it was for this story to exist today. With the rise in antisemitic incidents in the US, he felt it necessary to remind a new generation of the Holocaust in hopes of creating a better present and future.
“My father always said, ‘“we should not forget it, but we also should not forget the present,”’ Pollak said, “it’s very important to have a balance, to see this example and not forget it.”
With plans to show the recording of the performance in Auer Hall to various opera companies to raise interest and awareness, the semi-staging will also be made available on IU Music Live.
The journey to complete “The Mensch” will be a long one, but Bernofsky is confident in her score and the timeliness of the story of a bystander who decided to intervene— at great risk to himself— because it was the right thing to do. As Schmid himself sings in Scene Two of Act I:
“How can I just do nothing, standing idly by?”