Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Story

I've been waiting anxiously to write in more detail about the opera's plot, and now, after many reviews, changes, cuts, and additions, the libretto is more or less in its final form. But rather than writing the event-by-event synopsis, I'll just give an overview of the story.

After a brief prologue shedding light on Julius Jušinskas' (my grandfather's) childhood in Lithuania, Act I opens in a foreign labor camp in Eastern Germany just before the end of WWII. The camp's inhabitants, a mixture of several nationalities but mostly citizens of countries annexed by the Soviet Union, live not only under the stress of difficult manual labor and the constant threat of Allied bombings, but also with the feelings of homesickness, rootlessness, and alienation so familiar to displaced persons (DPs). Some of my grandfather's worst stories came from his family's life in Brandenburg, and by all accounts it was a terrible and dangerous place for anyone, especially a family (by the end of the war, three of his four children had been born).

By the end of the first act, the war has ended and, to the horror of everyone in the camp, they learn that once again they are under the control of the Soviet Army, the very danger from which they had originally fled. Tormented by homesickness and constant exodus, yet fearful of the consequences of remaining under Soviet rule, most choose to escape to Allied-controlled Western Germany. With the Russian occupation zone border closed to those attempting to flee, the Jušinskas family manages to slip through with the help of a bribe.

Act II takes place in a DP camp in Western Germany around 1950-51, the last years before most countries will close their doors to DPs, who will then either be forced to repatriate or begin life on their own in the crippled postwar German economy. The DPs are terrified at the thought of returning to a Soviet-controlled homeland, and the vast majority choose to stay in the safety and stability of the camp. Life in the camp is not easy, but everyone is guaranteed food, shelter, schooling, and the stubborn belief that someday they will be able to return to a liberated homeland.

However, while physical conditions in the camp are tolerable, the psychological toll wrought by hopelessness and the lack of free will is mounting. With the already small and bureaucracy-laden window of opportunity to emigrate narrowing, the DPs scramble to win their own ticket to the U.S., Australia, Canada, and other countries with immigration quotas that could not possibly accommodate the massive number of hopeful families. In their desperation, many attempt to improve their chances by secretly swapping chest x-rays or accusing others of wartime collaboration and other crimes, while those most psychologically strained resort to suicide.

Pressure mounts after Adelina (my grandmother) and Julius are maliciously interrogated by agents in the camp. Julius obstinately holds onto his dream of returning home, but Adelina's persuasion, along with a last-minute letter of sponsorship from Julius' distant "Uncle Joe" in Chicago, finally convinces him to let go. With mixed feelings of relief, optimism, nostalgia, and fear, the family boards a ship bound for New York, leaving behind a decade of uncertainty, isolation, and dejection.

While some scenes are fictional (though definitely not implausible), others are based on my grandfather's actual experiences. For instance, Marija Simona included in the libretto an almost absurdist scene based on an incident in Brandenburg when an unlicensed German "doctor" tried to amputate my grandfather's injured leg. And the last scene in Act I and one of my favorite stories is how my grandfather managed to bribe the guards at the border of the Russian occupation zone:

Hundreds of people were at the border, but no one was allowed through. After pulling one of the guards aside, my grandfather withdrew a bottle of his homemade liquor from under his coat. The guard gladly accepted, but motioned to the other guard at the post, as if saying, "what about my friend over there?" My grandfather then pulled another bottle from under his coat, thus securing his family's passage into the British occupation zone. Minutes later, the family was picked up by British soldiers and taken to a warehouse just inside the British zone, where they were to stay until morning. During the night, everyone woke up to an extraordinary commotion. Hundreds of additional refugees had made it into the British zone. Later the family learned why so many of them had escaped: the guards had gotten completely drunk.

The Jušinskas family lived in Wehnen, a DP camp in Oldenburg, in the British zone, for almost six years before they finally received an offer of sponsorship from Uncle Joe. My mother was born there, and my aunts and uncles remember it well. While their time in Brandenburg before the end of the war was dangerous and physically debilitating, their stay in Wehnen was overshadowed by suspicions, accusations, rivalries, jealousies, and bigotry among desperate camp members. People did commit suicide, and Julius and Adelina were, in fact, interrogated for some unknown reason, but whatever that reason or the outcome was, it was the last push my grandmother needed to convince my grandfather to emigrate. The photo to the right is of the Jušinskas family in Wehnen, ca. 1947 (from left to right: Edita, Adelina [with my mother, Zita, in her lap], Julius, Irena, and Julius, Jr.).

Once the libretto has been thoroughly reviewed by several pairs of eyes, I'll give a more detailed synopsis. I have already begun to write the music, and now that the dramatic structure and pacing of the opera is all but set in stone, I'm looking forward to discovering where it takes the music.