Letters in lines

‘Refidim Junction,’ an operatic drama composed by Jerusalemite Margret Wolf, draws on the fraught correspondence between Prof. Alice Shalvi’s parents while waiting to get to England in the 1930s.

‘Refidim Junction’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Refidim Junction’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Thankfully Alice Shalvi did not suffer too much during the Holocaust, although it certainly left its imprint on her life.
“We arrived [in England] well before the Holocaust,” says the 88-year-old German-born, British-bred Jerusalemite. “My father reached England in the middle of 1933, after our house had been searched [by the Nazis]. It was immediately after the first edicts were issued regarding the Ostjuden [‘eastern Jews’]. My father was extremely active, both in the Mizrachi Zionist movement and in the organization of Ostjuden in Essen, where we lived.”
Shalvi’s family, like many German and Austrian Jews, originated in Galicia – then part of Poland – and thus had Eastern European roots. Her father left for London, where he had established a small business a couple of years earlier, thinking he would be able to bring his wife and two children over quickly. Unfortunately bureaucracy got in the way, and it took a full 10 months for the family to be reunited in Britain.
By all accounts, it was a trying time for Shalvi and her brother, mother and maternal grandmother.
Shalvi’s mother kept up an almost frenetic pace of correspondence with her husband in the interim.
That exchange of letters forms part of the backbone of Refidim Junction, an operatic drama written and composed by 55-year-old German-born Jerusalemite Margret Wolf. The show – which will be performed at the Jerusalem Theater on June 1 and 2 as part of this year’s Israel Festival – is a collaborative project between the Berlin Symphony Orchestra under conductor Ulrich Pakusch, and the Jerusalem Theater Company.
While Refidim Junction has a strong operatic element to it, it is described as “a documentary musical drama,” telling the story of the trials and anguish that Shalvi’s mother, Perl Margulies, experienced. It also conveys the emotional turmoil of the young poet Marianne Rein as expressed in her own letters from Germany, which she wrote in 1939-1941 to her teacher and lover, writer Jacob Picard, after his escape to the United States.
Although “lover” may seem a strange term for someone whom Rein never actually met, her letters became increasingly amorous – to the point that toward the end of the correspondence, shortly before Rein was murdered in Riga, she expressed her profound regret that she had never borne Picard’s child.
Refidim Junction follows an undulating, meandering path as the female correspondents oscillate between despair and hope. Despite their common emotional underpinnings, the two women lead very different lives. One is single, while the other is a mother of two; one dies in the Holocaust, while the other eventually escapes the clutches of the Nazis.
Wolf interweaves their concomitant emotional baggage, portraying their stories through both spoken words and song: Each woman is represented on stage by two performers – an actress and a singer. The music is suitably multilayered – although, as Shalvi notes, it is not too avant garde or challenging for culture consumers who tend more toward mainstream entertainment.
Directed by Kai Moritz, these personal stories come together to form a deeply moving, engaging and drama-filled opera with accessible music. Supplying the latter is a chamber ensemble of Berlin Symphony Orchestra members, augmented by two vocal quartets and a choir.
Refidim Junction was the initiative of Shalvi, who has led a highly successful and varied career since making aliya in 1949. Before coming here and settling in Jerusalem, she studied English literature at Cambridge University and managed to complete a degree in social work at the London School of Economics. She later headed the English departments of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. She also founded the Pelech religious girls’ school and the International Coalition for Agunah Rights. The impressive list of awards she has received includes the 2014 Israel Prize for lifetime achievement and her special contribution to society and the State of Israel.
Wolf – who received the Israeli Prime Minister’s Prize for Composers last year – had her work cut out for her when it came to translating the high emotion that runs through the women’s letters into a coherent work of art.
The idea for the project emerged shortly after Shalvi’s brother made aliya in 1996. He brought along various family documents, among which he found his mother’s letters. In addition to the content, the physical condition of the epistles was indicative of the circumstances in which they were written.
“This work at the Israel Festival came about because we wanted to transcribe the letters, some of which were written on very flimsy paper, and they were written with great emotion,” Shalvi explains. “Sometimes my mother left out punctuation marks, because you can see that her thoughts and feelings were flowing from her.”
Wolf had a hand in facilitating the siblings’ progress from sifting through their mother’s letters to having them inspire Refidim Junction – though it was her technical abilities, rather than her musical ones, that brought her together with Shalvi.
“We wanted to have the letters put on the computer,” Shalvi continues. “Neither my brother nor I were endowed with computer skills, so we looked around for someone who was familiar with computers and knew German, and someone sent us Margret Wolf.”
The composer-librettist quickly set herself to the task, which, says Shalvi, was arduous in the extreme.
“My mother would write in the margin, in order not to have to use another piece of paper, and because of the emotion, my mother’s handwriting was not always easy to decipher,” she says. “At one point, I said to Margret that she must be finding the work terribly boring, but she said that she was discovering an aspect of the Holocaust which one doesn’t know about. We all know about the Final Solution, but the way in which the everyday lives of people were affected by these edicts, by the fear, by the uncertainty, we don’t know about that.”
It was only after the transcription work was complete that Shalvi discovered Wolf had other considerable talents.
“I think, at the time, she needed the income, but she gave me some of her compositions – she had already written two operas – and a few months later, she asked for our permission to use the letters for an opera she wanted to write,” Shalvi recalls.
Jerusalem audiences will now have a chance to appreciate the fruits of those labors.
Refidim Junction, in German with Hebrew surtitles, will be performed at the Jerusalem Theater on June 1 and 2 at 8:30 p.m. For more information: israel-festival.org/en/