An Immigration Monodrama
for Mezzo Soprano and Chamber Sextet
(also Mezzo Soprano and Piano)
As our country now wrestles with the heart-wrenching complexity of immigration, Rucksack provides some perspective. Juliane Heyman escaped from the Nazis to the U.S. and became a leading trainer in the Peace Corps, as well as consulting on numerous social and educational projects in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
An Immigrant's Story ...
As a young woman, Juliane Heyman fled from the Nazis with her family from Danzig, Poland. Her dramatic journey throughout Europe included several narrow escapes. Most of her relatives died in the Holocaust, but she finally reached America, and powerfully described her arrival..."When our boat passed the Statue of Liberty in New York, cliché or not, it was and remains to this day the symbol of our family’s deliverance. I was moved beyond words and looked forward to a new life in the United States without the dangers of the past." She escaped the Nazis, but within a year, she was arrested by American police. An avid hiker, she was exploring the Poconos mountains in Pennsylvania with her rucksack (backpack). Hiking was uncommon in the U.S. in the 1940s and the police assumed she was a prostitute!
Rucksack is a 14 minute monodrama for voice and piano intertwines both her escape from the Nazis and misadventure in the Poconos mountains—one harrowing, the other comical—to impart the emotional contrast between the most brutal oppression and true liberty. These stories speak to the United States as a beacon of hope for democracy and refuge. The dramatic singing role incorporates speech, rhythmic speech, and bel canto, as the singer shifts between different roles as narrator, Julie, and a Pennsylvania police chief. The musical style shifts between an expressionistic language for the story of her escape from the Nazis, and an Americana language for the story of her hiking in the Poconos. The libretto is adapted from Juliane Heyman’s autobiography FromRucksack to Backpack.
Monodrama for Mezzo Soprano and Piano
Text by Juliane Heyman
Music by Russell Steinberg
Lovely wildflowers covered the rolling mountains; the beautiful landscape and the silence on the trail of the Poconos.
I was born in the free city of Danzig Poland in 1925. I survived the Second World War and was extremely fortunate to have escaped the Nazis. My luck was always with me and I felt I was invulnerable.
In 1935 when Jewish children were no longer permitted to attend public school, I transferred to a newly established Jewish school. During the ten minute walk each day the Nazi boys harassed me and sometimes even hit me.
In 1938 the Nazis imprisoned my parents. Several months after their release, we departed in the middle of the night, leaving everything that was dear to me.
Spring of 1943, New York city, a college holiday. Lisbeth and I decided to go for a hike in the country to the Poconos mountains in Pennsylvania. Lisbet prepared sandwiches, I brought fruit and cookies. We planned to spend a couple of days surrounded by nature.
Lovely wildflowers covered the rolling mountains.
I was sent to school in Switzerland. I traveled by myself and at the border was subjected to a strip search by the Germans. After a term, I joined my parents in Brussels, Belgium.
On May 10, 1940 we heard the sound of gunfire outside our apartment. We went to the balcony and realized the Germans had invaded Belgium. We left by train and headed to the coast. We crossed the French border on foot… with our rucksacks on our backs.
The beautiful landscape and the silence on the trail of the Poconos.
At the trailhead, the bus took us to the town of Wilkesbar. With our rucksacks on our backs, we found no signs of a room.
We arrived in Dunkirk where we spent three days in a cellar. The family continued, with no idea where we were going. We repeatedly were caught in the crossfire between French and German forces. One day I was lying in a ditch and the man next to me lost a leg in the fire…
We worked in a bakery, then on a farm. Mother and father finally succeeded in receiving visas for the U.S. My parents obtained false documents to enter the unoccupied zone of France. But at the border, the train was stopped…and the Nazis began a search.
All of a sudden a police car stopped next to us.
“What have we done?”
“We are taking you to the police station for some questioning.”
I could not understand why.
The German authorities did not discover that our papers were forged. To my great relief we had escaped the Nazis again.
“Well, well, what are you bringing us here?” said the police captain in the interrogation room. (He did not seem mean like a Nazi in Europe.) “Why are you in Wiklesbar?”
“We have been hiking in the Poconos. We were looking for a room to spend the night.”
He could not understand. Hiking was only popular in the United States after the war.
The captain explained:
“Knapsacks on your backs looked like you were runaway girls, runaway girls, heading, heading toward prostitution, toward prostitution.”
We spent several months on a farm near Bordeaux in the wine country. I learned to make wine, which I enjoyed. Mother and Father finally succeeded in receiving visas for the U.S.
Many, including most of my relatives, did not make it and were killed in the concentration camps. We did not learn of this till the end of the war…
While waiting for the freighter for America, I felt free and secure and gorged myself on food, which I had not been able to do for over a year. When our boat passed the Statue of Liberty in New York, cliché or not, it was and remains to this day the symbol of our family’s deliverance. I was moved beyond words and looked forward to a new life in the United States without the dangers of the past.
The captain asked the officers to take us to a respectable boarding house.
The lesson that I learned was not to walk with a rucksack in a city.
Lovely wildflowers covered the rolling mountains; the beautiful landscape and the silence of the Poconos.