My song setting for soprano and piano ‘The Dark Gate’ is based around five poems by David Vogel. First performed in York (5th August 2017 by Peyee Chen and Kate Ledger) the work draws its title from Vogel’s only collection of poetry to be published during his lifetime; ominously it could also refer to the image of the gatehouse at Auschwitz-Birkenau where Vogel met his death in 1944. The songs are sung continuously, without a break, although the contrasts between the songs are quite extreme, from the dry, mechanistic opening (‘On Summer Evenings’) to the lyrical central song (‘An Autumn Day will Breathe), via the anguished second song (‘How Can I See You Love’). The fourth song (‘With Gentle Fingers’) returns to the mechanical repetition of the opening whilst the final song (‘There is One Last Solitary Coach’) attempts to present a simple, objective statement of Vogel’s words, describing those awaiting transportation.
I first encountered the poetry of David Vogel late in 2015: I had been invited to accompany a group of performance students on a trip to Auschwitz and in preparation for the visit I had picked up a volume of holocaust poems from a second-hand bookshop. The anthology was full of moving and powerful writing but I was immediately drawn to the two or three pieces by Vogel, whose work seemed sophisticated, abstract and multidimensional and yet at the same time completely innocent and naïve. With a little research I was able to uncover some twenty or more of his poems. I also found that he was a fascinating, tragic figure. Lilach Netanel, the scholar who discovered the manuscript of Vogel’s lost novel ‘Viennese Romance’ wrote that he “was something of a total failure when it came to doing things. He never held a job, he abhorred economic life. It is plain to see that the arena in which Vogel functioned was night, not day.”
Born in Russia in 1891 he first moved west to Vilna (now Lithuania) where he worked as a synagogue caretaker, learning Hebrew, then in 1912 to Vienna where he learned German and barely earned a living by giving Hebrew lessons. His diary and the testimonies of people he met suggest that he was introverted and reticent, a stranger to the practicalities of life, and he constantly suffered from want and hunger.
The introduction to Vogel's Complete Poems quotes Hillel Bavli's description: "A young man of about 20, dressed in faded apparel, wearing a broad-brimmed black hat and with melancholy, wondering eyes. He was very withdrawn, a man of few words. His pale face always seemed drawn and tired."
In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I Vogel was arrested as an enemy alien (a Russian subject in Vienna) and he spent time in internment camps. In 1925, he obtained an Austrian passport, but decided to leave Vienna and settle in Paris. His novel Married Life was published but he still couldn’t hold down regular work or settle in one place and he spent time in Poland, Berlin and Palestine before the outbreak of WWII at which point he returned to France. At first he was interned by the French as an Austrian citizen and then released after the Nazi occupation of France in 1940; however as a Jew he was later re-arrested by the Gestapo and transported to Auschwitz where he was killed in 1944.
His life is full of paradoxes: why leave Austria shortly after being awarded Austrian citizenship? Why write exclusively in Hebrew when he was not at all committed to the Zionist project? He seems determined to have excluded himself and made himself a perpetual outsider, always wanting to be beyond the mainstream and never courting acceptance. Aside from ‘Married Life’ there was a volume of his diaries published as ‘The End of Days’ and a collection of poetry (‘Beyond the Dark Gate’) published in Vienna in 1923; most of his subsequent work was published posthumously.
We can only speculate how much Vogel knew of what was going on in the extermination camps as he was writing his final poems; whilst much of his work is imbued with that sense of ominous foreboding which characterises so much expressionist verse, it is only in his final work ‘There is One Last Solitary Coach’ where the details of transportation are made explicit. Even here there is a bitter-sweet irony that we must get on the coach before it is ‘too late’ in spite of our worst fears about their destination.