The Sparks Fly Upward: Story Synopsis

The Sparks Fly Upward: Story Synopsis

by Cathy Lesser Mansfield

Act I

The opening scene of The Sparks Fly Upward takes place on Friday, October 28, 1938, at 5:00 am in an apartment building at Sophienstrasse 25 in Berlin. The Rosenbaum family (German Jews), the Stein family (Polish Jews living in Germany), and the Weber family (German Christians), are all awakened by the police arresting the father (Wilhelm, or “Willie”) and oldest son (Frederick) of the Stein family. Wilhelm and Frederick are arrested and deported to the Polish/German border along with 18,000 other Polish Jews living in Germany. [Music: “Deutschland Erwache,” or “Germany Awakens”1].

After the arrests, the three families decide that the men will go to work, so as not to cause further problems, while the women look for Wilhelm and Frederick. [Music: “Generations”]. The women spend the day trying to get information about Wilhelm and Frederick, but they and other women in the community whose family members have been arrested are unsuccessful. [Music: “Train Station,” “Let Me Find Them”]. That night, a Friday night, Rosa and her two remaining daughters, and the Rosenbaum family attend Shabbat services at their Synagogue, the Neue Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse in Berlin. As the service proceeds, the various characters reflect on the terrifying events of the day. [Music: “Candle Blessing, Service,” “Oseh Shalom”].

On November 3, 1938, a Polish Jew living in Paris, Herschel Grynszpan, receives a letter from his sister, who, like Rosa’s husband and son, has been deported to the Polish border. That same day Rosa receives and reads a letter from Wilhelm. The letters describe the deportation and the deplorable conditions at the border. Meanwhile, Lina and Julius Rosenbaum and other community members are trying to get permission to emigrate from Germany. At the end of the scene, Herschel Grynszpan goes to the German embassy in Paris and shoots Ernst vom Rath, whose death provides the pretext for “Kristallnacht2.” [Music: “The Pretext”].

On November 9, 1938, the horror of Kristallnacht begins. The Jews and some Christians of Berlin attempt to warn other Jews to stay out of the streets to avoid arrest and harm. [Music: “The Mundfunk” (translated as “mouthcast” or “rumor mill”)]. Julius Rosenbaum is not home when the pogrom begins. Lina Rosenbaum decides to venture into the street to find her husband, while her neighbors, Hans and Ruth Weber, hide the Rosenbaum children, and Rosa Stein and her children in the apartment attic. [Music: “Kristallnacht”]. The oldest Rosenbaum daughter, Lotte, begins reading the children the story from the Book of Job in order to keep them distracted. [Music: “A Man Named Job”]. As she and her siblings continue to play out the story of Job, the events in the streets of Berlin seem to mirror the events in the story of Job. [Music: “Lord God, How Blind You Seem to Be,” “So Satan’s Work Was Begun”].

When Kristallnacht is over, the Steins and Rosenbaums rejoice that they are all right, but vow to try to emigrate before it is too late. [Music: “Bless the Lord”].

In early 1939, the Steins and Rosenbaums continue their attempts to emigrate. Lina writes on behalf of both families to a relative in Cleveland, Ohio, for help. In her letter, she explains the events and decrees since the November 9 pogrom. [Music: “Trying to Get Out”].

At the end of the first act the Jewish Community of Berlin is hopeful that things will improve as the Neue Synagogue reopens for the first time since the November 9 pogrom for a Passover service. [Music: “The Reopening”].

Act II

It is two and a half years later, October, 1941. The Rosenbaums and Steins are still hopeful that they will be able to leave Germany, but Lina receives a discouraging letter from her relatives in Cleveland, Ohio, saying that they are unlikely to be able to help them leave Germany. [Music: “Letter from America”]. At the same time, the head of the Jewish Department of the Berlin Police instructs the Berlin Jewish community that deportations will begin.

On October 16, 1941, the two families are sitting in the Rosenbaum’s apartment. The children are bored [Music: “Mama, You Look Tired”] and decide to finish the story of Job. As the children tell the part of the Job story where Satan is given power to destroy Job and his family, the first round-up and deportation of Jews begins throughout Berlin. [Music: “Destruction,” “Master the Oxen”]. The three families decide that it has become very dangerous, and Ruth and Hans Weber explain their plan for hiding the Rosenbaums and the Steins for the balance of the war. [Music: “The Plan”].

A year and a half later, on February 26, 1943, Hans and Ruth Weber, Lina and Julius Rosenbaum, and Rosa Stein decide things have become so dangerous that it is time to go into hiding. They make a plan for the following Monday, March 1, 1943 [Music: “Decision to Hide”], but their plan is foiled the following day, February 27, 1943, by a massive Gestapo raid of forced labor locations, called the Fabrikaktion, or “Factory Action.” Lotte Rosenbaum escapes arrest when she is warned away from work by her non-Jewish boss. [Music: “The Warning”]. Lina, Julius, and Rosa are arrested. [Music: “The Factory Action”].

Back in their apartment, Hans and Ruth Weber wait with the younger children, as the older children make their way home. [Music: “Returning Home”] When Lina, Julius and Rosa do not return, Karl Rosenbaum reads from the Book of Job “The Lord Giveth, and the Lord Taketh Away.” As he reads, Hans and Ruth go into the streets of Berlin to find Julius, Lina, and Rosa. [Music: “The Lord Giveth”].

Eventually, Hans and Ruth return with the terrible news that Lina, Julius, and Rosa have all been arrested and are being held at the Clou Concert Hall at Zimmerstrasse 90-91. The devastated children, joined by Hans and Ruth, sing of losing their parents, while the parents sing of losing their children. [Music: “So Many Things”] Immediately thereafter, the children say goodbye to each other, and Hans and Ruth deliver the children to their hiding places. [Music: “Into Hiding”]. In the meantime, Lina writes her final letter to her children. Hans and Ruth meet to pray in a church, while they face their own loss. [Music: “All That We Once Had Is Gone”]

By Saturday, March 6, 1943 the children are in their hiding places. Lotte and her brother Karl, from their respective hiding places, are each reading the Book of Job, and taking on the roles of Job and his wife. Job can retain his faith in God, while his wife cannot. As Lotte and Karl sing this part of the story, Julius, Lina and Rosa are being deported to Auschwitz. Lina leaves behind her last letter to her children. When they arrive at Auschwitz, Rosa and Lina are sent directly to the gas chambers along with other members of the Jewish Community, while Julius is placed in forced labor. [Music: “Turning Away”].

By 1945 the Stein children are worn out and discussing with Lotte the meaning of Job’s and their suffering. [Music: “The Meaning of Job”]. At the same time, Karl is contemplating the suffering of Job. He is joined by the rest of his family and individual members of Jewish community, now dispersed across Europe. [Music: “God, If I Have Wronged”].

In May 1945, the Battle for Berlin finally ends the war in Europe. The children are rescued from their hiding places and as planned, reunite at the apartment with Hans and Ruth Weber. They are overjoyed to find that Julius has also survived and devastated to learn of the fate of their mothers, Lina and Rosa.

After the war, the Rosenbaum and Stein families eventually emigrate to the United States, where like many survivors, they rebuild their lives. In February 1995, Lotte receives a letter from the City of Berlin inviting her family back to Berlin for the re-dedication of the Neue Synagogue as the “Centrum Judaicum.” The family decides that they should attend the re-dedication. [Music: “The Invitation”].

On May 7, 1995, the Neue Synagogue in Berlin is rededicated. The Rosenbaums and Steins are reunited with the Webers. They join the revitalized Berlin Jewish community in singing “Oseh Shalom…May the one who causes peace to reign in the high heavens cause peace to reign among us, all Israel, and all the world.” As they remember those who were lost in the Holocaust they vow, “Mama, I will remember you. Papa, I will remember you. Now and forever more, I will hold you here in my heart.” [Music: “Peace”].


1 Words in brackets denote the title of the aria or ensemble in the opera.
2 On Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass,” Nazi paramilitary forces and German civilians ransacked Jewish homes, hospitals, and schools and demolished buildings with sledgehammers across Germany.