Dutch soprano and vocal coach to the stars Judith Mok recounts her family's Holocaust losses

Singer and author Judith Mok chats to Jenny Lee about working with some of the biggest names in music and writing her memoir, including discovering how the singer she idolized and whom taught her was a former Nazi who sang at Auschwitz on the day her grandparents were killed there

Judith Mok's memoir The State of Dark demonstrates how the Holocaust continues to be a living presence in European life and culture.
Judith Mok's memoir The State of Dark demonstrates how the Holocaust continues to be a living presence in European life and culture.

AS a child of Holocaust survivors, Dutch singer and writer Judith Mok grew up without grandparents, aunts, or other extended family.

The renowned Dublin-based opera singer spent her formative years in what she describes as “an artist’s village” and although her bohemian childhood was largely happy, the painful past was always present through her parents' silences and whispers.

Over two decades following the death of her parents, correspondence with her Dutch half-sister revealed that she witnessed their grandparents' arrest, inspiring Mok to discover and bring her family's history into the light.

The result is her memoir The State of Dark, a moving commemoration of her relatives' passionate lives and the pain of their absence and the reminder that the Holocaust is still a living memory in Europe.

She began researching her past by contacting the Westerbork transit camp in Holland, where the transport of Dutch Jews to concentration camps was facilitated.

Her journey took her all over Europe – virtually and in-person, including the Jews in Latvia Museum.

“The Latvians helped the Germans. The Jewish people in Riga were basically killed by the Latvians. They killed 25,000 Jews in three days to help the Gestapo,” she explains.

Through her research, she discovered that 163 members of her family had been murdered in various concentration camps.

Mok admits she will “never have all the answers” to what happened to her relatives.

“I don't understand racism and that kind of behaviour. It was the most well organised and biggest genocide that ever occurred. To me, everybody's the same and should be treated the same.”

She believes The State of Dark addresses the destruction of an enlightened Jewish culture.

“It’s about what war does to people and a nation - it's not only this war, but all wars,” says the 65-year-year-old.  

“History teaches us what people did wrong.  War has become so sophisticated and even more frightening as destruction, through drones and planes, can happen at the touch of a button.”

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Mok, who will be speaking at the Aspects Festival in Bangor this month, is very much aware of her books' relevance today with the continuing Russian and Ukrainian war as well as the post-generational trauma that exists from the Northern Ireland Troubles.

Mok’s father was a highly acclaimed writer, publishing 84 books and, despite her gift for singing, Mok followed in his footsteps.

Having published her first short story aged 19, she went on to publish eight books – The State of Dark being her first non-fiction title. Written in her trademark poetic style, it covers history, genocide, grief, tragedy and secrets as well as love.

Mok has lived in Ireland since 2002 with her husband, the poet and critic Michael O’Loughlin. They have a daughter, Saar — named after her father’s sister, who befriended Anne Frank during transportation to Auschwitz.

Frank's father, Otto, makes an emotional visit to her father from his home in Switzerland to hand over some letters he had that were written by her aunt.

“I was about five years old when he came to our house. They were mainly letters written to her brother and parents,” she recalls.

As a 14-year-old, Mok auditioned as a ballerina at the prestigious Royal Conservatoire The Hague. The panel, aware of her singing ability, also asked her if she would sing for them.

Uninhibited, she obliged, singing Mozart, and was accepted into both the dance and music departments.

“I got into my fifth year of dance school but it was impossible to do both.  I loved dancing, but I realised I danced because I loved classical music.”

Music took Mok all over the world. She lived in Paris, Vienna, Barcelona, and Buenos Aires, singing in some of the world’s most prestigious opera houses and even performing a gala concert as a wedding present for the Dutch King, HRH Willem Alexander, and his wife, Queen Maxima, in 2002.

The gifted singer was thrilled to receive a masterclass from and work with German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

It was only in later years that she learned that the famous singer had been a Nazi, made propaganda films for Hitler and given recitals in Auschwitz.

Auschwitz concentration camp
Auschwitz concentration camp

“She gave a recital on the day my grandparents were there,” recalls Mok. "She was a great singer, but an absolute monster.”

The State of Dark was both heart-wrenching and cathartic to write and she says her vocal coaching helped take her mind away from that darkness.

Over the past 16 years, Gok has worked with a wide range of musicians from all genres, including Glen Hansard, Kodaline, Grace Jones, Gemma Dunleavy, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Dermot Kennedy.

Whitney Houston also famously came to Judith at midnight, entourage in tow, begging Judith to “fix her” before a performance – an appeal Mok declined.

“The rockers just came to me and they asked me if I could help them with their breathing technique and make the most of their voices.

“At first I said, “No, I'm a classical musician”, but I had a masters in teaching from the Conservatoire and passed on my knowledge.

“Maybe because I'm a writer, an avid reader and I speak a lot of languages, I teach my vocal technique in a very intellectual kind of way. It seemed to work with them,” laughs Judith, who is currently working alongside an American production company to make a documentary about The State of Dark.

Judith Mok will be speaking at the Aspects Literary Festival in Bangor on Saturday 30 at North Down Museum. For tickets and the full programme, visit Aspectsfestival.com.