April 21, 2009

Brundibár - Holocaust Remembrance Day

The opera "Brundibár" was written by a Jewish Czech composer Hans Krása in 1938. In 1942, he was deported to Terezín (or Theresienstadt), a former garrison town near Prague appropriated by the Nazis to assemble European Jews in one location prior to transportation to the death camps.

The opera, first staged in a Jewish orphanage in Prague in 1942, is a delightful folk tale intended for a cast of children. In Terezín, Krása's opera Brundibár was performed more than fifty times by children and musicians from the ghetto. One of the children that auditioned for the children’s opera was Ela Stein Weissberger. Weissberger was 11 years old when she arrived at Terezin in February 1942. Her first sight at the Nazi controlled camp was several young men, hanging dead in the square.

Weissberger spent three years in the concentration camp, sharing a cramped room with 27 other girls. She landed the part of the cat in the opera.

Brundibár tells the story of two children singing to raise money to buy milk for their sick mother. An evil organ grinder (Brundibár), throws them out of the town square. A sparrow, a cat (Ela Weissberger's role), a dog and a chorus of children come to their aid, helping them sing louder than the organ grinder and collect enough money to help their mother. The opera concludes with a victory song which the Nazis didn’t seem to comprehend had a double meaning.

Weissberger said “In our eyes, Brundibár was Hitler. ... We wanted a victory over a terrible man,” she says.*

Many of Europe’s Jewish artists and intellectuals were sent to Terezin. The staging of Brundibár was ideally suited for Terezín because of the numbers of musicians, and artists imprisoned there. But during the rehearsals and performances, there was a constant stream of new performers, replacing the previous musicians and child performers who were being shipped to Auschwitz for extermination.

Ela Weissberger played the cat in all 55 performances, including the infamous day in June 1944. A show was put on for visiting members of the International Red Cross who had been invited to the camp by the Nazis for a day of deceit. The camp was cleaned up. The children given extra food and the opera played in a grand auditorium on first rate instruments, in an effort to show the Red Cross how well the Nazi’s were treating their Jewish inmates.

Weissberger remembers how the young children were told to call the Commandant “Uncle” and to say things like “Oh, no uncle, not sardines again!”, when if fact, they were living on thin soup and a frozen potato. Bread with margarine was made to last three days.

The phony performance was such a success that it was repeated for a notorious propaganda film created by the Nazis called “The Fuhrer Gives a Village to the Jews.”

“I remember it well because we were so scared of the Nazis. They were standing in the gallery of the theater,” (Weissberger) says, naming Adolf Eichmann, mastermind of the Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews, Henrik Himmler, and the commander of Terezin. “There is one part in Brundibár, the lullaby, that is very close to our hearts. When we started to sing the lullaby, they sat down and took off their hats." *

However, directly after that performance, Weissberger says, most of the children were sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz and executed. Of the 28 girls living in cramped quarters with Weissberger only 3 remained. She found out later that 14 did in fact survive.

“We were originally 15,000 children, and only 100 survived. It is by a miracle that I can talk about it. I was saved. I think I speak in the voices of those that couldn't make it. All that is left behind a whole generation of children are a couple of poems and pictures.” *

Krása the composer was also gassed at Auschwitz.

I originally heard of this story watching a documentary about Brundibár on CBC. In it, a young teen playing the cat makes a pilgrimage back to the Czech Republic with Ela Weissberger. I cried for the whole hour.

In the picture above Ela Weissberger is the girl in black in the front row.

Ela Stein Weissberger has also collaborated on a book with Susan Goldman Rubin. The children’s book
The Cat With the Yellow Star: Coming of Age in Terezin is available at Amazon.

* Janelle Gelfand, A conversation with ... Ela Stein Weissberger, The Cincinnati Enquirer

Marsha Lederman, Finding Hope in a Concentration Camp Opera, The Globe and Mail


Margaret Gosden said...

A very moving account. I have not heard this one before. Thank you.

R.L. Bourges said...

I'm thinking the program you saw on CBC may be the same one I saw on Arte-TV last year at about this time - or certainly, both used excerpts from the same materials. The gentleman from the Red Cross, I'm sorry to add, had many superiors quite willing to buy any and every excuse fed to them. Years later, hundreds of thousands of unopened letters were found in the Geneva archives, all of them denouncing conditions at this and other camps.

A timely post, Clever Pup, specially after the sorry performance we just saw with Ahmadinejad in Geneva.

Thanks for posting.

The Clever Pup said...

R.L.B, I had not heard that. Interesting. Frustrating.

Penney said...

Thank you so much for this post. It's quite incredible that she survived. This hits close to my heart, and I'm so appreciative to have you write such a special story. You this so well..

Mary-Laure said...

I heard Brundibar several times on the radio and it's an extraordinary work, just heart wrenching when you think of its history.

California Girl said...

Either a movie was made about this or a PBS production or...I'm not sure but I've read or viewed this story as well.

Very well written summation of the events and we can never be reminded too often about terrorists, genocide, religious cleansing and the like.

I do not understand why man is so inhumane to man but there it is.

Rouchswalwe said...

Have you seen the 2004 film "Paper Clips" about middle school students in Tennessee who undertake the collecting of 6 million paper clips to learn about the Shoah?

willow said...

The holocaust was such a horror. It's heart wrenching to think of the children. I had heard of Brundibar, but was not very familiar with it.

kj said...

chilling. horrific. unspeakable. inhuman.

thank you for your sensitive writing of this, cp. i had the same indescribable sadness and disgust when i visited anne frank's house in amsterdam, saw her attempts at normalcy posted on the walls in the form of pictures of movie stars.

i am glad i discovered your blog. thanks again.

Janette Kearns Wilson said...

What a wonderful and moving story.
I have lived such a fortunate life.

Janette Kearns Wilson said...

Love the ladies especially the last two who seem so resigned to their aloneness

The Clever Pup said...

Janette, are you referring to my paintings in the sidebar?

ds said...

I had not heard of Brundibar, but did know a teensy bit about the children of Terezin. There was a book several (i.e., 20) years ago--believe it was called The Yellow Flower (?)--which consisted of the artwork and poems of those doomed babies. Quite powerful, as you can imagine. I don't believe there is a word strong enough to describe the horrors of that time--"brutality" doesn't even come close. And the self-deception of the rest of us. Could the Red Cross workers actually have believed the hoax? Or was it just easier to accept?No easy, or easing, answers. Elie Wiesel is right to insist that we all "bear witness."

corine said...

Unfathomable, the whole thing. Yet this kids of things continue to happen. It makes me sick.