Joyful Opera Performed In Nazi Concentration Camp Revived In Chicago

Nov 19, 2014
Originally published on November 19, 2014 7:53 pm

Brundibár, a children's opera that premiered during World War II, became both a symbol of hope and resistance and a Nazi propaganda tool. Now, Petite Opera, a small company in suburban Chicago, is reprising the opera, originally performed by Jewish children held in a concentration camp in occupied Czechoslovakia.

The opera, written by Czech composer Hans Krása and librettist Adolf Hoffmeister, chronicles the efforts of two children, siblings Pepicek and Aninka, as they try to get milk for their sick mother. Eighty-four-year-old Ela Stein Weissberger says it's a simple story, a tale of good conquering evil, based on a fairy tale.

Weissberger, who was born in then-Czechoslovakia, was just 11 years old when she and her mother, sister, grandmother and uncle were forced to live in a Jewish ghetto created by the Nazis in the fortress town of Terezin, near Prague. Krása wrote the opera before he was sent to the camp. The composer, Weissberger remembers, created a scaled-down version of it from a piano score smuggled into the camp.

"When I was really after the war finding out how many of my friends didn't survive," Weissberger says, "I always thought that this little opera died with them."

Now Weissberger travels around the world to make sure it stays alive. More than seven decades ago she auditioned and was chosen to play the role of the cat in Brundibár — one of three animals featured in the opera. The title character is the villain, an organ grinder and bully who thwarts the children's efforts to earn money so they can help their mother.

"The Brundibár, in our eyes, was Hitler," Weissberger says.

But Weissberger says the Nazis didn't seem to catch on: "You know, the words we were singing in Czech language. The Nazis didn't know Czech so they didn't know."

As Brundibár continues to bully the town, the brother and sister almost give up — until the cat, a dog and a sparrow call on all the children in town to take him on.

Brundibár was performed 55 times in the concentration camp. Weissberger says that's the only time the Nazis allowed the cast members to take off the yellow Star of David that signified they were Jewish.

"So for us it was a couple minutes of freedom," she says. "We were not marked."

As the children defeat Brundibár and are able to earn money and buy milk for their sick mother, they sing in victory. The last performance at Terezin was an effort by the Nazis to deceive the International Red Cross into thinking the Germans treated the Jews living there well.

"They weren't allowed to talk to us, come close to us," Weissberger says.

The performance was filmed for Nazi propaganda, and Weissberger says the balcony was lined with Nazi soldiers keeping a watchful eye.

"Most people remember Eichmann and Himmler, and all those big Nazis came to watch us," she says.

Weissberger talked to the current cast about what it was like to perform the opera during World War II. Tess Dinerstein plays the role Weissberger did.

"She gave the whole cast tips, especially the animals, on being closer and, like, more together because it's — the show is all about how the whole community stands together," Dinerstein says.

As a recent Petite Opera performance comes to an end, a siren wails and the image of a swastika appears. Each cast member takes off a piece of clothing and discards it on a growing pile while calling out the names of the 15,000 children who entered Terezin. Only about 100 survived.

As the cast begins to once again sing the opera's closing song about friendship, hope and victory over a tyrant, Weissberger leaves her seat in the audience and joins them.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A small opera company outside Chicago is reviving a work that was both a symbol of hope and resistance and a Nazi propaganda tool during World War II. The opera is called "Brundibar." It was performed by Jewish children in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. The camp was also known as Terezin.

Most of the young performers were killed by the Nazis, but one who survived has made it her mission to keep the opera and the memories of her fellow cast members alive. NPR's Cheryl Corley has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "BRUNDIBAR")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing).

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: This is a run-through for the Petite Opera Productions staging of "Brundibar."

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "BRUNDIBAR")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing).

CORLEY: The opera chronicles the efforts of two children as they try to get milk for their sick mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "BRUNDIBAR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Singing as Pepicek) I am Pepicek. How are you? This is my sister Aninka. Sorrow in every step we tread. Daddy died. Mama’s sick in bed.

CORLEY: 84-year-old Ela Stein Weissberger says it's a simple story...

ELA STEIN WEISSBERGER: ...That was originally a little fairytale.

CORLEY: A tale of good conquering evil written by young Czech composer Hans Krasa and librettist Adolph Hoffmeister. Weissberger was just 11 years old when she and her mother, sister, grandmother and uncle were forced to live in a Jewish ghetto created by the Nazis in the fortress to town of Terezin near Prague. Krasa wrote the opera before he was sent to the camp. Weissberger remembers a composer created a scaled-down version of it from a piano score smuggled into the camp.

WEISSBERGER: When I was reeling after the war finding out how many of my friends didn't survive, I always thought that this little opera died with them. But if it's performed, it will never die.

CORLEY: So now Weissberger travels around the world to make sure it stays alive. More than seven decades ago she auditioned and was chosen to play the role of the cat in "Brundibar," one of three animals featured in the opera. The title character is the villain, an organ grinder and a bully who thwarts the children's efforts to earn money so they can help their mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "BRUNDIBAR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Singing as Brundibar) Little children - how I hate them. How I wish the bedbugs ate them. How their parents overrate them. If they're rude, exterminate them.

WEISSBERGER: But Brundibar, in our eyes, was Hitler.

CORLEY: But Weissberger says the Nazis didn't seem to catch on.

WEISSBERGER: You know, the words we were singing in Czech language. The Nazis didn't know Czech, so they didn't know.

CORLEY: As Brundibar continues to bully the town, the brother and sister almost give up until the cat, a dog and a sparrow call on all the children in town to take him on.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "BRUNDIBAR")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) What can scare Brundibar - 300 kids will do. And there'll be even more. You’ll make 302. That bully Brundibar won’t scare us anymore.

CORLEY: "Brundibar" was performed 55 times in the concentration camp, and Weissberger says that's the only time the Nazis allowed the cast members to take off the yellow Star of David that signified that they were Jewish.

WEISSBERGER: So for us, it was a couple of minutes of freedom. We were not marked.

CORLEY: And as the children defeat Brundibar and are able to earn money and buy milk for their sick mother, they sing in victory. The last performance at Terezin was an effort by the Nazis to deceive the International Red Cross into thinking the Germans treated the Jews living there well.

WEISSBERGER: They weren't allowed to talk to us - to come close to us.

CORLEY: The performance was filmed for Nazi propaganda, and Weissberger says the balcony was lined with Nazi soldiers keeping a watchful eye.

WEISSBERGER: Most people remember Eichmann and Himmler and all those big Nazis came to watch us.

CORLEY: Weissberger talked to the current cast about what it was like to perform the opera during World War II. Tess Dinerstein plays the role Weissberger did.

TESS DINERSTEIN: She gave the whole cast tips, especially the animals, on being closer and, like, more together because the show is all about how the whole community stands together. And she's kind of saying her and her friends were all standing together.

CORLEY: As the Petite Opera performance comes to an end, a siren wails and the image of a swastika appears. Each cast member takes off a piece of clothing and discards it on a growing pile while calling out the names of some of the 15,000 children who entered Terezin. Only about a hundred survived.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "BRUNDIBAR")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing).

CORLEY: And as the cast begins to once again sing the opera's closing song about friendship, hope and victory over a tyrant, Ela Weissberger leaves her seat in the audience and joins them.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "BRUNDIBAR")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing).

CORLEY: Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.