Theresienstadt Children’s Opera to Be Revived

Member of original concentration camp cast will attend performance of 'Brundibar,’ about a brother and sister who defeat an evil organ grinder.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Her cast is out of tune, and Frannie Goldstein is not pleased, to say the least.

“Stop,” she shouts, standing on a chair to make her point. “I hear way too many notes. You’re not sitting up straight, and that’s why this is happening.”

They give it another try. “Much, much better,” she says, as she waves her hands in time with the beat. “But let’s stop there while we still sound good.”

It’s their weekly Tuesday afternoon rehearsal, and these 60 or so students at the Even Yehuda campus of the Walworth Barbour American International School in Israel, ranging in age from 8 to 18, are noticeably excited as they gear up for the big day. On April 2, they will kick off their first of six performances of Brundibar (Czech for “Bumblebee”), the children’s opera staged 55 times at Theresienstadt.

At least one member of the audience will be able to compare the Israeli rendition with the original.

Ela Weissberger, a member of the original cast, will be arriving from New York just to attend. The opera, written by the Jewish Czech composer Hans Krasa and librettist Adolf Hoffmeister, premiered in German-occupied Prague in 1938 at a Jewish orphanage. That was several years before the mass transports of Jews to Theresienstadt, the ghetto and “model” concentration camp set up by the Nazis in what is now the Czech Republic to con the world into thinking they were treating the Jews well.

In 1943 the score was smuggled into Theresienstadt, which the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum describes as “a collection center for deportations to ghettos and killing centers in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe.” There, it was re-orchestrated by Krasa for the various instrumentalists who were available to play at the time. The Nazis arranged a special staging of “Brundibar” for a propaganda film and for the inspection of Theresienstadt by the International Red Cross in September 1944.

Two weeks later, many of the artists at the camp, including most of the children who performed in the opera, were deported to Auschwitz.

The opera tells the story of a brother and sister who, together with some animal friends and other village children, defeat an evil organ grinder named Brundibar. “What appealed to me is that it’s a story about the strength of the human spirit,” says Goldstein, who has served as music coordinator at the international school ever since it opened 22 years ago.

The cast will stage six performances of the opera over three days in early April, as part of a weeklong Theresienstadt project co-sponsored by the embassies of the United States and the Czech Republic, along with Beit Theresienstadt, a memorial center based at Kibbutz Givat Chaim Ichud.

More than 500 students hailing from 55 countries (many of them children of members of the diplomatic corps in Israel) attend the international school, which goes from prekindergarten through 12th grade and moved to this 19-acre campus near Netanya several years ago. Among the nationalities represented in the Brundibar cast are the United States, England, Ireland, Korea, India, South Africa, Slovenia, Guatemala, Mexico and Hungary, as well as Israel.

Sayan Turpin-Aviram, a 12th-grader who is half-British and half-Israeli, makes a point of signing up for every performance she can at the school. “But when I read a bit about this one, I just knew it was going to be one of the most unique dramatic experiences I’ve ever had,” she says. For her senior project, Turpin-Aviram is writing a paper about how painful experiences can inspire creativity.

“I’m definitely going to use this production in my paper,” she says.

Courtney Mckee, a ninth grader from Ireland who plays the part of a sparrow, calls it a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience. “It makes me feel very connected to the kids who performed in Theresienstadt,” she says.

In the leading role of Brundibar is Michael Matias, a 12th-grader from Israel, who has family roots in both Poland and Hungary.

“I’ve always been intrigued by how children experienced the Holocaust,” he says. “For me, being part of this production has been an incredible and very emotional experience.”

Goldstein, a former New Yorker who now lives in Modi’in, happened upon the opera several years ago, when she ordered a copy of the 2003 picture book based on it: “Brundibar,” by Maurice Sendak, the U.S. writer and illustrator of “Where the Wild Things Are” and other children’s books, and Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. playwright Tony Kushner.

“I read the book to the kids here, and there was this tremendous response,” recalls Goldstein, who studied music education at New York University after attending the Orthodox high school Ramaz in Manhattan. “I just knew then that we’d have to get the kids to perform this.”

She contacted Weissberger, who is 83, and invited her to attend the performance.

“I was thrilled when she said she’d come,” recounts Goldstein. “And then I met her in August, and we spent a day together in Prague.”

As part of an effort to turn the performance into a school-wide project, each student here has been asked to prepare 30 handmade butterflies that will be hung at the entrance to the campus on the days of the performances.

“The idea is that altogether there will be 15,000 butterflies – one for each of the 15,000 children that passed through Theresienstadt,” says Goldstein. This craft-making activity, she notes, was inspired by the poem “Butterfly,” written by Theresienstadt inmate Pavel Friedmann before he was transported to Auschwitz, where he died. “For seven weeks I’ve lived in here, / Penned up inside this ghetto,” the poem reads. “But I have found my people here. ... / Only I never saw another butterfly.”

The Brundibar project also aims to educate Israelis who may not be so familiar with the historical details of the Holocaust: Students at Na’amat Technical School in Nazareth, a high school for Arab girls. The students will be attending one of the performances and participating in a workshop about Brundibar, to be taught by Goldstein right after the show.

A Jewish school in the area is also getting involved; Tchernichovsky High School in Netanya will be providing the orchestra. “We thought it was important to involve a Jewish school as well in a project like this,” Goldstein explains.

As the hour-long rehearsal draws to a close, Goldstein throws out a rather ambitious suggestion to her cast. “Let’s try doing the wave,” she says. After a few false starts, she gives up. “Okay, it’s never gonna work,” she laments. “Who are we kidding?”

And with that, she bids them farewell until next time. “Don’t forget to memorize all your lines,” she reminds them as they head out the door.

Rehearsals for "Brundibar" at Walworth Barbour American International School in Israel.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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