Nightingale in the Ghetto

Noam Ben-Zeev
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Noam Ben-Zeev

On the stage stood dozens of choir members and soloists, all of them children, accompanied by an orchestra. They were performing an opera for children called "Brunidbar," composed by Hans Krasa.

The audience, in which there were also many children, cheered and movie cameras whirred in the auditorium.

Ostensibly, this was another premiere of a European opera production for children. In fact, it was an event nearly unparalleled in history. The year "Brundibar" was first performed in a full production was 1943, the place was the Terezin (Theresienstadt) Ghetto and the audience consisted of the prisoners and their Nazi guards.

Fourteen-year-old Greta Klingsberg sang the main role in the premiere performance, the part of a girl named Anika.

Today aged 80 and living in Israel she has been following the many productions of the work around the world over the past decade: in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Auschwitz, Israel, Greece and even Australia. "They chose me for the main role because I was already experienced," she says in a conversation in her apartment in Jerusalem. "Before that I had performed the role of second child in Mozart's 'Magic Flute,' also in the chorus of Verdi's Requiem and in Smetana's opera 'The Bartered Bride,' which was also performed there.

Klingsberg said that during the 12 months following the premiere she sang the part of Anika 50 times in the ghetto,.

"It wasn't easy," she said. "You had to know how to sing from a score and there was a lot of competition, everyone wanted to sing." Yesterday she attended a large production of the work performed in Rishon Letzion by the Moran Beit Yitzhak Children's Choir from Israel and the Gewandhaus Children's Choir from Leipzig, Germany with the Rishon Letzion Orchestra and child soloists, conducted by Naomi Paran.

The event was to mark International Holocaust Memorial Day, which falls today.

Prior to the performance she told the young singers about the opera and the circumstances of its composition.

Greta Klingsberg was born into a Jewish family in Vienna in 1930.

"In 1938, with the Nazi occupation [of Austria] my mother took me, a child of eight and my sister, who was a year younger, and one night we crossed the border into Czechoslovakia on foot," she recalls as she tells the story of the journey that led them to the Terezin Ghetto in Bohemia.

"There we met up with my father, who had fled before us," she said. "He was a Socialist and a wanted man." She says that in the Czechoslovak city of Brno they made contact with emissaries from the Jewish community in Palestine who were to smuggle her parents there.

"My parents went first because it was dangerous to smuggle children. They didn't know what would be the fate of the people fleeing along treacherous routes," she said."My sister and I were supposed to have come immediately afterward but that didn't happen." Klingsberg and her sister were put in an orphanage with scores of other children. In 1942 they were sent with most of the Jews of Czechoslovakia to the camp at Terezin and were among the first to arrive.

The story of Terezin, a small town in northern Bohemia not far from Prague, has often been told. It was seized by the Nazis, who changed its name to the more German-sounding Theresienstadt and in 1941 established a large ghetto there to serve as a transit station and forwarding depot for uprooted Jews on their way to the death camps.

In essence, this ghetto was no different from others. The living conditions there were as inhuman as at all the rest and starvation, disease and murder took the lives of tens of thousands of people.

Most of those who did manage to survive there, more than 90,000, were ultimately sent to Auschwitz.

The Nazis, however, assigned Terezin a special role as a "show ghetto."

They concentrated the greatest Jewish artists of their time there and allowed them to continue to pursue their muse, ostensibly however they liked, as a means of camouflaging from the outside world the real position of the Jews in the ghettos.

Thus a rich cultural life flourished at Terezin. Operas, cabarets, jazz performances and plays were produced there and a soccer team with the best players in Czechoslovakia was also set up.

Among the well-known local composers at Terezin were Viktor Ullmann, an intellectual who at the ghetto wrote the satirical opera "The Emperor of Atlantis": Pavel Haas, a student of Leos Janacek, who used jazz and Moravian folk songs in his works and Hans Krasa (1899-1944), who studied in Berlin and Paris and had embarked on a successful international career.

Before the war Krasa's works were performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormady and by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitzky.

Riding the wave of his success Krasa composed "Brundibar" in 1938 but it was banned because he was Jewish and he was subsequently arrested by the Nazis and sent to Terezin.

The arrival of the Jewish children from the orphanage, where they had sung the work, spurred Krasa to adapt it for an orchestral ensemble he put together in the ghetto and it was performed for the first time in September, 1943. About a year later he was transferred to Auschwitz, where he perished.

"The opera lives on and that's the most beautiful memorial possible for Krasa," says Klingsberg.

Does she recall working with him?

"As a matter of fact I don't remember him," she says. "But I do remember the production director, of course, and also my friends, some of whom surived and also came to Israel finally." Klingsberg stuck close to her sister from the moment they were separated from their parents, throughout her time in Terezin and also when she was sent with all her friends to Auschwitz in 1944.

"We managed to stay together because we were close in age," she says. But some time later Klingsberg was selected with 200 other women to work in an arms factory outside the Auschwitz camp, which saved her life. Her younger sister, however, remained in the camp and died.

"After the liberation I was sent with other children for rehabilitation at an American center, that's also how I learned English," says Klingsberg, whose home is full of books in many languages. "One of the women who looked after me insisted that I go join my parents in the land of Israel, even though initially I had dreamt of continuing my previous life, in Vienna."

Klingsberg found herself instead in Hadera, at the time a village in a desolate corner of the Middle East. Although only 16, during eight years of separation from her parents she had witnessed the sights of the war and was no longer a child, but an adult. "My parents had arranged a room for me and my sister and the first thing I saw when I entered it was my teddy bear from my childhood, he is even older than I am, unbelievable as that may sound," she says, displaying a serious, furry teddy that still emits a low growl when it is laid down. Despite years of speaking Czechoslovak with her peers in Terezin she started speaking German again because that was the only language her parents knew. However, her relationship with them was not successfu.

"My father thought I was still his eight-year-old daughter," she relates.

She left Hadera and went to Jerusalem to work in a library. She settled in the city, studied music there and joined choirs, among them the Rinat Choir.

"The Jerusalem of those days spoke to me," she says. "[Painter] Yossi Stern, the Artists House, everything was open and there wasn't any fear. We walked a lot, even to Bethlehem. My relationship with the Palestinians was natural and that's how it has remained to this day."

The recorded message on her answering machine, in her voice, is in Arabic as well as Hebrew. Klingsberg is a woman who is full of life and light of foot with a humorous spark in her eyes. The living room of her home is large.

"I need space after all those years, in the terrible crowding," she says. "My pleasures in life are hot water and bread and butter. That is the greatest delicacy." At first she told no one about her experiences during the Holocaust and at Israel Radio's classical music channel, where she worked and helped build the record library, for 30 years no one knew she had sung the main role in "Brundibar." "Ah, that's our Greta!" she says, reminiscing about the reaction of her colleagues at work when she began to accompany productions of the opera abroad.

Gradually her role in the ghetto became known, from posters on which her name appears and even from remnants of the Nazi propaganda film "The Fuhrer Grants a City to the Jews," which was part of a systematic program of denial aimed at deflecting an investigation by the Red Cross by depicting the ghettoes as centers of recuperation and culture.

A scene from "Brundibar" was filmed for that movie with Klingsberg as a child in the main role. What do children ask her in conversations about the opera? "Everything. Whether we got new clothes when we outgrew the old ones, the answer is no, of course. What we ate," she says. "The older ones ask about love and relationships in the ghetto."

She says she talks to the children about everything, except her time in Auschwitz.

"My message in all the talks is to respect differences," she adds. "They ask a lot about 'what have you learned from this period,' and I reply, to accept the other. To be curious: why does this one have a scarf on her head, why does that one have a skullcap and black hair and black eyes, why aren't those people allowed to eat pork. Maybe the curiosity will give rise to tolerance."

The plot of "Brundibar" tells of a boy and a girl who go out to the marketplace to sing in order to collect money for their sick mother. Among the characters in the opera are a dog, a cat and a bird, a hurdy-gurdy man, a school full of children and an ice cream vendor. "On the stage those were hours of normalcy," says Klingsberg. "There we had everything children lacked in the ghetto: pets, ice cream, a large square, a school," she said. "The death all around, seeing our little friends die, and the diseases, all these disappeared on the stage and the characters of the dog and the cat and the bird persuaded us with their words that we had to continue to live, to sing. This is the wonderful characteristic of children,their ability to create a world of their own."