by Marvin J. Ward
During the month of March 2008, Northampton, MA’s Commonwealth Opera organized, in collaboration with other area organizations and institutions, a series of events surrounding and complementing several performances of the famous 2-act children’s opera Brundibár, now forever associated with the Holocaust, although a number of things commonly believed about it are in fact myths or misinformation. The marketing used the tagline: “Brundibár, A tribute to the human spirit.”
Its composer, Hans Krása, was born in Prague in 1899 to a relatively affluent family. He studied with Alexander von Zemlinsky in Vienna in the late teens and early 20s, and spent time in Paris where he encountered the music of Stravinsky. He returned to Prague in the 30s. He was arrested and transported to Terezín in August 1942, about 9 months after the camp was opened. He was transported to Auschwitz on 16 October 1944, along with fellow composers Viktor Ullman, Pavel Haas, and Gideon Klein, where all except Klein were sent directly to the gas chambers. (Klein was sent to a labor camp where he apparently perished, since all trace of him was lost.) His music emphasizes the melody line. Brundibár uses a limited number of melodies effectively; its primary rhythm is a march one. Hence, it is easy for children to relate to and to learn.
Contrary to popular belief, and in spite of its seemingly allegorical plotline, Brundibár was not originally composed in the Terezín camp or even during the Nazi’s genocide of the Jews of Europe. It was a collaborative effort between Krasá and the librettist Adolf Hoffmeister, their 2nd undertaking together, as a submission in a children’s opera competition sponsored by the Czechoslovak Ministry of Education and National Dissemination of Knowledge in 1938. No announcement of a winner was ever made or prize awarded, probably due to the occupation of the country by the Nazis in 1939. A performance was organized at the Jewish Orphanage in Prague in June 1941 by its director Otto Freudenfeld to celebrate his 50th birthday. It involved the collaboration of Krasá, Klein, conductor Rafael Schächter, the poet Erik Saudek, and famous stage designer František Zelenka. It was, however, aborted because of the martial law and curfews imposed by the Nazis. A single performance occurred somewhat later on an unknown date at the Jewish Children’s Home Hagibor with 3 musicians playing from a single copy of the piano score, which Krasá only saw when it was brought to him in Terezín by Freudenfeld when the latter was transported there.
Terezín was the camp to which writers, poets, artists, sculptors, composers, and musicians were sent. No one really knows why; perhaps because Prague was such a vibrant cultural center, and because at a distance of about 60 kilometers (45 miles) to the North, where the Elbe flows into the Ohre, Terezín was so close, it was purely coincidental. It was a fortress and garrison town built in 1780 by Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II whose walls were based on a 17th century design by King Louis XIV of France’s military architect/engineer, Vauban. Its buildings were designed and built by engineers and workmen from the Austrian Tyrol and Northern Italy, both areas under Hapsburg rule at the time. It was named for Joeph's mother, Emperess Maria Theresa; the Germans called it Theresienstadt. Thus, unlike most of the death camps, it was not constructed from the ground up. It is perhaps for this reason that there were never any gas chambers built there, and it was never intended to serve as more than a transit camp. It was perhaps also because of the physical structures and the layout of the military garrison town itself that it functioned like a camp with men and women in separate barracks rather than like a ghetto where families lived together. For whatever reason or combination of reasons, it somehow ended up being slightly less inhumane. It was also the camp to which all Danish Jews were sent.
In Terezín, as in ghettos and unlike in other camps, a group of leaders called the “Council of Jewish Elders” was appointed by the Nazis to serve as intermediaries to help run the camp. Here, unlike elsewhere, it actually had some power and influence, and managed to persuade the Nazi officers that encouraging artistic expression among the internees and education of the children and encouragement of their artistic expressions would keep them occupied, help maintain discipline, and decrease discontent. The Nazis actually ordered supplies, including musical instruments and a piano, to be brought in for this purpose. Beginning in 1942, the Freizeitgestaltung (Leisure-Time Authority) had charge of the artistic activities, and had fairly free rein within the physical context and the bounds of the camp rules. It began to organize regular concerts, featuring, ironically, works by Jewish composers that were forbidden everywhere else in Europe. It was into this context that the performances of Brundibár fit. The opera was presented 55 times in all between 23 September 1943 and sometime in the summer or perhaps fall of 1944.
The Nazis eventually realized that they could use the activities in Terezín for another purpose of their own: satisfying increasing inquiries from the Allies, neutral countries, and international humanitarian organizations about the camps. This could be done in 2 ways: they could allow representatives from the International Red Cross to visit it, something some of the Allied Powers and the Danish government (which ultimately succeeded in getting all the Danish internees released rather than sent to Auschwitz), were pressuring them to do; and they could make a “documentary” film about life in the camp to show to the world. The camp was then thinned out by sending some internees to Auschwitz and spiffed up (an easier task than it would have been in any other camp) with a paint job, some gardens, a fountain, etc., for the carefully choreographed and controlled visit by the Danish Red Cross, which took place on 23 June 1944. The filming, organized by the Ministry of Propaganda, occurred soon after the visit, in July 1944, before anything deteriorated or plantings withered from the summer heat. The 2.5-minute finale of a performance of Brundibár was included as one of several musical activities shown; other artistic activities were also filmed. Alert readers will recognize that all of this was after the 6 June 1944 D-day landings, so the Allies were moving in from the West, although they were still a long ways from the Rhine since Paris was not liberated until August. The Russians were advancing from the East as well, though they were not yet in Poland, hence the camp itself was not in any immediate danger of being overtaken. It was ultimately liberated by the Russians on 5 May 1945, having been turned over to the International Red Cross 2 deay before.
The filming was completed, and some editing apparently occurred during the fall and winter, but by spring, the Allies were closing in, so, if it was finished, the film was never shown in public, and attempts may have been made to destroy all copies before the final defeat. The remaining fragments have been pieced together and the result is (or was) available as a 23-minute video on VHS under the title Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (The Führer Gives a City to the Jews). The actual projected title was: Theresienstadt: Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet (Theresienstadt: A Documentary Film of the Jewish Resettlement). A 2:22 clip of the orchestral concert conducted by Karel Ancerl (who survived) that was filmed of a performance of Pavel Haas’ Study for strings can be viewed on YouTube: http://youtube.com/watch?v=E9gSzo0x4ak&feature=related. 15:37, i.e., about 2/3 of the film (that includes the above) can be seen here: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-7220829978743875704. Upbeat classical music is heard in the background throughout, some of it ironically by Jewish composers. The Brundibár scene is not in either of these clips and seems not to be available on the Internet. Some scenes from a more recent performance of Brundibár by the Vienna Boys Choir can be viewed on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WG3iFqWAYo&NR=1.
The work belongs to a tradition of fairy-tale pieces about and intended for children, such as Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker (1892) and Peter and the Wolf (1936), Humperdinck’s Hänsel and Gretel (1893), and Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges (1920-25). None of these are intended to be entirely or even largely performed by children, however, as is Brundibár, in which there are only 5 adult roles. The story involves a penniless brother and sister, Pepi?ek and Aninka, trying to get milk for their sick mother and being thwarted by a mean organ grinder who is ultimately overcome with the aid of other children and some helpful animals: a bird, a cat, and a dog. The other adults are tradesmen selling foodstuffs and a policeman. The conflation of the organ grinder and Hitler was an easy step, but one that the Nazi administrators of Terezín apparently failed to understand since the text is in Czech, which none of them spoke or understood.
Playwright Tony Kushner created an English-language libretto in 2003, which illustrator Maurice Sendak used to create a children’s book (New York: Michael di Capua Books/Hyperion Books for Children) the same year. The title was not translated; it means “Bumblebee.” There is an earlier English libretto by Joza Karas, author of Music in Terezín, 1941-1945 (New York: Beaufort Books, 1985) that was used in a 1984 production that he conducted in Hartford, CT. This is the libretto used in the 1996 recording by the Essex Children’s Choir and members of the Vermont Symphony conducted by Robert DeCormier (Arabesque Z6680). Kushner’s libretto is used in the 2006 recording by the Northwest Boy Choir and a group of instrumentalists conducted by Gerard Schwartz (Naxos 8.570119), which also includes a performance of the Lori Laitman song cycle (See below).
There were 4 performances of Brundibár by Commonwealth Opera, 2 in Amherst at Amherst College on 16 March and 2 in Chicopee at Elms College (a Roman Catholic-affiliated school) on 30 and 31 March, the latter in the morning especially for schoolchildren. Prior to the 1st performance, in the late morning, Rabbi Robert Sternberg of the Hatikvah (= 'hope' in Hebrew) Holocaust Education Center of Springfield gave a talk about Terezín, the opera, and the “documentary” film that was followed by a screening of it at the National Yiddish Book Center on the Hampshire College campus in Amherst. Several other organizations, including the Northampton Community Music Center, Jason Trotta, Director, contributed to the “Brundibár Project.” It was conceived and overseen by CO’s Artistic Director, Ron Luchsinger, who is also Director or Productions of Opera North in Lebanon, NH. Attractive and representative sets were designed by Maggie Duford and Coriana Hunt Swartz created appropriate costumes. Director Jimmy Smith handled the staging. The orchestra consisting entirely of young people was conducted by C. Thomas Brooks.
The 2 Amherst and the 1st Chicopee performances were followed by a performance of Lori Laitman’s 6-song cycle, I Never Saw Another Butterfly for soprano and saxophone (1995-96), performed by Maria Ferrante and Kenneth Radnofsky. The texts of the songs are poems written by children, some of whose names are unknown, in Terezín drawn from the book I never saw another butterfly…; Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezín Concentration Camp, 1942-1944 (New York: Schocken Books, 1993). A recording of the cycle performed by Lauren Wagner and Gary Louie is available on CD (Albany Troy 393). This was not (sensibly) performed for the schoolchildren.
Following the 2 Amherst performances, Anita Schorr, a Holocaust survivor who sang in the chorus in several of the performances in Terezín, miraculously escaped the gas chamber in Auschwitz, came to the US in 1959 and now lives in CT, spoke to the audiences and answered questions. Following the 2 Chicopee performances, Ela Stein Weissberger, who, at the ages of 11-13, played the role of the Cat in all 55 Terezín performances, did this honor. She was fortunate enough to have been liberated from the camp along with her elder sister Ilona and her mother. With Susan Goldman Rubin, she has written a memoir destined for early adolescent readers, The Cat With the Yellow Star: Coming of Age in Terezín (New York: Holiday House, 2006). It is profusely illustrated with photographs, many of them contemporary to her internment. Ela is clearly visible in the “documentary” film. She lived in Israel before coming to the US in 1958, and now lives in Tappan, NY.
This was a very worthwhile and successful undertaking. It is important to keep the work and the context in which it became famous in the public's eyes, because in a few years those who participated in or witnessed the history will no longer be with us. Conductor Brooks is arranging for future performances at Gordon College in Wenham, MA, and other potential ones are being explored. It would be a fine project to replicate elsewhere, and its organizers would undoubtedly, in view of their commitment, be willing to offer advice. Use our links to contact CO.