Brundibar and Ela Weissberger in Boulder
Years ago, I started collecting children’s books. My early selections were purchased for my four sons. As a grad student and later as a teacher, my interest in children’s literature naturally expanded. Shelf after shelf was filled with books. I was drawn to the magical nature of picture books that combine words with colorful and engaging illustrations. I am intrigued by the authors who dip into the genre of Holocaust literature since many parents and educators feel this is an unsuitable topic for children.
Three books, Brundibar, by Maurice Sendak and Tony Kushner, The Cat with the Yellow Star: Coming of Age in Terezin, by Susan Goldman Rubin and Ela Weissberger, and Fireflies in the Dark: the Story of Freidl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin, by Susan Goldman Rubin sit near one another on my shelf designated for Holocaust picture books. These books, along with the others in this grouping, are far removed from my daily life. I never imagined that I would witness Brundibar or meet Ela Weissberger, a cast member of Brundibar and a survivor of Terezin.
When I entered the quaint Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder, I wondered how my background knowledge would jive with the night’s performance. The Colorado Music Festival and the University of Colorado Opera Program were joining together in a performance of Brundibar and Ela Weissberger would be in attendance. Brundibar, a Czech children’s opera, was completed in 1938. It was performed 55 times between 1943 and 1944 by the children living in Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp. Ela played the role of the cat.
Bits and pieces from the picture books came to life on the stage. The words projected on the large screen behind the orchestra made me remember Sendak’s and Kushner’s version of the story. The long lost voices of the original Terezin actors and actresses were recalled as the Boulder cast sang the melodies. The live performance drew me back to other Holocaust stories. Too many young lives were lost during the Holocaust and now their memories were being rekindled.
It was disappointing that this historic opera was viewed by just a handful of children. Most of the audience was middle aged or older adults. This is contrasted with my recent blog regarding the musical, Matilda. That London auditorium was jam packed with children.
Parents make choices for their children. The more widely known Matilda will naturally garner a larger following. But what responsibility do parents have to introduce their kids to the Holocaust? Will the next generation be tolerant of people’s differences if they are rarely exposed to the catastrophic effects of bias, prejudice, and indifference?
I couldn’t stop thinking about the 55 performances of Brundibar at Terezin. Those innocent children were able to band together and rise above the tyranny that surrounded them by holding onto the hope generated by the message of the opera. All viewed the evil character, Brundibar, as a symbolic representation of Hitler. When the children and the animals were able to chase Brundibar away, their hopes were renewed. Since the Terezin productions were in Czech, the German officers were unaware of the underlying symbolism of the opera. The singing of the “Freedom Song” united all who were present.
Decades after her last performance at Terezin, Ela stood on the stage with the young Boulder performers and gave an encore performance. While they sang the words to the “Freedom Song” in English, she sang in Czech. It is a moment that I will never forget. David Fellows from the Boulder Jewish News captured the image.
Afterward Ela spoke freely about some of her experiences that included brief references to friends and former teachers, especially Freidl Dicker-Brandeis. She shared a touching poem called, You and I. It was written in Czech by one of her Terezin friends.
You and I
We are friends
You and I
We love each other
In Terezin, we met
Friends in need
Hand in hand
You and I
Friends we shall be
You and I
Shall never forget
After completing her talk, she joined the cast for another rendition of the “Freedom Song.” This time around the audience clapped along with the rhythm.
Surprisingly, only three children were among the small gathering of approximately a dozen people who attended Ela’s mid afternoon presentation at the Boulder Public Library the next day. Inadequate advertising, a poor time slot, or apathetic parents could be possible explanations.
Like the night before, Ela chose to speak without a script. As she casually sat on the steps to the auditorium stage, she expressed a strong desire to teach kids about the Holocaust. Some of her stories related back to her book while others touched on other events from her life.
All illustrated a determined woman who is extremely grateful for the freedoms that are integral to American life. Ela credits her mother for her survival. Her mother defied the Nazis by stealing vegetables from the German garden where she worked. The punishment for such a deed was deportation to a death camp or immediate death.
Ela shared the Jewish star that she was forced to wear at Terezin. She referred to it as her “lucky star.” She did not have to wear the star when she performed in Brundibar.
For many years, Ela has been flying around the world to be part of the encore singing of the “Freedom Song” at Brundibar operas. If a script deviates from the original by following Kushner’s version that includes a pessimistic ending, Ela refuses to participate. She is unwilling to accept a message that is different from the initial intentions of the creator, Hans Krasa.
If you are still raising a family, please consider exposing your children to Holocaust survivors before it is too late. If that is not possible, consider reading books with your children. Knowledge of the past goes a long way to improving the future.