Voices of hope: Children's opera 'Brundibar' was a light in the darkness of the Holocaust, and now CityMusic Cleveland plans production, lest we forget
Donald Rosenberg, The Plain Dealer, Sunday, February 19, 2012
A children's opera about an evil organ grinder who resembles Hitler has inspired
communities around the world to remember and learn from the horrors of the
This week, CityMusic Cleveland embarks on an artistic project that will explore the
Holocaust, genocide and oppression with a series of events leading up to
performances of "Brundibar," the children's opera that was performed 55 times at
Theresienstadt, the Nazi internment camp in northern Czechoslovakia.
The CityMusic project is generating a swell of activity involving hundreds of people
-- from here and around the country -- even before a note of "Brundibar" sounds in
May at Cleveland's John Hay High School.
"Persistence of Creativity," the series of programs that provide context for the opera,
begins Monday at the Lakewood Public Library with a concert of music by
composers who were forced to flee Europe after Hitler's rise to power.
"Once a year, we need to focus on a social issue that is very important and use music
to address it," said Eugenia Strauss, CityMusic's executive director. "We must
involve the community."
Getting the community at Theresienstadt involved in an artistic endeavor of hope was
one of the reasons "Brundibar" became popular, as well as harrowing, since the cast
changed so often.
From September 1943 to September 1944, youngsters and adolescents taking part in
the opera -- about needy children who triumph over Brundibar, the organ grinder --
were transported with thousands of others to Auschwitz, the concentration camp
complex in Poland. Most perished in gas chambers.
Several members of that production survived the Holocaust, including Ela Stein
Weissberger, who was a teen when she sang the role of the Cat in all 55
The 81-year-old Czech native, a longtime resident of Tappan, N.Y., has made it a
point to attend as many performances of the opera as possible and sing along in the
Weissberger will raise her voice at John Hay High in May, when CityMusic -- the
chamber orchestra that gives free concerts around the region -- presents nine
performances of "Brundibar" with conductor Ryan McAdams and students from the
Cleveland School of the Arts and the Cleveland Orchestra Children's Chorus.
Strauss' voice often becomes shaky when she discusses the "Brundibar" project.
She's emotional on the subject of genocide and oppression for reasons that
transcend her desire to make local human connections through music.
Born in Indonesia into a Dutch family that later moved to the Netherlands, she
recounts stories of family members who were held in Japanese-run internment camps
in Burma during World War II. Her grandfather was forced to work as a slave on
docks in Japan.
Given her family history, the "Brundibar" project has become all-consuming for
Strauss, who returned last week from a trip to South Africa to see a production of
In recent months, Strauss persuaded numerous individuals and organizations in
Northeast Ohio and beyond to sign on for chamber-music concerts, book
discussions, a film and other programs for the project.
Strauss, who raised a great deal of money for the Cleveland School of the Arts in the
1990s as development director, said the CityMusic project will cost "around
$193,000," much of which remains to be found.
"We're building support in every quarter of the county to make sure we can do this
without going broke," she said.
Which is unlikely. CityMusic has never had a deficit since its start in 2004. And in the
same way that she's nurtured relationships with local communities to present
CityMusic concerts, Strauss is reaching out to spread the word of "Brundibar."
A place where Nazis deceived the world
She sent letters to synagogues, churches and young professional groups about the
project. She's contacted book clubs to urge their members to read literature
connected with genocide and bullying.
The idea to build a program around "Brundibar" came to Strauss while she was
cruising YouTube looking for a children's work for CityMusic's Intergenerational
Concert Series. She discovered a short video of the original production at Terezin,
the Czech fortress town north of Prague that the Germans translated to
As she researched the subject, Strauss learned the inspiring and horrific story of the
ghetto 40 miles from Prague where the Nazis held nearly 150,000 European Jews,
many of them prominent artists, musicians, actors and dancers.
Theresienstadt, named in the 18th century for Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, was
conceived as a holding camp for Jews who eventually would be sent to Auschwitz. It
also provided the Nazis with a means to deceive the world and show that
Theresienstadt was a paradise for people pursuing thriving cultural lives.
"Brundibar" figured prominently in the ruse. In June 1944, the Nazis spruced up the
ghetto with fake storefronts and cafes filled with well-dressed, contented-looking
residents and invited members of the International Red Cross to take a glimpse. (To
reduce overcrowding, the Nazis deported 7,000 prisoners to Auschwitz.)
The main attraction, a performance of "Brundibar," was so successful in helping to
dupe the Red Cross guests that Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels came
up with the idea of an upbeat film about the ghetto featuring scenes from the opera.
He ordered actor-director Kurt Gerron -- a Theresienstadt prisoner who'd appeared
with Marlene Dietrich in the 1930 film "The Blue Angel" -- to make the propaganda
film, "The Fuehrer Gives the Jews a Town." (Soon thereafter, Gerron was sent to
Auschwitz and gassed.)
It was the clip of the "Brundibar" sequence in this movie on YouTube that prompted
Strauss to action.
"That's it!" Strauss remembers exclaiming. "I discovered that it had never been done
Strauss began contacting local organizations, many of which were quick to join the
project. In addition to the Lakewood Public Library, institutions onboard include the
Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque, the Cleveland Public Library, Facing
History and Ourselves, the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage and WKSU FM/89.7.
The free concerts in May focusing on "Brundibar" -- to be performed in an English
version by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner -- are geared for
youngsters in the morning and adults at night.
Morning performances will include the 30-minute opera and Max Bruch's "Kol
Nidrei" for cello and piano (based on the Jewish prayer). The concerts at night will
contain those works and conclude with one of the most forceful and exultant works
in Western music, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
The "Brundibar" production, with three casts alternating performances, reunites
Strauss with the high-powered team that helped her create "An Urban Nutcracker" at
the Cleveland School of the Arts in 1999: choreographer-director Alison Chase,
founder of Pilobolus Dance Theatre; and lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge, a
faculty member at the Yale School of Drama. They'll be joined by Broadway set and
costume designer Angelina Avelonne and Cleveland photographer Barney Taxel.
Chase is still working on the concept for the opera, but she anticipates the
"Brundibar" staging will be fluid and simple -- possibly using archival photos -- and
"not overproduced and theatrical."
The opera "has a poignant and laden history," said Chase. "We want to respect that
Concerts, events broaden context
Strauss entrusted the job of devising the "Persistence of Creativity" chamber-music
concerts leading up to "Brundibar" to CityMusic's principal oboe, Rebecca
Schweigert Mayhew, who knew little about the composers or the music when she
"I thought it would be fairly easy to find Holocaust-related composers and not easy
to find composers who deal with genocide and bullying," Mayhew said.
What she found was a wealth of musical material related to the topics. Mayhew has
constructed the chamber-music programs by theme, beginning with Monday's
concert devoted to emigrant composers.
The series will continue with works by composers who were incarcerated in
Theresienstadt (and died at Auschwitz or other camps) and music from cultures and
nations that have experienced oppression and/or genocide, including Armenia,
Russia, Cambodia and South Africa, as well as African-Americans and American
The binding element in the three chamber concerts is "Just.Are.Same," a work by
Cleveland composer Paul Cox that touches upon the Holocaust and genocides in
Rwanda and Bosnia. The title comes from a speech by a Rwandan woman who
survived genocide and urged parents to teach their children about human equality.
Although the "Brundibar" project began with the Holocaust, Strauss said it was vital
to broaden the topic for context, which is one reason Cox was asked to compose
"Just.Are.Same" -- based on a larger work about genocide, "Seeking Radiance" --
for the chamber programs.
Cox is dedicating the new version (for oboe, string trio and electronic track) to
Strauss and Mayhew, both of whom were raised Catholic. They said they hope the
project opens minds to a subject that will never go away.
"We don't want people to think that genocide is an artifact of the past that we can
comfortably look at in a museum," said Mayhew. "It's happened in my lifetime and in
my children's lifetime. It's something that you should face as a problem of the
Opera buoys spirits of interned children
Weissberger, the original Cat in "Brundibar," first faced this problem -- as 11-year-old
Ela Stein -- 70 years ago this month, when she was transported to Theresienstadt
with her mother, sister, grandmother and uncle.
"It was for us horrible," Weissberger said recently by phone from her New York
Like so many others, they arrived on a frigid winter day and were forced to walk the
long distance from the train station to Theresienstadt. The Nazis then took away
most of their belongings.
Ela was fortunate, at least, to be assigned to Room 28 in the girls home, where she
made friends, took classes and received instruction from professional artists and
musicians. Guided by a beloved art teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, the children
made drawings of life at Theresienstadt. Nearly 4,500 drawings -- including some by
Ela -- were saved after the war and are now in the collection at the Jewish Museum in
Life for many children and others at Theresienstadt changed with the production of
"Brundibar," a tuneful work that teachers and caretakers felt would buoy spirits and
provide youngsters with something fun and optimistic.
Czech composer Hans Krasa -- whose opera, "Betrothal in a Dream," had received
its premiere in Prague in 1933 under the baton of a rising conductor then named
Georg Szell -- wrote "Brundibar" with librettist Adolf Hoffmeister in 1938 for a
Prague competition. The work didn't receive its premiere until several years later at a
Jewish orphanage as performed by children who would be transported to
Neither Krasa nor Hoffmeister heard the premiere. The composer had already been
sent to Theresienstadt; the librettist had escaped to England.
Luckily, Rudolf Freudenfeld, who'd rehearsed "Brundibar" in Prague, smuggled the
piano score to Theresienstadt. Composer Krasa reorchestrated the piece for available
instruments, and Freudenfeld and another noted musician, conductor-composer
Rafael Schaechter, held auditions.
"When they heard my voice, they said, 'You be the Cat,' " said Weissberger. "I was
very happy to get a part. When I told my mother, she said, 'Opera and cat? Richard
Wagner never had cats in the opera.' "
Dressed as the Cat in her mother's black sweater and her sister's black ski pants, Ela
never missed a performance of "Brundibar" at Theresienstadt. Two weeks after the
final performance, the one taped for the propaganda film, most members of the cast,
Krasa and such other gifted composers as Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas and Viktor
Ullmann -- all of whose music are included on a CityMusic program in April -- were
sent to Auschwitz and killed.
Weissberger was spared the trip because her mother was a valued worker in the
agricultural department at Theresienstadt. After the ghetto was liberated in May 1945,
they returned to Prague until Ela, in 1949, went to Israel, where she served in the
military and met her husband. In 1958, they moved to the United States, where she
became a successful interior decorator.
The chatty Weissberger can't be stopped when reminiscing about the war,
Theresienstadt and "Brundibar." Once a year, she gets together with other survivors,
whose experiences are detailed in Hannelore Brenner's book "The Girls of Room
28." Weissberger's story is also told in another book, "The Cat With the Yellow Star:
Coming of Age in Terezin."
Soon, she again will help keep the "Brundibar" flame burning, this time in Northeast
Ohio, as she has in so many places.
"I was in Michigan for 'Brundibar,' " said Weissberger. "They said the best
symphony orchestra is in Cleveland. So we drove to Cleveland for a concert."