A fairy tale opera originally performed by children at the Theresienstadt concentration camp will be the feature attraction at an April 12 celebration of Christian-Jewish understanding.
One of those children, Ela Stein Weissberger, will be the guest of honor at the 18th annual Evening of Roses, a benefit for the Sister Rose Thering Fund for Education in Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University.
Weissberger sang the role of the Cat in all 55 performances of Brundibar at Theresienstadt, the “model concentration camp” used by the Nazis to distract the world from its murderous persecution of the Jews.
Brundibar, an allegory of children and animals fighting against a despot, was written by two Jews from Czechoslovakia in 1938.
It will be sung again by student choristers of the Newark Boys Chorus School and Mount Saint Mary Academy in Watchung on Tuesday at the Evening of Roses at South Orange Performing Arts Center, with maestro Jason Tramm and director Daniel Neiden.
In an interview with NJJN, Weissberger remembered the “little show-off” she had been as a child, performing at schools and orphanages in her native Prague before her country was invaded.
When she was 11, Ela was sent to Theresienstadt along with her grandmother, uncle, mother, and 15-year-old sister. Only she, her mother, and her sister survived.
“The Nazis decided we should sing,” she said. “This was almost our job.”
A prisoner at the camp named Rudy Freudenfeld had heard Ela sing before the war. He had smuggled the piano score of Brundibar into the camp, where the opera’s composer, Hans Krasa, was already incarcerated (the author of the libretto, Adolf Hoffmeister, escaped Czechoslovakia; Krasa was killed in Auschwitz). The two men asked permission to allow a production “and the Nazis said ‘yes.’ At that time the Nazis didn’t care too much and we didn’t know we had been sentenced to death,” Weissberger said.
Brundibar tells of two poor children trying to raise money for their sick mother. When an evil organ grinder named Brundibar steals their money, the children join forces with a cat, a dog, and a bird to defeat the villain.
“When it was performed in the camp, the organ grinder was a character like Hitler but somehow the Nazis didn’t seem to get the point,” said Luna Kaufman, a Holocaust survivor and Watchung resident who arranged this month’s performance
Kaufman is a past president of the New Jersey State Opera and a former member of the Mayor’s Task Force for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.
She became aware of the opera in the 1980s, and, like Weissberger, has been pressing to have it performed in as many venues as possible.
“This is not a depressing story at all,” Kaufman said. “I purposely chose the Newark Boys Chorus School and Mount Saint Mary Academy because I wanted to bring it out of the ghetto to show that this is a universal message. When people unite — or in this case animals and people unite — they should join hands and do things together to conquer evil.”
Weissberger immigrated to Israel in 1949, married a fellow survivor, then moved to Brooklyn with her family nine years later. She pursued an artistic career by making display manikins from papier mache, then turned her craft into an interior design business.
She now lives in Tappan, NY, and has seen performances of Brundibar in such far-flung locations as Los Angeles, Prague, Washington, DC, and Evansville, Ind.
She is now involved in planning productions in South Africa as well as South Orange.
Because only four of the 62 girls with whom she shared a barracks at Theresienstadt survived the war, Weissberger said, every time she saw the opera had a special and personal meaning.
“I was telling myself, ‘Ela, is it possible that I am free, that I am in America, and I am watching children who are singing Brundibar?’ I always thought after the last performance, when all the children from Brundibar were sent to their deaths, that this little opera died with them. But when it is performed now, I believe it will live and I remember my friends.”