Brundibar and Terezin

There are some interesting comparisons in the life and work of the Czech artist Otto Ungar and the “life” of the opera Brundibar. Ungar was a gifted man who refused to be silenced by his Nazi tormentors. Imprisoned in the ghetto at Terezin and later shipped to Auschwitz, Ungar created scores of drawings and paintings that realistically depicted the horrors of confined life.

Hans Krása and Adolf Hofmeister created Brundibar in 1938 for a competition sponsored by the Association for Musical Education in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Although the five thousand crown first prize was something to aspire to, their main motivations in writing the opera were to use the only weapon they had at their disposal – their art – to resist the political turmoil then raging in Prague and throughout Europe, and to provide children facing a dangerous future with the courage to deal with whatever might come. Neither of them, however, could have imagined the horrors that awaited the youngsters in this production. No one could.

Hans Krása followed the opera’s rehearsals at the Boys’ Orphanage in Prague with great interest, but by the time it premiered he was already on a transport to Terezin. About a year later, Krása and many others from the same orphanage would create the initial performance of Brundibar in Terezin.

Terezin had a rich cultural life, partially due to the Nazi’s desire to use the camp as a propaganda device. Plays by Molière and Chekov; and symphonies by Mozart and Beethoven were among the pieces frequently performed. Verdi’s Requim was a particular favorite, even among the SS troops at the camp.  Operas performed included Carmen, Tosca, The Marriage of Figaro and The Bartered Bride. But the favorite of virtually everyone was Brundibar, especially so for the children involved in the production.

Early in the existence of the ghetto, the Council of Elders (the self-government committee of the Jewish inmates) made a fundamental decision: That the welfare of the young had priority over the welfare of the old. For youngsters, this meant better food and living conditions and special medical care. Education of the young was also a high priority and, although formal education was banned, prisoners held clandestine classes in the barracks. Art and music classes were tolerated. Among many others who gave of themselves to enhance the lives of the young was Freidl Dicker-Brandeis, who taught art. One of her students, Helga Pollak, remembered that her “method of instruction gave us moments of lightheartedness. She had a capacity for awakening in us a positive attitude toward our condition.”

So, too, did the performance of Brundibar, giving the children who performed it, and all of those who attended, a taste of freedom and beauty. The first performance in Terezin, on September 23, 1943, was an immediate success with three times the capacity of the small attic theater hoping to get in. Ela Weissberger, who was the Cat in the original production, remembered the performances: “The applause was incredible. Whenever we sang the finale at the end, there was a storm of applause and the audience wanted to hear the song again and again. We made the most of this moment of freedom.”

Greta Klingsberg played the role of Aninka. “The opera’s message was, of course, very important to us: Those who love justice and stand by us can play with us. Most important of all: Good will triumph because we stick together.”

The children would eventually perform Brundibar fifty-five times. Most notably, on June 23 1944, when the Nazis invited the International Red Cross to tour Terezin to prove that they were not mistreating the Jewish people. By this point, the Nazis had elevated deceit to an art form. Even the various names they gave to the camp reflected this. At different times it was known as Theresienbad (Spa Terezin), Reichsaltersheim (State Home for the Aged), Judische Selbtsuerwaltung (Jewish Self-Administration) and even Paradeisghetto. Some Jews who arrived on the transports inquired of their SS captors about the location of the cabin with the view of the lake they had been promised.

The deceit, in this case, worked. The façades of the buildings were spruced up with fresh coats of paint. Flowers were planted. Shops were stocked (giving the inmates a chance to buy back the things that were stolen from them when they arrived). The old and the sick were shipped off to their deaths in Auschwitz. Even the children were instructed, when offered a piece of chocolate by camp commander Karl Rahm, to say, “Thank you, Uncle Rahm, but not chocolate again.” Brundibar was performed again. Eva Herrmann, a member of the chorus of the production, remembered, “We knew, of course, that we were putting on a comedy act for somebody. But of course, since this was a commission of the International Red Cross, we also thought and hoped that this would help us in some way. They might say ‘these children sing so beautifully we just have to help them.’ We always hoped that maybe something would come of it after all.”

It was not to be. Dr. Maurice Rossel, delegate from the International Committee of the Red Cross, wrote to the Reich Foreign Ministry, “We are happy to assure you yet again that our report of our visit to Theresienstadt will come as a relief to a great many people, inasmuch as we found conditions there satisfactory.” By this point, when sixty-eight thousand people had been transported to their deaths in the East, Rossel wrote, “The camp at Theresienstadt is a ‘final destination camp,’ and normally no one who has come to this ghetto is sent on to somewhere else.” The world was fooled.

The only thing that “came of it” was that the Nazis decided to use the spruced up ghetto to even greater propagandistic ends. A film crew was hired to document life in the camp, and the result was the film The Fuhrer Builds the Jews a City. Young, reasonably healthy people were literally painted brown, to show their tanned fitness, and filmed gathering fruits and vegetables or swimming in the nearby river. The immediate repossession of the produce and the armed SS guards in rowboats nearby, there to discourage anyone who might have the notion of swimming to safety, were conveniently left out of the shots. Other scenes depicted prisoners holding bread with margarine that they were forbidden from eating.  After the filming, the Nazis sent almost all of the “actors” in the film, the Council of Elders, and most of the children in the ghetto to the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The true purpose of the camp, as a catch basin for the Final Solution, was now coming to fruition.  Of the one hundred forty thousand people sent to Terezin, thirty-three thousand died in the ghetto from starvation or disease. Eighty-eight thousand were deported to the extermination camps.

Fifteen thousand children were sent to Terezin. One hundred fifty survived. In his suicide note, Adolf Hitler blamed World War II on the Jews.

What, then, is the legacy of Brundibar? If we believe that the purpose of art is to enhance life, then it served a rich function, providing moments of distraction and freedom to children in a living hell. It also speaks to us today. Tony Kushner has written about Brundibar:

It’s a story of good defeating evil. But its beauty is haunted, for it comes from one of the darkest points in human history, when evil, at least for a time, was triumphant over good, and millions upon millions died. One could say ultimately the music has triumphed: today Brundibár is performed all over the world, and the Jewish people have survived, endured, flourished. On the other hand, one must always be wary of drawing false reassurances from the horrific lessons of the Holocaust, perhaps especially now, when children all over the world are in such mortal danger – poor children, children in war zones, Jewish and Palestinian children, as well as homeless, uninsured, unprotected children in the United States. In dark times such as these, Brundibár, both the opera and its tragic history, shouldn’t offer us too much reassurance; we shouldn’t draw comfort from the fact that, even after the worst has happened, people and art survive, because after all, only some people survive, while many are lost, and some art is salvaged, but much creative brilliance, like Hans Krása’s, is extinguished before its time, and what the world loses can’t be recovered. Instead of false comfort, Brundibár offers inspiration to action, and exhortation. Be brave, and you can make bullies behave! Rely on friends! Make common cause, build communities, organize and resist! And tyrants of all kinds, in every generation, can be and must be made to fall.

Which brings us finally to Otto Ungar, who offered resistance and “creative brilliance.” When the Nazis discovered that drawings he had done of the reality of Terezin had been smuggled out of the ghetto – depictions of starvation, disease and despair – they took him to an SS jail and tortured him, crushing his painting hand and amputating two of his fingers. Eventually shipped to Auschwitz, numerous prisoners reported seeing him there – sick, starving, but with a piece of charcoal in his crushed hand, reaching out with it, trembling, toward a piece of paper.

If you would like to know more…

We recommend these books in the words of Terezin survivors who have generously helped us understand.

The Cat with the Yellow Star: Coming of Age in Terezin by Susan Goldman Rubin and Ela Weissberger

The Music Man of Terezin: The Story of Rafael Schaechter as Remembered by Edgar Krasa by Susie Davidson and Edgar Krasa

Nesarim: Child Survivors of Terezin by Thelma Gruenbaum