With the invasion of Ukraine and an increase in violence generally, we find ourselves amidst another chapter that chillingly recalls the history and horrors of humanity's savagery. It's inextricably linked to the rise of white nationalism, domestic terrorism and an autocratic thirst for power that's currently transpiring here in the United States and around the world. This movement is also driving historical negationism (the falsification or distortion of the historical record) to suit the narrative of those sympathetic to these sentiments. As a student of history and a guardian of its integrity, I'm incredibly disturbed by such revisionist efforts.
The arts are a light in an often dark and complicated world. And nothing reminds me of this more than my interview with Ela Stein-Weissberger during my internship with Opera Columbus. As the only surviving cast member of the children's opera Brundibár (colloquial Czech for "bumblebee") which was performed in the Nazi concentration camp of Terezín (Theresienstadt) near Prague, I was astounded by her positivity and passion. For years, she flew around the world to sing the encore song with children in productions and referred to the Jewish star she was forced to wear at Terezín as her "lucky star." She wanted to be actively involved to educate child artists and audiences about the power of music in the face of such unconscionable tragedy.
I feel that it's necessary and timely to revisit her story.
Ela was scheduled to participate in our upcoming production of Brundibár, so in addition to providing the synopsis and other information about the opera for the press release, articles for Columbus Parent Magazine and other public-facing copy, Public Relations Director Heidi Gordon asked me to call Ela and conduct an interview for our media campaign.
Born in Lom u Mostu, Czechoslovakia (near Teplice), Ela was only 11 years old when she was taken to Terezín in 1942. In addition to the adult population, an estimated 15,000 children were at the camp and she was one of the few to survive (less than 150). Terezín was a waystation to the extermination camps like Auschwitz, but also a "retirement settlement" for older and more prominent Jewish people. It was all a great deception.
Prisoner art, including Brundibár, was subjugated by the Nazis to give the illusion of a thriving cultural life in order to discredit reports of genocide. Meanwhile, most of the children seen during the performance of Brundibár in the propaganda film Theresienstadt were deported to Auschwitz. It's difficult to watch knowing their fate, but I find consolation in the symbolic triumph that took place on stage.
"There’s the allegorical nature of the story, of victory over a tyrant, which could be extrapolated to include the current oppressions being suffered by the inmates," said Hindea Markowicz, Director of the Ruth Fajerman Markowicz Holocaust Resource Center in an article for the Toledo City Paper. "And it was clear to the audience that the show’s main, and ultimately defeated antagonist, was Hitler. But, because the libretto was in Czech, the Nazis themselves didn’t realize the hidden meaning of Brundibár."
I was assured that Ela was very open and enthusiastic about interviews despite the heavy subject matter. Excited and overwhelmed, I drafted and revised my questions countless times before making the call. My nerves quickly dissipated when on the other end of the line I found a friendly voice who surprisingly recalled this period of her life as a happy one, and all because of the opera. It saved her life.
Our interview was a brief, but beautiful experience. Her storytelling was mesmerizing. I just wanted to listen and be in the moment instead of taking notes. As an intern, I couldn't help but think how fortunate I was to have Ela as my first professional interview. What precedent!
Sherry: Why is it important for you personally to be involved with children who perform in productions of Brundibár?
"I feel that I am speaking their voices," she replies. Ela then goes on to talk about the joyful aftermath, the revival of performances and the reactions elicited from child actors. "The children write me letters. It’s unbelievable how much it’s touched them." As she further examines her ties with the young performers, she realizes a feeling of cohesiveness, one similar to the original experience in Terezín. "Children who perform Brundibár have a different outlook on life. We connect in many ways and they are very special to me."
Sherry: What was life like for a child in Terezín?
"The Nazis let us sing, play, write and paint. I was a very active child in the camp. I don’t know why," Ela laughs. "The music and comradery helped us," she said of the artistic and motivational survival strategy. Ela said that over 4,000 original paintings were recovered and exhibited in the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles and that her own works were discovered amongst the artifacts.
Sherry: What’s so significant about The School of Terezín?
Ela explains that The School of Terezín was a small book written by Jewish artistic director Rudolf Freudenfeld, whom she refers to as "Rudy." Amongst the belongings she brought to America, this little book was one of them. She adds that he was indeed the person who secretly smuggled the Brundibár piano score into the camp, but besides being the artistic director, he was also her public school teacher. Like Ela, Freudenfeld was also a survivor. However, she said that they never again met in person, but rather kept in contact via telephone and letters of correspondence until his death. "I have his last letter," she said. "In it, he wrote 'You know, Brundibár was our life. It kept us going.'" "He really liked me and I very much loved him," she said of their friendship. But Ela reminded me that so many she knew were not so fortunate, including Brundibár composer Hans Krása who died at Auschwitz.
Sherry: What was your original role in the opera?
Ela says that upon casting the opera, "Rudy" selected her and two other children for the audition almost immediately since he had noticed their participation in the camp’s musical activities. "I was so happy," Ela said upon hearing the news that she would play the role of the cat. When Ela told her mother that she was cast to portray a feline in the children’s opera, she was very surprised. "A cat in the opera?" Ela laughs as she recalls her mother’s words. Ela was cast in this role all 55 times the opera was produced at Terezín.
I never had the opportunity to see the opera or meet Ela because my internship ended when classes began after the holidays and the performance was in springtime. But I've returned to her story periodically since then and it's unexpectedly found me. To date, I've traveled to Prague three times for my work relating to Mozart. His opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) was performed in Terezín amongst works by other composers. Being of Germanic descent, he was exploited by Nazi appropriation.
During my first visit to Prague, I was on spring break from my studies at the University of Westminster in London. I traveled there with my Czech flatmate Zuzana, a Prague native. We met with our Australian flatmate Adam and his family who were on a pilgrimage to explore their Jewish ancestry. Adam's grandmother had escaped the Holocaust and fled to Sydney.
As a filmmaker, Adam was camera-ready throughout our tour of the Old Town and Jewish Quarter. I learned a great deal about their faith and history. In a synagogue museum, I came across a photo of the children in the Brundibár cast and an old libretto. It was profound. How excited I was to share with the group that I had interviewed Ela, the Cat! It was a special day.
These are photos I captured of Adam and his family, the tour guide and Zuzana. I'm pictured at another time during this trip taking in a beautiful view of the city!
In 2019, I began reading more articles and watching more videos of Ela's appearances. I couldn't find her contact information. After a bit of research, I inquired with The Zekelman Holocaust Center and they informed me that she had passed away in 2018. My heart sank.
I wish I had reconnected with her again. There was much more to discuss based on the knowledge and experience I had gained since my internship. But I'm grateful for the time we had and for Ela's generosity in sharing her story across decades. Her memoir, her interviews and all of the lives she touched through her outreach provide a rich inheritance that will continue to resonate with us.
I recently discovered Ela's presentation at the Michigan Opera Theatre Children's Chorus and was in tears by the end. Start the video at 25:00 for Ela's segment.
Since time immemorial, artists have served as clarion calls for societies and peoples in distress, and they continue to serve honorably in that role. Never underestimate the will to find and execute artistic expression in the most unimaginable circumstances. May the story of Brundibár be a guiding light and encouraging reminder. Although the context of its production was unfathomable, Ela would want us to celebrate Brundibar's fairytale nature of magic and morality. The children defeated the evil organ grinder. Hitler's reign would end.
"People are always asking me what I think when I see myself singing in that film," Weissberger says from her New York home. "I really don't see myself. I'm looking at those children who didn't survive and how happy they were that day when they got to sing the Victory Song at the end of the opera. I used to think that Brundibár died with them, but it will never die" (The Baltimore Sun, "In land of death, Brundibár was reminder of life").
Being in a position to record and communicate the human experience to enlighten, empower and bring joy is a tremendous responsibility. It's an honor and sacred duty. Ela lived to tell her story and my heart is full for having the smallest opportunity to share it.
I am forever inspired. Thank you, Ela.
In closing, I refer to the words of Ela's friend Greta Klingsberg, who played the role of Aninka in Brundibár and survived to become a successful opera singer: "The opera's concluding words – 'If we stand together, love the truth and adhere to it, we will win' – gave us hope."
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