Today is Holocaust Memorial Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the most infamous of Nazi death camps. Throughout the Czech Republic, memorial services are taking place to honour the memory of the millions condemned to death by Hitler’s fascist regime. It is also a day for helping young Czechs better understand the incomprehensible tragedy – through a historic children’s opera called Brundibár, performed at the wartime Jewish ghetto and concentration camp in Terezín, northern Bohemia.
The children’s opera Brundibár was staged 55 times at Terezín, a garrison town which in 1941 Nazi Germany turned into a ghetto for Czech and European Jews. More than 33,000 people died there, a fourth of all prisoners who passed through the ghetto. Another 84,000 died in the extermination camps.
Among the victims, of course, were many thousands of children. Since 1991, the Disman Radio Children's Ensemble, named after a veteran Czech public radio broadcaster, has been staging performances of Brundibár to honour their memory.
I caught up with the director of the opera, Zdena Fleglová, at a rehearsal ahead of the Holocaust Memorial Day performance. I began by asking her how she and the ensemble’s artistic director, her husband Václav Flegl, help the children understand the context in which Brundibár was performed.
“We always first take the children who will perform it to the Ghetto Museum at Terezín. It’s enough to walk through the exhibition featuring drawings of children interned in Terezín, who were the same ages as ours in the ensemble. It lists only their names, birthdays and dates of death. We don’t need to explain much. It’s made clear how – all of a sudden, through no fault of their own – those children were torn from their schools, friends, even families, and sent to a place from which they would likely never return.”
The two-act opera was written in 1939 by the renowned composer Hans Krása, who was transported to Terezín in 1942 and later killed at Auschwitz. It premiered in September 1943 at the garrison town’s Magdeburg Barracks and was reprised 55 times in total at the ghetto and concentration camp.
Segments of a Brundibár performance are captured in the propaganda movie Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (The Führer Provided a City to Jews) – meant to dupe the International Red Cross into believing Terezín was a humane place.
The Disman ensemble premiered a new staging of the opera in October 1991, in Terezín, during a gathering to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first transports. The prestigious Prague children’s ensemble had been asked by the Jewish community to revive it.
Over the years, many Holocaust survivors who were children when sent to Terezín, including a few who performed in Brundibár, have given talks along with the ensemble’s performance. So too have survivors who held the memory of the opera dear, for offering them a glimmer of hope after their childhoods were shattered.
Among them was the late Eva Hermanova, who was in the choir at Terezín, and in the early 1990s led the National Theatre opera ensemble. Then there was the “Brundibar grandma’, Marta Kottová, who accompanied the ensemble on performances for two decades before she passed away, says artistic director Václav Flegl.
“Mrs Kottová saw Brundibar performed at the Magdeburg Barracks in Terezin and elsewhere in the camp. She was very active, organised tours around the country. Our ensemble visited many schools with her and remember her fondly.
“Her nickname was ‘Brundibar grandma’. On the tour bus, she always had brought a box of homemade cookies and cakes for the children.
“Today, another survivor, Helga Hošková-Weissová, who celebrated her 90th birthday this autumn, still comes to our performances and speaks to audiences.”
Brundibár is a simple tale of good and evil. Aninka and Pepiček, two small children, have a sick mother who has been told by a doctor that she needs milk. They have no money for it, and so begin performing in the town market. But they are chased away by an organ-grinder called Brundibár, who doesn’t want any competition.
During the night, a dog, a cat and a sparrow come to their aid, advising them to set up a chorus together with other children. It proves a success, and Brundibár steals their money – but is caught by the children and their animal friends. The opera concludes with them singing a song of victory over the evil organ-grinder.
Zdena Fleglová again:
“Brundibar is a simple fairy-tale about a greedy organ-grinder. But in Terezin, the children came to think of him as Hitler, and the animals represented some kind of hope and strength. So, the opera subtext kept changing with the reality they had experienced. Children today cannot feel this.”
“But together with discussions, it is enough to show this to today’s children for them to understand what is hatred, what is xenophobia, which we find still today in much of the world. It’s important for them to know that evil breeds evil, and to remember those children killed in places like Auschwitz. We have to keep the memory of them alive.”
The Disman Radio Children’s Ensemble is performing Brundibár at Prague’s Alfred ve dvoře Theatre at 7pm on January 27.