Terezin performer relives the show that gave her hope

Ela Stein Weissberger was 12 years old when she auditioned for a role in the children's opera "Brundibar."

After singing "la la la," Weissberger was assigned the part of the cat. While most cast members sometimes fell ill and had to be replaced, Weissberger never missed a performance, singing her role some 55 times. "Brundibar" became the highpoint of her existence — not surprising, since the reality of her existence was so grim.

Weissberger was an inmate in Terezin, the concentration camp outside Prague.

On Sunday, March 11, Weissberger will be in the audience as 12-year-old Molly Zhu reprises the now-70-year-old's role in a performance of "Brundibar" by children of the Crowden School in the 16th annual Berkeley Jewish Music Festival.

She will also join musician Sylvie Braitman on Wednesday, March 7 at the San Francisco New Main Library at a lecture on the music of Terezin (also called by its German name, Thereisenstadt).

In recounting the story of her father's disappearance, the destruction of her home, and how she, her sister and mother all survived their incarceration in Terezin, Weissberger's voice quivers. But when she begins to speak about the opera, it lifts considerably.

The opera, she said, did wonders for the morale of the children.

"When we sang, we forgot where we were," she said by telephone, from her home in Tappan, N.Y. "We forgot hunger, we forgot all the misery we had to go through. Music played a big part, not only in our lives but as part of the resistance against the Germans."

When it came time to perform, "it was the only time we didn't have to wear the yellow star," she said. Although it was temporary, "it became a freedom we had that we weren't marked."

Written by Jewish composer Hans Krasa in 1938, "Brundibar" tells the story of two children who sing to earn money for milk. An evil organ-grinder tries to steal their money and, with the help of some animal friends, the children prevail.

A member of the bohemian set, Krasa was from a wealthy Prague family, and "hung out in cafes all day, talked politics, music and art with his friends, and occasionally wrote a piece of music," said Benjamin Simon, the musical director at Berkeley's Crowden School, who is directing the performance.

The opera, which is actually a parable about fascism, was written "with a circle of intelligentsia fighting the Nazi regime as artistic resistance," Simon said.

When Nazi officials came to visit Terezin, viewing a performance of the opera was a must. When the children triumph over the evil "Brundibar," a victory song is sung.

But because the opera was written in Czech, "the [Nazis] didn't understand what we are singing," Weissberger said. "The victory song became very popular because when we sang it, we knew Hitler would be destroyed."

In 1944, a special performance of "Brundibar" was staged. Not only were Adolf Eichmann and some of the other higher-ups in the Nazi Party in attendance, but the production was filmed. "After the filming, most of the children and all the musicians were sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz," Weissberger said.

She remembers that particular performance well, and not only because it was moved to a real theater. "When it came to the part of a lullaby," she said, "the [Nazis] sat down and took their hats off and cried. Probably they had children our age, and they felt a little sorry for us."

Part of the filmed segment appears in the 1944 Nazi propaganda film "The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews."

The short film, which shows children playing, the rich artistic life of the prisoners and shops overflowing with food, was made to prove to the International Red Cross and the world that Jews in fact were treated well in the concentration camps.

Outside of Terezin, "Brundibar" had only been performed once before, in an orphanage. By the time it was completed, Jews had already been banned from performing in public.

Krasa was sent to Terezin, and there, he rewrote the score. "The orchestration is unusual because he rewrote it for the musicians available to him in Terezin," Simon said.

Krasa was later sent to Auschwitz, where he was killed.

Weissberger was one of approximately 120 children of Terezin who survived, out of an estimated 15,000 children who passed through.

She believes she survived because her mother and sister had been selected early on to work in the fields, and they proved to be valuable workers.

"My mother did everything you can imagine, like pickling vegetables, all for the Germans to sell and make money," said Weissberger.

After she was liberated, Weissberger remained in Prague for a short time before moving to Israel. There, she served in the navy and met her husband when he picked her up hitchhiking. They immigrated to the United States in 1958.

Weissberger continued to sing after the war but never professionally. She cannot count how many times she has seen various productions of "Brundibar." She has returned to see it performed in Terezin, and she devotes much of her time traveling to performances of the opera around the country, where she speaks about her experiences.

Usually, she said, she meets with the cast before they go on stage. "They're hugging me and kissing me; it's like I'm in the group with those children."

The children from the Crowden School all play stringed instruments but every year they put on a classical opera.

"They're not trained singers but because they're all musicians, they are very fast at learning the music," said musical director Simon. "The school is really buzzing with this right now."

Tessa Taruskin, 13, of El Cerrito, will play the role of Aninka, the lead girl.

"I really liked learning about 'Brundibar' because I always have had this passion for the Holocaust," she said. "It's a really interesting but horrible part of history."

Taruskin, who is Jewish, said, "I think it's really neat that I'm going to be able to meet someone who survived it."

And 12-year-old Molly Zhu of Albany is playing Weissberger's part, the cat.

Having Weissberger in the audience "makes me feel like the play has more meaning, because it has more meaning for someone watching it," she said.

Is she nervous? "No, but I'm really excited she was me in the play. She can tell me a lot so I can be more in my character," said Zhu.

No matter how many times she's seen "Brundibar," Weissberger always gets emotional.

"Every time, I say that I'm speaking for the voices that can't speak now," she said.

Weissberger recalled a performance she saw of "Brundibar" at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

"After the children went to the gas chambers, I thought that 'Brundibar' died with them," she said. "But when it was performed in Washington, I realized that 'Brundibar' will live forever."

And somehow, she believes, with each performance of "Brundibar," the children's memories live on.

The performance is sponsored by an anonymous donor in honor of Ursula Sherman and Leonard Merrill Kurz.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."