“A few minutes of freedom”
Ela Weissberger, one of the few survivors to have taken part in every performance of Brundibár at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, will be attending the première of the opera in St. Petersburg. Ela Stein Weissberger is now 85 years old, and an American citizen living in New York. Brundibár occupies a very significant place in her life and in her personal experience of the fight against Nazism.
Ela Weissberger flew to Russia on 24 January 2016. She had never visited the country before, but had dreamed of such a trip for many years. We would like to share a part of her story with you.
"For me, the war began when I was with my grandmother and sister in Brno. I was in the second year of school. On 15 March 1939, they took the entire school on a parade to welcome Hitler. I can still hear the sound of his voice, shouting over the radio: ‘Jews! Jews!’ I remember my fear when they told us we had to go and greet Hitler: I was horrified, in despair. He passed through in an enormous car with one hand raised, and we stood there, surrounded by soldiers on all sides. He set off in the direction of Prague Castle.
That was the day that Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia began. Soon afterwards, we were excluded from school. We were forbidden to walk the streets of the city; we could only go down small side alleys. And in the trams which operated at that time in Prague, we were forced to stand on the rear platforms of the carriages. The Nazi laws against Jews came into force.
In 1941, the Nazis sent 7,000 Jews from Prague to Poland for the first time — to the Łódź Ghetto. We knew that we might be the next to be sent away. My uncle’s name was known to the Nazis, as he was a well-known figure in the city, and his surname began with the letter A — Altenstein. My grandmother was also an Altenstein. My mother told me that we all had to go together. We were registered as a family and sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, on one of the first trains.
We were allowed to bring just 50 kilograms of luggage with us. We weren’t sure what to take at first, so my mother made us wear lots of clothes. This was during winter. I was wearing so many layers of clothing that I could barely walk. We arrived at Theresienstadt on 12 February 1942.
The Brundibár score was brought into the camp secretly. It was our teacher, Rudi Freudenfeld, who held onto the piano score, written by the composer Hans Krása. As for Krása himself, he had already been sent to Theresienstadt. The author of the libretto, Adolf Hoffmeister, had seized his chance and escaped to England.
Even though we were only allowed to bring in 50 kilograms of possessions, Rudi put his copies of the score in his luggage and brought them into the concentration camp. We were all so inspired by that. Almost all the children from the orphanage, where the opera had been performed twice during the occupation, were in Theresienstadt at that point. Rudi knew that there were people for whom Brundibár could be performed at the camp. He also picked out the children who could sing well. I couldn’t read music, but I could sing. I even said so myself, and sang something like: ‘Do-re-mi...’ He said to me: ‘You are going to sing the part of the Cat.’ ‘A cat?! In an opera?!’ I was so happy to be given a part in the opera.
The day of the première was very special. The performance took place in the Magdeburg Barracks, which were very small. There was only enough space in the room for 100 people to watch, including Nazi officers, who were standing guard. And a chair was always kept free for Hans Krása, because he wanted to be present at every performance. The stage designer was František Zelinka, who had worked at the Prague National Theatre before the war. He put on 55 performances with us.
My makeup was very simple. František had a small tube of shoe polish. And that was what he used to paint my lips.
Our yellow Stars of David were, and still are, of great significance. We were not required to wear them while on stage. It felt like a few minutes of freedom, when we weren’t forced to wear them. We were free then. I will never forget that.
On the eve of 23 June 1944, there was a lot of talk of Nazi plans to shoot a propaganda film. They wanted to show the whole world what was happening and refute the rumours that they were murdering children. The film was shot in the Sokol Barrack, which was being used as a makeshift children’s hospital and where there was a lot of space. First of all, they took out all the children’s beds and sent the sick children to Auschwitz, before preparing the building for a film shoot of Brundibár. The opera was well known throughout the camp at this point. Our teachers began rehearsing with us for the shooting of the film.
In his memoirs, Rudi Freudenfeld recalls how camera operators and soldiers came to the Sokol Barrack and took up positions on the balcony. They were in Nazi uniform. When we got to the bit with the lullaby — there’s a lullaby in the opera — the Nazis took off their caps, and sat for a long time on the balcony watching us, a group of children singing a lullaby. Perhaps they had children of their own at home, and they felt sorry for the children from Brundibár. That was the final performance, and it was captured as part of that Nazi propaganda film.
After that, the prisoners gradually began to be transported to Auschwitz. Of the 140,000 people who passed through Theresienstadt, there are just 100 of us left. I am one of those who survived Theresienstadt.
Our dream is for Brundibár to survive too. It was written for children and to be performed by children. There are so few of us left, so few of us who remember that time, and how very, very tough it was. We have the opportunity to talk about things which are of immeasurable importance to us, the things which actually saved our lives. I will never forget the morning when I heard that Russian soldiers had forced their way into the camp on motorcycles. I heard them shouting: ‘You are free!’, ‘Hello!’
It will be a huge joy for me when the lack of understanding between countries disappears, when everybody realizes how important it is that that should happen. I love all the people whose lives have crossed paths with mine."