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PERFORMING ARTS

It's No Mere Child's Tale

Behind the youth opera 'Brundibar' is a story of survival and Nazi terror. Ela Weissberger knows.

May 16, 1999|ELAINE DUTKA | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

It is November 1988, the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht--one of the more infamous episodes of Nazi terrorism against Jews. The curtain at the Trenton, N.J., hall is going up on the children's opera "Brundibar." The piece was performed 55 times at the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, as a propaganda tool of the Hitler regime.

At the podium is Ela Weissberger, who played the Cat in those shows. Speaking extemporaneously, she addresses the crowd, delivering a poignant plea for tolerance.

"I'm one of the 15,000 children at Terezin," the New York interior designer begins. 'I'm one of the lucky 100 who made it, speaking in the voice of those that didn't." She reads a poem about a tree in the camp that became a memorial for the victims. "You have to forgive my English--I've only been in this country for 30 years," she adds, injecting a note of levity.

Since then, Weissberger--one of the "last Mohicans," as she calls herself--has participated in about a dozen "Brundibar" productions, introducing the piece and fielding questions from crowds at churches, synagogues, schools and prisons. This week, she joins a cast of Orange County and Los Angeles performers, ages 5 to 20, in an Opera Pacific production to be presented at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

Some Holocaust survivors understandably opt to bury the past, Weissberger says. She draws strength from speaking out. "It is sometimes very hard to speak about [what happened]," she says, "but there's a lesson to be learned. We overcame Hitler, but there are more Hitlers in the world. We forgive--but we can't forget."

The history of "Brundibar" begins in 1938, when composer Hans Krasa wrote it for a children's opera competition. It tells of two children who raise money to buy milk for their ailing mother. With some help from animals and neighborhood friends, they recover the cash after it was stolen by the evil organ grinder Brundibar.

Though Krasa--a Czech Jew--was gassed at Auschwitz six years later, his opera survived. After it was performed once at a Prague orphanage, the son of the agency's director took it with him when he was sent to Terezin, where it assumed a double life. For the Nazis, "Brundibar" became part of a public relations ploy to mask the horrors of the camps. For the inmates, the opera, with its message of good overcoming evil, provided a diversion from atrocities--and an ongoing ray of hope.

Terezin, called Theresienstadt in German, was set up as a model camp, to which intellectuals, artists and composers were sent. Cultural activities--including musical composition, theatrical production, poetry writing and children's painting--were permitted and flourished under dismal circumstances. In a famous Nazi documentary, Terezin was even portrayed as an attractive vacation spot, and a performance of "Brundibar" was featured.

In June 1944, the Red Cross came to check out the camp and was treated to a presentation of the opera.

"The Nazis created an elaborate propaganda ruse," says Jay Lesenger, director of the Opera Pacific production. "In preparation for the Red Cross, they renovated a section of Terezin to look like a middle-class community, . . . peopled only by the healthiest-looking Jews. If the Red Cross had bothered to check, they would have found that the faucets weren't hooked up--and that much of the 'Brundibar' cast was ultimately shipped to its death."

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Although it was never spelled out, inmates regarded the character of Brundibar as a stand-in for the Fuhrer. "When we sang the victory song at the end, we thought we were defeating Hitler," said Weissberger. "The opera became part of the resistance. Acting on stage was the only time we weren't required to wear the Star of David. It made me realize how I'd feel when I was free."

Ela Stein, as she was known then, was more fortunate than the other occupants of Terezin's Room 28. Although her father probably perished at Dachau, her mother was a field worker for a Schindler-like German who looked out for his employees. After liberation in 1945, she lived with her mother and sister (another Terezin inmate) in Czechoslovakia.

Four years later, Weissberger headed for the new state of Israel and, eventually, enlisted in the army. While hitchhiking in 1951, she was picked up by another Holocaust survivor, who became her husband, fathered her two children and, in 1958, emigrated with her to the United States. Weissberger lives by herself in Tappan, N.Y., five years after his death.

Although "Brundibar" was a distant memory for Weissberger, a chance occurrence threw it back in her lap. In a 1965 book about the music of Terezin, Weissberger's first name was misspelled. When she called up the author, Joza Karas, to inform him of the mistake, he invited her to concerts featuring excerpts from the opera. Karas and his wife also translated the opera into English, making American productions possible.

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