Children’s opera performed at Nazi concentration camp in 1943 to be restaged in Toronto

Katrina Clarke | February 24, 2017 | National Post

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Photo courtesy Jewish Museum in Prague

In the grainy film, a cluster of neatly dressed children stand tall. Some wear stage makeup, one sports a fake moustache and all sing in unison to a sea of fellow prisoners below.

The film was Nazi propaganda. The opera was real.

The Brundibar children’s opera, written by Jewish Czech composer Hans Krása, was first performed by children in a Prague orphanage in 1942. A year later, it was smuggled into the Theresienstadt concentration camp in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, where imprisoned children performed it more than 50 times. Now, on the 75th anniversary of the first performance, the Canadian Children’s Opera Company is bringing Brundibar to Toronto.

“A lot of people, right off the bat, are completely surprised by the story of this opera and the fact that this opera exists,” said Dean Burry, artistic director of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company. “People are kind of stunned by it.”

Yvonne Berg / Postmedia News

Yvonne Berg / Postmedia News. Dean Burry, artistic director of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company.

Burry had Brundibar in his sights two years ago when he was hired as artistic director. He admits eyebrows went up when he first shared his plans to recreate a children’s opera performed in a concentration camp, but Burry felt strongly about sharing the piece and its messaging.

The plot of the opera focuses on two children who need milk for their sick mother. They try to sing in the market to earn money but their attempts are thwarted by an evil organ grinder named Brundibar. The next day, a bird, cat and dog help rally all the children of the town to combine their voices to sing louder than Brundibar’s organ.

Burry calls the opera a “charming fairy tale” with a deeper meaning of unity. The messaging of standing up against a tyrant is “poignant” today, given the political climate in the United States and humanitarian crisis unfolding in Syria, he said.

“The term ‘Never forget’ comes to mind,” said Burry, referring to the oft-repeated commitment to remember the Holocaust. “It sometimes seems like we have.”

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Sean Gallup/Getty Images. Israeli soldiers stand at attention as officials light candles at Track 17 at Grunewald train station on November 21, 2008 in Berlin to honour the thousands of Berlin Jews deported from Track 17 to concentration camps, mainly Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, between 1941 and 1944. 

A production like Brundibar can help remind people of the reality and horrors of the Holocaust and world issues we must confront today, he said.

The actual camp where Brundibar was performed, Theresienstadt, was used by the Nazis as a propaganda tool; it was a place where propaganda films were shot and, after the camp was temporarily ‘beautified’ and thousands of prisoners deported to reduce overcrowding, it was the site of a 1944 inspection by International Red Cross representatives, who declared conditions to be acceptable.

For a time, the arts thrived in the camp, but as many as 33,000 people died in Theresienstadt, many more were transported to extermination camps and approximately 90 per cent of the 15,000 children who passed through Theresienstadt later died in death camps, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. A still from the Nazi propaganda film about Theresienstadt — “Der Fuehrer Schenkt den Juden eine Stadt” (The Fuehrer gives the Jews a City).

John Freund, now an 86-year-old resident of Toronto, is one of the survivors.

“It gave us hope that perhaps we would all return to our homes and the war would be over… and we’d have a normal life again,” Freund said of Brundibar, which he saw as a 13-year-old in Theresienstadt. “Which of course, did not happen for most of us.”

Freund was one of the only members of his family to survive the Holocaust, he said.

He’s since seen performances of Brundibar all over the world, including New York, Prague and Toronto, in 1996. On March 3, he’ll attend the opening night of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company performance.

“This isn’t just a show,” said Joel Ivany, the opera company’s Brunidibar stage director. “It brought so much joy and escapism for even the fleeting moments for either the kids who were in it (in Theresienstadt) or the adults watching it.”

Ivany said the children’s opera and its history demonstrate music can serve a greater purpose than entertainment — it can heal and give hope.

HO-Paul Parsons

HO-Paul Parsons. Alice Herz-Sommer from the film “The Lady in Number 6” and producer Frederic Bohbot are shown in a handout photo. 

That sentiment is expressed in an Oscar-winning documentary, The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved my Life, clips of which will bookend the Toronto performances, said Ivany. The documentary focuses on Alice Herz-Sommer, the world’s oldest living Holocaust survivor before her death in 2014 at age 110. Herz-Sommer was a concert pianist who was interned at Theresienstadt alongside her son, Raphael Sommer, who performed in Brundibar.

Ivany said it’s important to remember real people experienced the Holocaust, especially as fewer and fewer survivors are alive to share their stories. He hopes Brundibar highlights the work of composer Krása, who died in Auschwitz, and reminds people of their good fortune to live freely in a place like Toronto in 2017.

The Canadian Children’s Opera Company will perform Brundibar on March 3, 4 and 5 at Harbourfront Centre Theatre, 235 Queens Quay West, Toronto. Tickets cost $33 for adults, $24 for seniors and $19 for students and are available online or at (416) 973-4000.

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About Katrina Clarke

Katrina Clarke is a Toronto- and Vancouver-based freelance reporter. Her work appears in the National Post, the Toronto Star, CBC Life and J-Source. Reach her at katrina.clarke24@gmail.com or on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.
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