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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 22.2 (2000) 111-120

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The Brundibár Project: Memorializing Theresienstadt Children's Opera

Rebecca Rovit

CHORUS: You have to count on friendship, go the way together, to trust in your strength (Music) and to stand by one another. Then people will look at you, call you smart and clever because nothing can (Music) separate you. We defeated Brundibár, and now it is clear to all; no one can separate us. (Music.) 1

IMAGE LINK= These words come from the triumphant finale of Hans Krása's children's opera, Brundibár. The opera, written and composed in 1938 in Prague, was also performed there by boys in an orphanage during the winter of 1942. Rehearsals had barely begun when the opera's conductor, Rudolf Schächter, was transported to the Nazi's model ghetto in Central Bohemia, Terezín, also known as Theresienstadt. Krása, the architect Frantisek Zelenka, some of the original cast, the orphanage director Moritz Freudenfeld, and his son, Rudolf, arrived in Terezín on several transports between April and July, 1943. In September 1943, Schächter initiated a Terezín production of Brundibár directed by Rudolf Freudenfeld, who had directed the orphanage performance and brought the vocal score to the ghetto. Zelenka once more designed a stage set for the inmate boys and girls who sang to the accompaniment of a harmonium. The following year, Krása rewrote the opera score to include a variety of musical instruments in what has been described as a "virtuoso ensemble" orchestra. 2

The Czech-language opera played fifty-five times as part of the ghetto's organized "leisure time activity" or Freizeitgestaltung. Eventually, the Nazis exploited the popular opera by stage-managing its productions for an International Red Cross visit to Terezín in June and a bogus propaganda film in the fall of 1944, Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt. But the simple tale of the victory of the innocent over evil may have provided Terezín audiences with an allegory for their situation. A brother and sister sing for money so that they can buy fresh milk for their sick mother. With the help of singing animals, they recover their stolen money from the nasty organ-grinder, Brundibár. Existing production photos from Terezín show the boy in the role of Brundibár wearing a Hitler mustache. [End Page 111]

Fifty-six years later, the lyrics from this same story and its finale are being sung all over Germany. From Giessen to Mönchengladbach, in Berlin and Erlangen auditoriums, in Wittlich's old synagogue, German school children and teenagers have been performing Brundibár in memory of the Theresienstadt players. Last year, over seven hundred groups and institutions produced one hundred and thirty performances of the opera. For 2000, many more productions have been scheduled by music schools, church youth groups, and high schools, with the support of Germany's Jewish community. The German delegation of an international cultural youth organization, Jeunesses Musicales Deutschland, established the performance project in 1995. The ensembles see their ambitious plan as a pedagogical strategy. One of their goals is to unite international youth through music to "contribute to understanding among countries." 3 The German branch is particularly sensitive to "recent socio-political developments," such as xenophobia.

The Brundibár project belongs to what may be a national obsession: how to come to terms with the Holocaust and transmit the memory for future generations. Attempts to memorialize the Holocaust are taking place in Germany on several levels of society. On the federal level, cultural and political leaders have been embroiled in a noisy controversy about Germany's past and German memory. The design and construction of a Holocaust memorial for Berlin lies at the core of this controversy. Meanwhile, locally, the nation-wide phenomenon of touring Brundibár performances to German communities suggests a need by teachers and community leaders to guide the "innocent" generation of German youth in acknowledging publicly the systematic murder of millions of Jews...


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