Keeping the memory of ‘Brundibar’ alive

Ela Stein Weissberger was one of the original cast members in Brundibar, the children’s opera performed at Terezin, a Czech town renamed Theresienstadt by the Germans. The town was turned into a ghetto, in which thousands died from starvation and from where thousands more were deported and killed in Nazi death camps. Weissberger is scheduled to speak after the upcoming performances of Brundibar at the Touhill Performing Arts Center, Nov. 19 and 21.

Weissberger was born in Czechoslovakia in 1930, and played the role of the cat in Brundibar 55 times during her years in the Theresienstadt ghetto.

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She spoke with the Jewish Light by phone while in Omaha, Neb., touring with a current production of Brundibar.

How long were you in the camp?

I was in Theresienstadt for three and a half years. And I was really (still) there when most of the children were deported already. (There) were 15,000 children in the camp and, at the end of the war, we were about 100 left.

Tell me a little about life in the camp, and about ‘Brundibar’.

We were allowed to sing, because we were so many children without supervision in the beginning. So they allowed us to sing, to play. And then later on, it became an open ghetto, so they moved out the people who were living inside the (18th century Terezin) fortress. They decided they would put us kids into children’s homes, so I was in one, in room 28. During that time in Theresienstadt, we were 62 girls, and at the end of the war, four of us were left back. Later, we found out that we were 15 survivors. We had wonderful teachers and we were singing a lot because my supervisor, from my room, was a piano teacher. So we did a lot of music right from the beginning.

And I had a good friend, Gideon Klein, who was one of the youngest of the musicians and composers at Theresienstadt. A little later on, in ’43, Rudy Freudenfeld, who was the son of the director of (the Prague) Jewish Orphanage where this little opera (Brundibar) was already performed once, before the kids were taken away to Theresienstadt. He smuggled in the piano score and asked first thing, since there are so many children in the camp, if they could perform this little opera Brundibar. I was so excited with my role of the cat. I also never believed that opera had the role of a cat.

I heard that some children participated in one performance and were deported, but you sang in all 55 performances.

This opera was so special, written by (Czech composer) Hans Krasa, who did the music, who was a genius. The boy who played Little Joe, he also sang 55 times and also the young boy, Honza Treichlinger, who was an orphan from Belgium, who sang the role of Brundibar. And little Annette — Aninka — she lives in Jerusalem.

Tell us about touring with ‘Brundibar’ now.

It’s unbelievable that here in Omaha today, 10,000 children saw this little opera. It was done for all the schools around Omaha and it was organized in such a way that I’m amazed even today. Partly I speak a little for the kids about it and also I sing with them the “Victory Song,” which is very nice for me, too.

Were you here the first time Opera Theatre of St. Louis presented ‘Brundibar’ in 1997?

Yes, this is the second time I am in St. Louis. Twelve years ago I was in St. Louis. It was very successful but I think that this time it will be a little bigger.

How old were you when you first performed the role of the cat in Brundibar?

I came to Terezin when I was 11 and when I was 12 I was singing already with three girls in what we called our trio — two of us survived. My friend, she is a professor of opera singing in the Czech Republic. Sadly, the third one didn’t survive.

Your commitment to the opera demands a lot of travel.

I tell you why I do it. And I was thinking about it because, you know, a lot of people were telling me “Why you do that now?” and even my sister said, “Don’t you think it is already enough?” It isn’t enough. I feel that it is my duty to speak in the voices of those children who cannot speak for themselves, and especially now I am free in America and I have the possibility. I gave up my business so I can do everything.

I have a little book (I wrote), Cat with a Yellow Star. The yellow star was a very important part in our life, and when we performed Brundibar, we were allowed to take it off. So I am carrying this yellow star with me — it became my lucky star.