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Arts and Entertainment


City Music presents a children's opera that was performed during the Nazi holocaust
The cast of Brundibar changed frequently as children were sent to their deaths.
by WKSU's VIVIAN GOODMAN


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Vivian Goodman
 
City Music players rehearsing at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
Courtesy of Vivian Goodman
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This week, the chamber orchestra City Music Cleveland presents an opera that children at a Nazi concentration camp performed before they were sent to their deaths. It will be the culmination of a series of free concerts, movies and discussions recalling both the terrors of the Holocaust, and the triumph of creativity over cruelty.

Silenced voices remembered

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 “Brundibar,” which means “bumblebee” in Czech, is about a group of children who vanquish an adult bully, a malevolent organ grinder.

The opera was performed at a Czechoslovakian concentration camp called Theresienstadt.

Composer never heard the opera 

City Music principal oboist Rebecca Mayhew says its composer, Hans Krasa, never heard it. He had written it for a Jewish orphanage in Prague, but was sent to the gas chambers before the concert.  “It very clearly had an anti-Nazi message already written into it. Then the entire orphanage was transported to Theresienstadt and the music somehow made it along with them and they were able to then go ahead and perform it.”

Cast changed frequently

It was performed 55 times, usually with a different cast for each concert.

 “A number of the children who played the lead roles survived absolutely because of their involvement in Brundibar. And a lot of the children who did not play the lead roles were, after each performance, shipped out, and a new troupe would have to be trained to play it again.” 

Arts and culture thrived at the camp, even as its prisoners starved.

 “All kinds of prominent Jews, mainly Czech, were sent to Theresienstadt, and continued their intellectual lives in the camp. There were lecture series, concert series, and composers kept composing. They would have to find scraps of paper, scraps of pencil, things would have to be hidden. It was very, very hard to do.”

Propaganda but a life-saver, too
 

A Jewish Council of Elders persuaded the Nazis to allow concerts for their propaganda value.

“The Nazis could in fact use these musical performances as a way of showing the world that this was very humane. And it allowed the prisoners to continue doing this work which was in many cases the only thing keeping them sane. “

After inviting the Red Cross to tour Theresienstadt, the Nazis expanded the propaganda campaign by filming a movie. Included was music written by prisoners Pavel Haas, Erwin Schulhoff, Viktor Ullman and Gideon Klein. Once filming wrapped up, the composers knew their time was running out.

 “And indeed, it was. Shortly after the film was completed all four of them were sent on transports to the east.”

One of the City Music concerts leading up to this week’s performances of Brundibar featured the music of those four.

Hardest for the musicians to perform

 “The Composers of ‘Theresienstadt’ is probably the hardest concert for us to play because all of the music on it was written in the camp shortly before the composers were sent to their deaths.”

Fear comes through in the music, but also hope.

 “These composers knew their fate and must certainly have had some sense that the only part of them that might survive would be this music. And they all experienced humanity in the midst of inhumanity and I think that comes through in the music also.”

Gideon Klein completed his trio for strings at Theresienstadt, nine days  before he was transported to Auschwitz.

He was a very charismatic, dashing, energetic, somebody who would have been Europe’s Bernstein had he lived. And the fact that there’s any music of all of his to play is great and we’re very, very fortunate. But of course you always think about what could have been.”

Klein's string trio had been written as a quartet. He reworked it as a trio after one of the violinists was sent to Auschwitz.

How was this music recovered?

“A lot of art work, and music and writing was hidden in the walls, various compartments, hiding places throughout the camp. Gideon Klein’s sister was very instrumental in getting his music out. But of course, you do wonder if there might be something yet to be discovered. That’s a really tantalizing thought.”

A piece by Cleveland composer Paul Cox was included in all four City Music concerts leading up to the production of Brundibar.

 “The intention was that the series would highlight not only composers impacted by the Holocaust but also composers impacted by other genocides, other wars, throughout history and around the world.”

The title "Just Are Same" is from the testimony of a victim of genocide in Africa. Cox built his piece around the voices of victims and their survivors:

 “As a white man, age 42, given the first commission to do a project on genocide I thought, ‘What do I have to say about genocide?’ So I started to think what do these memorial pieces really do. They’re cathartic yet they’re therapeutic. And as the past recedes, there is a kind of loss of memory. So I decided to make a slightly different piece about genocide by bringing together the words of victims of genocide from Rwanda and Darfur.”

Mayhew says Cox's piece underscores the point City Music is trying to make. “Genocide is a contemporary human problem. It’s not something that was exclusively a problem of Nazi Germany. It’s a worldwide timeless, sadly, phenomenon that we have to struggle with continuously. “

The Cleveland chamber group City Music will present  the children's opera “Brundibar” May 1st through May 5th at John Hay High School.


Related Links & Resources
City Music website

Listener Comments:

I lived in London throughout the war.One of the friends I made was a refugee from a concentration camp. She was a violinist and was made to play as victims were being taken to the gas chambers, She said she survived because of Bach.


Posted by: Jean Sommer on May 4, 2012 10:05AM
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