Visiting Israel with Brundibár


place/state: Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania
INSTITUTION: Musikschule "Johann Wilhelm Hertel"
AUTHOR: Volker Ahmels
age group: 8 years and older
subject: Music

learning activities
Analyzing music and lyrics
Intercultural Learning
Linking past and present
Presenting an opera on stage
Working with art

Brundibár opera
Child survivors
Children in ghettos
International youth encounter
Music composed in camps

"Brundibár," a children's opera, was written in 1938 by the Czech librettist Adolf Hoffmeister and the composer Hans Krása. In the autumn of 1942, it was performed 55 times in the Theresienstadt ghetto. Schwerin Conservatory students staged the opera in 1996 and presented it in Israel in 1997 with great success. The German students met many eyewitnesses, among them Zvi Cohen, one of the surviving children of Theresienstadt.


Performing the opera "Brundibár," by Hans Krása and Adolf Hoffmeister, is in many respects an enormous challenge for a music school such as the Schwerin Conservatory since all the actors and musicians in our production are students at the conservatory.

These days, it makes sense to deal with a subject of which the tragic circumstances of earlier performances cannot be ignored. We cannot and should not forget that "Brundibár" had been performed in the Theresienstadt ghetto. Our school's approach is not only to discuss problems, but also to gain an adequate understanding of the subject by handling it with sensitivity.

The school directors, producers and teachers were especially happy that the students and their parents were open to this project from the start; this attitude eased many.difficulties for all participants. The fact that we could also integrate students from our project for disabled children shows how many important purposes a music school in our society can fulfill today and should continue to fulfill in the future.

After several performances of "Brundibár" in Schwerin in 1996 and 1997 and a guest performance in Odense, Denmark, we planned to take the production to Israel in February 1997.

The Story of the Opera

Children of so-called "inferior races" were among those who did not fit into the diabolical Nazi plan. Thousands of them were forced to spend time in the Theresienstadt ghetto before most were deported to killing centers, where they were murdered. The traces that remain of their lives include names, dates, photographs, artwork, and poetry, as well as reports and memoirs by the few who survived.

One of the most poignant traces of the children who were imprisoned in Theresienstadt is "Brundibár," a children's opera written in 1938 in Prague as a joint project by the composer Adolf Hoffmeister and the lyricist Hans Krása. In the fall of 1942, the opera's first performance took place in a Jewish orphanage in complete secrecy. The composer was unable to attend. He had been deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto, as the children in the performance later would be.

A new form of the opera was performed 55 times in Theresienstadt, where it met with enormous approval among the prisoners even though the Nazis misused it for propaganda purposes. Many of the Theresienstadt children were murdered in Auschwitz, as the composer was in 1944.

After the war, the opera and its composer were initially forgotten. And even though this period of horror is not yet that remote, the specter of racial hatred is beginning to spread anew - not only in countries far away, but in our own country as well.

The Plot of Brundibár

The plot of Brundibár is a simple story of good and evil. The siblings Aninka and Pepicek have problems: their father is dead and their mother is ill. The physician tells them that fresh milk would help their mother. The two children go to the market to fetch some milk. There the merchants extol their wares. With money, one can buy almost anything, but the children have none. Even the milkman will not give them something for nothing.

Then Aninka and Pepicek see the organ grinder Brundibár. He attracts a crowd of adults with his music. They sing and dance and throw him many coins. When Aninka and Pepicek see it is possible to make money with music, they decide to try it. They sing a song to attract attention from the adults. But no one notices them because their voices are too weak to compete with the noise of the organ grinder; besides, the evil Brundibár drives them away in short order because he does not want troublesome competition.

As night falls, a dog, a cat and a sparrow appear to console the sad children. They confer with them and promise to help. They all conclude that if many children compete with Brundibár, they can defeat him. The siblings are hopeful as they go to sleep.

The next day, the animals call all the neighborhood children together. They unite against Brundibár, who in vain tries to stop the children from singing. Finally, the adults pay attention to the children and show their generosity. Aninka and Pepicek can finally earn money with their songs to buy the much-needed milk for their mother.

The cruel organ grinder, however, sneaks up and steals their money. But the children and animals pursue him and finally overpower him. Finally, Brundibár is driven out of town [see Visuals].

Taking Brundibár to Israel!

The idea of taking the Schwerin "Brundibár" production to Israel occurred more or less by coincidence. As early as the spring of 1996, while we prepared for the August 1996 performance, we contacted Ruth Elias, a survivor living in Israel, whom we wanted to invite to attend the Schwerin production. During our conversation, I learned of her book "Die Hoffnung erhielt mich am Leben" ["Hope Kept Me Alive"], in which she describes, among other things, her time in Theresienstadt. This book, previously unknown to me, shocked me so greatly that I decided I would do my utmost to combat the lack of remembrance. During a subsequent telephone conversation with Ruth Elias, we got the idea to take the Schwerin production of "Brundibár" to Israel. We wanted to introduce our youngsters to that country and to show survivors that there were young Germans who are not vulnerable to stupid right-wing extremist slogans, but study the Holocaust intensively.

We were uncertain for quite a while about solving the financial and organizational problems of such a trip. In order not to raise false hopes, we tried to keep the whole project secret. Only a few were told, and we used the code phrase "performance in Parchim" (later shortened to "Parchim") to ward off the curious. This arrangement worked surprisingly well throughout the critical weeks of planning until financing for the trip was arranged.

One additional problem stayed with us until February. Would the parents allow their children to travel to Israel with the political tensions there? We tried to be sensitive to all concerns.

We received enormous political and diplomatic support. The Israeli Deputy Consul Josef Levi came to Schwerin and answered questions from parents. Soon it was clear that almost all parents would permit their children to travel, and after that, everything else developed rapidly. Performance venues had to be located, the import requirements for musical instruments and stage props had to be ascertained, and we had to organize all of this within our state budgetary restrictions and requirements. It seemed like a small miracle when we boarded the El Al flight to Israel on February 4, 1997 and arrived that evening at our hotel in Netanya.

The schedule for our week in Israel included two performances in Megiddo and Mizra. We also planned a visit to the Israeli memorial Beit Terezin, where the youngsters would meet Theresienstadt survivors [see Audio/Video], and a visit to Yad Vashem as well as other historical sites such as Massada, Caesarea, Akko, and Haifa.

There was a helicopter accident the morning after we arrived, followed by three days of official mourning. Our first performance in Mizra was cancelled. All the participants reacted to the cancellation with understanding, but it was nevertheless a shock. Had all our preparations been made in vain?

We discussed the situation that evening with the Elias family, who in the interim had become our friends. Kurt Elias had a splendid idea. We should perform for survivors at an old age home. Surely they would be pleased with our production...

In fewer than 40 hours, we adapted and made do, and two days later we performed in Megiddo. That concert made the deepest impression of any in my life.

People congratulated us after the performances and thanked the children for the presentation. The children had been invited for the afternoon before the performance to the old age home at Kfar Saba for coffee and pastries, and they were received there with a warmth and friendliness none of us had expected. One elderly man told me after the performance, "I swore never again to set foot on German soil, but after the performance today, I no longer know why." A lady spoke with us in English before the presentation. She said she had promised herself never to speak German again after most of her family.was killed in the concentration camps. Since then, she had not been able to bring herself even to purchase German products. After the performance, she came up to us and broke her taboo. For the first time in decades, she spoke German again.