Opera the ideal platform for Holocaust survivor

The Seattle TimesMarch 24, 2014 

As she spoke to Juanita High School students, Holocaust survivor Ela Stein Weissberger, 83, holds up the Jewish star she was forced to wear by Nazis. “You should not forget my story, and please do not forget my friends. Remember my friends,” she told the class.

KEN LAMBERT/SEATTLE TIMES

Ela Stein Weissberger is a born performer. “I love to talk,” says the spry and convivial New Yorker, in an accent that lingers from her youth in the former Czechoslovakia.

Whether she’s speaking with one person or to an audience of dozens of attentive teenagers in the library of Kirkland’s Juanita High School, this petite 83-year-old powerhouse has a lot to say — and a need to say it everywhere she can, “from the heart.”

What Weissberger tells her listeners here, and in many other places, is a story she needs you to hear. In 1942, at age 11, with her mother and grandmother and sister, she was packed off to Terezín, also known by the German name Theresienstadt, a transit camp 60 miles from Prague. During her several years incarcerated there, she played the role of The Cat in an upbeat children’s opera, “Brundibr,” under the watchful eyes of Nazis.

Weissberger is in the Northwest for events related to a “Brundibr” production by Music of Remembrance, a local organization that honors Holocaust musicians through performances, education programs and recordings. The group presented “Brundibr” at Seattle Children’s Theatre twice over the weekend, with an all-child cast.

Weissberger visited Seattle for a 2006 staging of the opera, which was recorded by Naxos. “Ela is living history,” said Mina Miller, Music of Remembrance director. “She is a bridge between generations.”

A self-described “showoff,” Weissberger says she found some joy onstage with her peers performing “Brundibr” 55 times at Terezín. But it was fleeting relief from the pall of disease, hunger, death and unthinkable cruelty they endured there as Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

“There were 15,000 children who came to the camp, and few of us survived,” Weissberger told the Kirkland students last week.

Roughly 33,000 people of all ages died of typhoid fever and other diseases at Terezín, and more than 85,000 died in or en route to concentration camps, including Auschwitz.

Weissberger still fights back tears at times, talking of loved ones lost 70 years ago, including some 60 family members.

But she has found ways of coping with the childhood trauma and loss: Honor the dead. Educate young people about the Holocaust. Keep talking.

The worldwide revival of “Brundibr” has given Weissberger a platform to share her story in Europe, South America, South Africa and the U.S., where she has long resided. The mother of two and grandmother of two keeps at it “so people will not let this happen again, anywhere.”

“I have a lot of stories,” Weissburger told the students in her opening remarks at Kirkland. She held up a yellow cloth Jewish star, the kind Nazis forced all Jews to wear. She showed a small Terezín photo-identity card with a number on it: “We were not supposed to use our names. They wanted us only to be numbers.”

Weissberger displayed postcard-size reproductions of paintings and drawings she made at Terezín. And she shared fond memories of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, a lauded Jewish artist who raised children’s spirits by teaching art in the camp.

“She would tell us, ‘Kids, it’s a beautiful spring day. Go to the window, look at the mountains. Behind them is sunshine. Behind them is hope,’” Weissberger said.

“In her classes she gave us a few minutes of freedom,” Weissberger said, noting that some of the Terezín children’s artworks and poems are collected in a book, “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.”

Many well-known Jewish artists, musicians and writers went through Terezín, including Hans Krsa, who composed “Brundibr.” The 35-minute 1938 opera humorously depicts a struggle between a despotic organ grinder with a mustache and children who rise up to depose him with the help of animals like the Cat, the role Weissberger played.

The libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister was a clear allegory about Adolf Hitler’s rise and the need to defeat the Germans. But the Nazis didn’t realize it because the opera was in Czech. They assumed “Brundibr” was a harmless diversion, and let Terezín inmates stage it from a smuggled-in copy.

The unwitting Germans also used the opera as a propaganda tool. Weissberger described them sprucing up Terezín in 1944, to pass it off as a “model village.”

The phony makeover of the miserable outpost was meant to impress visitors from the international Red Cross. Failing to interview camp inmates or investigate their real conditions, the visitors were charmed by the cabaret and other facilities Nazis had set up, the stylish appearance of selected inmates and by a performance of “Brundibr.”

“It was the only time we didn’t have to wear our Jewish stars,” said Weissberger.

Scenes from that show are in the Nazi pseudo documentary “The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City.”

An ugly irony: Its Jewish director, Kurt Gerron, was sent to perish in Auschwitz, before he could complete the movie. Also, “Brundibr” roles had to be continually refilled as Weissberger’s friends and castmates were packed off to Auschwitz.

Weissberger is straightforward with the grim information. She gave up her interior-decorating business to devote more time to traveling and lecturing, because not everyone still alive who participated in “Brundibr” is “capable of doing this, or they don’t want to be reminded they survived” when 6 million Jews did not.

“I believe in you,” she told the Juanita High students at the end of her remarks. “You should not forget my story, and please do not forget my friends. Remember my friends.”

After the talk, there was loud applause and a few teens brushed away tears.

“It was amazing how things from that long ago are still so vivid to her. It’s important that she shares her experiences with us,” senior Frank Garber said.

Juanita freshman Tatum Kawabata said she appreciated hearing Weissberger “because it’s a lot different than when you read stories about the Holocaust in history books. It’s real.”

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