A Survivor's Story of Hope Amid Horror
By Victoria Kidd
Ela Stein Weissberger was a week shy of her 14th birthday on June 23, 1944, when she took the stage of a newly constructed community hall at Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp in the foothills of Czechoslovakia. Weissberger and her fellow cast members were at once excited and fearful. They were performing the children’s opera Brundibár for finely dressed Jewish internees made presentable for the Red Cross delegates who joined them for the performance. But the actors knew they were part of an elaborately executed propaganda ruse. Theresienstadt commandant SS First Lt. Karl Rahm and other members of Hitler’s special security force stood at the back of the hall, watching, ensuring their deception went off without a hitch.
“WE WERE SINGING FOR OUR LIVES THAT WE SHOULD SURVIVE,” says Weissberger, of those days held captive in the former fortress town of Terezín, located about 40 miles northwest of Prague. Nearly 66 years later, Weissberger took the stage of Stretansky Concert Hall for Susquehanna University’s performance of Brundibár and The Emperor of Atlantis, an opera composed by Viktor Ullmann while imprisoned in Terezín. “The room was silent when she took the stage,” says David Steinau, associate professor of music and director of the Opera Studio. “She was the story.” The weekend-long program, titled Opera in Terezín: Performance as Protest, celebrated the music and explored the history of this Jewish camp-ghetto, where the Third Reich’s propaganda machine convinced the International Red Cross, and thereby the world, that it was a model Jewish settlement—a “spa camp” where the elderly and prominent European Jews, including renowned artists, musicians and composers, were relocated for their own well-being during World War II. To the Jews imprisoned there, it was known by another name—“the waiting room for Auschwitz.”