Opera Terezín

A Survivor's Story of Hope Amid Horror

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Weissberger created this chalk drawing while held prisoner in Terezín. The darker lines are corrections made by artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, one of the celebrity internees who secretly taught the children living in the concentration camp. She was eventually sent to her death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.RESISTANCE IN ROOM 28
Nearly 30 girls, all about Weissberger’s age, were crammed into Room 28 of the L410 girls’ barrack. The Jewish Council of Elders, a group ordered to govern the camp under Nazi rule, set up children’s “homes” where Terezín’s youth would be looked after while their parents worked on forced labor details. Weissberger was sent to live in one of these so-called homes a few months after her arrival. She was fortunate enough to be assigned to Ella Pollak’s room.

Pollak, whom the girls called Tella, was one of the caretakers for Room 28. She was strict, insistent upon good manners and good hygiene. She kept the windows open at night, even in the winter, because she believed the cold air killed bedbugs. She made the girls air out their ragged blankets every morning. In the evening, before nightfall when the Germans cut off the electricity to the barracks, she made the girls wash up in the ice-cold tap water of the building’s unheated lavatory. Hot water, like soap, was a luxury the Germans did not afford the residents of their ideal Jewish settlement.

“Many children did not like Tella because of this, but she really saved us. Not one girl in Room 28 got typhus, and we didn’t have as many bedbugs as other rooms, either,” Weissberger says in heavily accented English, influenced by the three other languages she speaks—her native Czech, Hebrew and German.

The girls received slightly better food rations, too. The putrid pea soup was supplemented by a small slice of black bread with a little margarine and marmalade, handed out every three or four days. “We used to mark on the bread how much we could eat each day until we got another piece,” she says.

Despite the loathsome conditions, Weissberger quickly made friends in Room 28. There was Anna Flach, nicknamed Flaska; Ruth Schachter, whom everyone called Bunny because of her protruding front teeth; Eva Winkler; Maria Mühlstein; and Helga Pollak, to name a few. “We were so together in Room 28,” Weissberger says. “We always found a little way of happiness.”

Famous opera singers imprisoned in Terezín rehearsed in the basement of the girls’ barrack after finishing their work details. When they behaved especially well, Tella would allow the girls to go listen to them sing. One day, Tella announced that she’d found an old harmonium in the cellar. Weissberger and a couple of her friends helped Tella drag the organ-like instrument up three flights of stairs to their room. Although education was forbidden in the ghetto, Tella had decided it was time for music lessons. She began by teaching the girls opera.

Preeminent Jewish professors, scientists, actors, artists and writers were among those imprisoned in Terezín. Such well-known figures as artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and pianist-composer Gideon Klein secretly taught the children living in the camp. They would come to Room 28 each morning to teach Weissberger and her friends. The girls took turns standing lookout for ghetto guards and SS officers. Everyone knew the penalty for teaching would be severe. Simply picking a flower or turnip warranted a beating. How much more would one suffer for breaking the ban on education?

When Weissberger and her family first arrived in Terezín, they were among a group of prisoners taken to the outer walls of the camp and forced to view bodies hanging from the gallows. The dead’s offense was smuggling out letters.

Writing about Terezín and drawing pictures of daily life were prohibited. Paper and art supplies were considered contraband. Yet the arts flourished in Terezín, where musical theater was tolerated as part of the Nazis’ subterfuge to hide their atrocities from the world. Famous composers wrote music on scraps of paper. Artists crafted masterpieces from discarded materials and whatever art supplies they could sneak into the camp. And the children were encouraged to do the same.

“My friend Helga drew picture one day of two children building a snowman and give it to her father for his birthday. He tell her, ‘Helga, this picture is beautiful but, from now on, draw what you see,’” Weissberger says.

Other children followed suit under the tutelage of Dicker-Brandeis, who eventually died in Auschwitz along with many other artists and scholars originally deported to Terezín. These geniuses and their protégés left behind a multitude of art, poetry and music, often hidden in walls and suitcases. Their works of art stand witness to the horrors of the Holocaust. But, more important, they are a tribute to the human spirit.

“Our teachers were such wonderful supporters, we kids never gave up,” Weissberger says. “Friedl would take us to our windows and say, ‘Kids, look out. It’s a beautiful day. See the mountains. Above those mountains is the sun and behind those mountains is hope—hope that you should survive.’”

In July 1943, Tella announced that a children’s opera called Brundibár would be performed in Terezín. Klein asked her to identify girls from Room 28 with the best voices. Weissberger and her friends Flaska, Maria and Bunny were among those Tella chose to audition.

The girls went to the attic of the L417 boys’ barrack for casting. Conductor Rafi Schächter and musical director Rudi Freudenfeld, who smuggled the opera into the camp, were there to greet them. They had the girls sing scales.

Weissberger was nervous as Schächter and Freudenfeld deliberated on the auditions. Would she get a part? Finally, Freudenfeld announced their decisions. Weissberger would play the cat.

The cast had to rehearse in the hot, dusty attic of the boys’ barrack, but they didn’t mind. Rehearsals were a welcome diversion from the insatiable hunger and constant fear of being awakened in the middle of the night for the next transport to Auschwitz.

Their first performance of Brundibár took place in September 1943. Weissberger wore her sister’s black ski pants and her mother’s black sweater for a costume. Whiskers were drawn on her face using leftover black shoe polish. Missing from her costume was the yellow star that identified her as a Jew. Performances, when they were permitted, were the only time prisoners were not required to wear it.

“It was our little couple minutes of freedom,” Weissberger says.

Stage fright rushed over the young cast when they saw all the people filing into the hall of the Magdeburg barrack. They couldn’t believe how many of Terezín’s detainees had come out to support them. But, with the first beat of the music, their anxiety disappeared. They were transported into a fairytale world where they held the power to overcome evil.

Composed in 1938 by Hans Krása with lyrics by Adolf Hoffmeister, Brundibár is the story of a young brother and sister who, with the help of a dog, a cat, a bird and the children of the village, defeat a malevolent organ grinder who terrorizes the children. The opera ends with a victory song. Its symbolism could not have been more apparent as the children sang:

“We’ve won a victory, Since we were not fearful, Since we were not tearful, Because we marched along, Singing our happy song, Bright, joyful and cheerful.”

Before long, the audience had joined in the singing. They immediately saw that the evil organ grinder, Brundibár, represented Hitler and that the victory song signified the hope that one day he would be defeated.

Whether they chose to turn a blind eye to the rebellious rhetoric embedded in the lyrics or they simply didn’t understand the Czech language, the ghetto guards and SS soldiers allowed Brundibár to be staged 55 times between 1943 and 1944. One of their last performances was staged for members of the International Red Cross and Danish Red Cross as part of the Nazi deception.

Buckling to international pressure, the Third Reich agreed to an inspection of Terezín. Its “residents” received new work orders in preparation for the visit. The factory, where prisoners were forced to produce goods for the war effort, was closed down. Refuse was cleared from the streets. Building façades were painted. Long abandoned storefronts were spruced up and filled with goods. Parks opened and gardens were planted along the carefully planned tour route. A new community hall was built, complete with a stage for the performance of Brundibár. The makeshift orchestra was even given new instruments to play.

The improvements were short-lived. The Nazis’ phony “spa camp” disappeared the day after the inspection, but the scam had worked. The Red Cross delegates determined that Terezín was an acceptable Jewish settlement, further emboldening the Nazis in their “Final Solution.” Transports to Auschwitz stopped only briefly before the inspection and, in fact, increased in May 1944 to alleviate the appearance of overcrowding. Within two days, May 16–18, 1944, 7,500 people were deported to Auschwitz in preparation for the Red Cross visit. Among them was Weissberger’s friend, Ruth Schachter, “Bunny.”

The transports rose drastically after the inspection. One by one, Weissberger’s friends and teachers were summoned to leave until there weren’t enough children left to perform Brundibár. Six of her friends from Room 28 were transported on the same day. She was marked for transport twice. Each time, her uncle, who, as head of social programs in Terezín, held some sway with their captors, was able to get her name off the lists. But eventually he, too, would board a train for Auschwitz.

“The Nazis found out Uncle Otto was in underground working against them,” Weissberger says.

Weissberger hid under Altenstein’s bed the night before his transport left. She wished against all hope that he was being sent to govern in another camp as he did in Terezín. He had become like a father to her, and she wanted to go with him. But the next morning when they walked to the train, the guards wouldn’t let Weissberger board. Her uncle was directed to a portion of the train marked with the word Punished. “That meant you go straight to the gas chamber,” she says.

Weissberger wondered whether this also was the fate of her dear friend, Helga Pollak, who, four days before Altenstein’s deportation, received her transport order.

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