Opera Terezín

A Survivor's Story of Hope Amid Horror

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Long before transports to the east began carrying away the girls from Room 28, they made a flag out of a blue piece of cloth to represent the spirit of the room. In the middle they stitched a white circle called a Ma’agal in Hebrew. The circle symbolized perfection. Inside the circle, the girls made two hands clasped together to signify friendship. Perfect friendship: It was the only way to describe the bond between them. In 1944, when only four girls remained in Room 28, they tore the flag into four pieces, one for each of them, and vowed to put the flag back together after the war. It would take 30 years for them to fulfill their promise.

Weissberger reunited with her friends who survived the death camps the same way she lost them—one by one. On a spring day in 1945, Weissberger was standing outside the house in Terezín where she moved with her mother and sister after the caretakers and most of the other girls from Room 28 were sent to the east. She heard someone yell, “The women are coming!” She turned to find hundreds of people streaming back into the camp. As Allied troops closed in on them, the Nazis emptied the death camps and forced prisoners to march toward Germany. Many died on the death marches. The skeletal bodies walking toward Weissberger that spring day were the fortunate ones. They had made it to Terezín.

As the group passed by Weissberger, she noticed a young girl walking in tattered stocking feet. She was dirty and her hair was shaved, but Weissberger recognized her immediately. It was Helga Pollak. She had survived Auschwitz. “I start screaming ‘Helga is here! Helga is here!’ I was so happy to see her come back,” Weissberger says.

Before the end of that same spring, Terezín was liberated, and Weissberger’s family moved back to Prague. One day, on the stairwell of her apartment building, she bumped into her old friend, Anna Flach, “Flaska.” She was there visiting her brother, who lived in the same building. The girls shared addresses and exchanged letters for a while, but they lost touch eventually.

Weissberger and her family left Czechoslovakia in 1949. “There was nothing left for us there,” she says. Their homes in Prague and Lom u Mostu had been taken over by Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. In Prague, the door was slammed in their faces. They were not allowed to return to their home in Lom u Mostu because the Germans had not been expelled from the area. Eventually, much of the town was taken over by gypsies. The house Weissberger—and her father before her—were born in was burned down when gypsies started a fire on the parquet floor. To keep the gypsies from getting into the garden, the new owners surrounded it with fencing and barbed wire reminiscent of those found in the concentration camps.

Weissberger moved first to Israel, where she met and married Holocaust survivor Leopold Weissberger, and later the couple immigrated to America with their daughter, Tammy. After settling in New York City, Weissberger concentrated on raising Tammy and a second child, David. But her friends from Room 28 were never far from her mind.

“We had a saying, ‘You believe me and I believe you. You know what I know and I know what you know. Whatever may happen, I know you won’t betray me and I won’t betray you’, ” she says.

True to their word, the surviving girls from Room 28 reunited in the 1970s at a gathering of Terezín’s child-prisoners in Prague. And to everyone’s surprise, Flach brought along her piece of the flag. The other pieces had been lost, but the “girls,” as they call themselves to this day, quickly made plans to remake it. They also decided not to let 30 more years pass before they saw each other again. They have continued to reunite in their homeland ever since.

It’s been a lifetime since they performed Brundibár in the hot, dusty barracks of Terezín, but the women proudly sing the victory song each time they attend a performance of the opera. Susquehanna’s performance was no exception.

Weissberger took the stage for the victory song during each of the university’s three performances. She also delivered a reading from her children’s book, The Cat With the Yellow Star, and participated in Opera and Resistance, Memory and Education, a panel discussion that explored the relationship between art and the Holocaust.

“Art clearly has a complex, contentious relationship with the Holocaust,” says David Imhoof, associate professor and chair of the Department of History, which supported the program through its Holocaust/Genocide Studies Fund. “As Brundibár indicates, art served as a lifeline for victims during the Holocaust, a way to connect themselves with something beyond the horror in which they were living.”

David Steinau, who staged the opera, says Weissberger’s participation helped students appreciate the true value of Brundibár and The Emperor of Atlantis. “I think the experience deepened their understanding of the works and the need performers in Terezín must have felt to express themselves on stage. Many of us understand a longing to be on stage, but few of us understand a need to be on stage.”

Moreover, Weissberger’s visit was the only opportunity many will have to interact firsthand with a Holocaust survivor. A case in point: Jonah Roth, the son of Laurence Roth, professor of English and director of the Jewish Studies Program, which co-sponsored the series of events. Jonah was one of eight grade-school children to sing in the chorus for Susquehanna’s production of Brundibár.

“As I watched Mrs. Weissberger speak to the audience at the end of the performance, with my son standing behind her, I realized that such meetings between the Jewish past and the Jewish present are fast coming to an end,” Roth says. “Each year there are fewer and fewer survivors who can speak directly about their experiences, and the production was richer for her presence.” 

Victoria Kidd is assistant director of advancement communications and editor of Susquehanna Currents.

Opera Performance

Opera Performances Frame Campus Discussion

More than 80 Susquehanna students and faculty honored the unconquerable spirits of Terezín’s detainees by presenting Opera in Terezín: Performance as Protest, a three-day program featuring two one-act operas and a companion discussion. The Department of Music, in cooperation with The Department of Theatre and supported by the Jewish Studies Program and the Department of History’s Holocaust/Genocide Studies Fund, presented three performances of Brundibár and The Emperor of Atlantis April 30 through May 2.

The companion discussion, Opera and Resistance, Memory and Education, held on May 1, explored the two operas and the relationship between art and the Holocaust. David Imhoof, associate professor of history, and Laurence Roth, professor of English and director of the Jewish Studies Program, moderated the discussion, which featured Marcos Krieger, assistant professor of music; Lissa Skitolsky, assistant professor of philosophy; and Doug Powers, associate professor and chair of the Department of Theatre. Prior to the weekend’s events, Kimberly Councill, associate professor of music and coordinator of music education, led three visits by the Brundibár performers to Selinsgrove Intermediate School.

Written by Hans Krása, Brundibár is a children’s opera performed 55 times in Terezín between 1943 and 1944. Ela Stein Weissberger was the Cat in every performance. Eight children from the community joined Susquehanna students for the university’s production, directed by David Steinau, associate professor of music and director of the Opera Studio, and conducted by Jennifer Sacher Wiley, associate professor of music and director of the Susquehanna University Orchestra.

Viktor Ullmann composed The Emperor of Atlantis while imprisoned in Terezín. Although rehearsed there in 1944, the opera’s first performance was not until Dec. 16, 1975, in Amsterdam. Ullmann and Krása both died on Oct. 17, 1944, in Auschwitz.

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