A Milwaukee group is putting on a children’s opera that was performed during World War II, including in the Thereseinstadt ghetto-labor and concentration camp.
Brundibar was written by a Czech Jew named Hans Krasa, with a libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister, in 1938. Later, Nazis used it in an attempt to deceive the world about how they were treating imprisoned Jews.
RUACH, a Jewish arts and music organization in Milwaukee, is using the opera to educate children about the Holocaust — both through the opera’s message and its history. The opera will be performed by a principal cast of eight children and teens and one adult at the Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay this Sunday and Tuesday.
Director Elyse Edelman says the plot is a very Hansel and Gretel kind of story. "Two kids are told by a doctor that in order to save their ill mother they need to get milk for her. So they go to the town square, but they realize that they need money in order to buy milk."
The kids in the story — Aninka and Pepiceck — decide to sing to make money. "But an evil organ grinder is drowning out their sound so with the help of a cat, a dog and the children of the town, they get Brundibar, the evil organ grinder out of town," she explains.
Composer Hans Krasa included several animals in the story as an allegory of how people were responding to the growing Nazi threat. For instance, there’s a dog who wants to fight Brundibar, a cat who stays out of it, and a sparrow who represents the people that talked a lot of talk but didn’t do much.
A few years after the war began, the Nazis captured Krasa and sent him to the Theresienstadt ghetto-labor and concentration camp in the former Czechoslovakia. Many artists were imprisoned at Theresienstadt, and the Nazis actually allowed music and art there. Prisoners at the camp performed Brundibar on dozens of occasions.
And while Krasa’s opera centers around a hopeful message that good can triumph over evil; ironically, the Nazis actually used it to try to mislead visitors to the camp about the horrors taking place there. They compelled a performance of Brundibar during a visit by the Red Cross in 1944 and filmed it to try and show life was good for the Jews. But, in fact tens of thousands of Jews died at the concentration camp.
In preparing for a role in this weekend's production, 15-year-old Liam Jeninga says he learned a lot about the children of Theresienstadt who performed the original piece. The freshman at Delavan-Darien High School plays the dog who confronts Brundibar, the bully. "Otto Levy, who was the original dog, worked in the gas chambers and taking bodies out of it. And just to think that he would have to do that to possibly people that he knew or just people of his same culture, and just have to live with that," Liam says.
Of the approximately 140,000 prisoners at Theresienstadt over the course of the war, about 90,000 were transported on to death camps. One of them was the opera's composer, Hans Krasa, who died in Auschwitz.
Baritone Jason McKinney, the one adult in the cast, plays Brundibar. He says, as a society, we’re still trying to piece through the lessons of WWII today. "Well of course we would like to see equality and the end of racism and the rise of humanism — that no matter one’s skin color or religion or economic means that they are treated as equals in our society," he shares.