Ela Stein Weissberger is a Holocaust survivor of Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Brundibar is a children's opera depicting the triumph of the human spirit over oppression that is best known for its 55 performances in Terezin. Weissberger played the role of the Cat in all 55 performances.
She is one of four cast members who survived. From the 15,000 children of Terezin, fewer than 150 lived to see liberation. Brundibar was recently performed at the Victory Theatre in Evansville, Ind. This was made possible by a large donation made by Indianapolis' Gene B. Glick.
Q: Was there a lot of music at Terezin?
A: A lot. First of all opera. Carmen, Battered Bride and what is most famous and patchy for us is Verdi's Requiem. Brundibar was performed 55 times in Terezin and Requiem was performed 16 times. Eichmann [SS officer that deported Jews from Terezin to Auschwitz] said that he never heard such good voices like in Terezin and what really made him happy was that Jews were singing for their death. In Terezin the rabbis and the religious people were against it because Requiem is really a mass only for Christians.
Q: Were the composers and artists allowed to create within those walls?
A: That is what is so interesting about Terezin. It was really the only place in Europe where anything new was being written during the war years. You should see the Prisoner of Paradise [documentary].
Q: Wouldn't that have been filtered out?
A: The Nazis wanted us to enjoy life in Terezin. They let us be happy, they let us play theaters, listen to good music. But, they knew we were sentenced to death. So they let us be happy for a little while before they sent us to death.
Q: That probably also helped convince observers and inspectors that it was a good place.
A: Not only that, a lot of people thought that we will stay here, that it will be a good life here. You work and you play.
Q: How did you get away with singing Brundibar as it could be an allegory for Hitler?
A: The Czechs that were watching us were good. They were forced to be our guards. They hated the Nazis and the Nazis didn't even understand what Brundibar means. If you say "bumblebee" it will not tell you too much about it, you know?
Q: Was it bittersweet to perform the opera that served as your only joy in A: A: A: Terezin and now know that very thing helped to deceive those who possibly could have helped you?
It was in a way deception for other people to watch us and they are thinking we are looking happy and we are unhappy. But as a child, you don't think this way.