After a recent Saturday matinee of the opera Brundibar in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a crowd gathered on stage around a short, elderly woman in a Zebra-striped sweater.
In typical grandmother fashion, she grabbed each of the perfomers for a hug. “I love to be hugged, but the boys won't let me hug them,” said Ela Weissberger.
70 years ago, Weissberger stood on stage herself performing in Brundibar. “I played the role of a cat 55 times,” said Weissberger.
Those 55 performances took place in the concentration camp Theresienstadt, also known as Terezin. It was a feeder camp for Auschwitz. Weissberger was just 11 when she arrived at Terezin with her mother and sister. Her father had already been taken away. In Terezin, the children lived in separate quarters.
“In our room, our caretaker was a music teacher and she really started us right away to sing,” said Weissberger.
The camp was full of high-profile Jewish artists, performers, and musicians. One composer was Hans Krása. He was deported to Terezin just before his children's opera Brundibar could make its debut in Prague. So he brought the score with him.
The opera tells the story of a brother and sister on a quest to buy milk for their sick mother. When they go to the town square to try to sing for money to buy the milk, they are chased away by the evil organ grinder Brundibar. But with the help of a sparrow, a dog, a cat, and an army of children, the boy and girl scare off Brundibar and get the money for the milk. Weissberger remembers telling her mother that she got the role of the cat.
“’I said, 'Mom, I will sing in a opera and I will be in a cat!’ My mother was thinking, and said, ‘Elinka, Richard Wagner never had cat in his opera.’”
The Nazis used Terezin as a "model" concentration camp for Red Cross monitors who visited during the height of the war. It also became the subject of a 1944 propaganda film, The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews. The film is full of scenes of men at work, women happily playing cards, children on swings, a soccer match, and then there's a haunting scene of the children on stage performing the opera Brundibar.
In the film, the children are singing the victory song that was sung just after the brother and sister defeat the evil organ grinder. Also in the film, Brundibar has a mustache.
“Brundibar in our eyes was Hitler,” said Weissberger.
The camera pans to a crowd of children intently watching the show and then you see Ela, the cat, singing on stage.
“It meant so much for us to be free for a couple of minutes,” said Weissberger. “The Jewish star became my lucky star because I survived.”
Many of the children on that stage would not survive. Krása, the composer, would also die in Auschwitz. And Brundibar might have disappeared, as well.
More than a decade ago, the late children's writer Maurice Sendak listened to a recording of the opera at Terezin. He was stunned. He approached his friend and playwright Tony Kushner to adapt the play for American audiences. In a 2004 PBS interview with Bill Moyers, Sendak remembered watching with Ela Weissberger the first performance of his adaptation.
“She was my age. I was sitting with her. We were both crying our hearts out. And there we see a 10-year-old girl on stage dressed as the cat," he recalled.
"It was like a collision of time, smashing into each other. She confirmed that she knew that any one of them on the stage would die and yet, they sang every night the performance was on. That was courage,” said Sendak.
“I always said to people that I can't say goodbye,” said Weissberger. “So today, I am not saying goodbye. I will say see you later or we'll meet again.”
She now spends her time flying around the world from one production of Brundibar to the next. Her favorite moment at each performance is the victory song. At the end of the production in Cambridge, she joined the children in a reprise of that song.
“It gives me uplift, too, that those children today were performing to remember those that are not here,” said Weissberger, “Brundibar, this little opera, became a symbol that they shouldn't be forgotten.”