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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 January, 2005, 15:03 GMT
Germans perform Holocaust opera
By Paula Kennedy
BBC Monitoring, Ravensburg, Germany

Children at a German school have marked the Auschwitz liberation anniversary in a special way - by performing an opera originally created to lift the spirits of Jewish children facing an uncertain future.

Brundibar poster from 1943
The opera was originally performed in Theresienstadt

For the children of St Konrad's School in the southern town of Ravensburg, the challenge was to go beyond a simple presentation of Brundibar - a charming piece by the Czech-Jewish composer Hans Krasa.

They wanted to explore the ethical dilemmas faced by the original performers.

Music teacher Christiane Hoefer told the BBC how Brundibar was hijacked by the Nazis, when they encouraged children in the concentration camp of Theresienstadt - Terezin in Czech - to perform it during a Red Cross inspection visit.

Ms Hoefer explained that the idea behind the St Konrad's production was to put Brundibar in a context that would show how the work became part of the Nazi propaganda campaign.

By singing such a cheerfully optimistic piece for the Red Cross inspectors, the original performers helped to perpetuate the Nazi myth that Theresienstadt was a "model ghetto" in which Jews could enjoy a thriving social and cultural life.

"We tried to make this perversion clearer, to give the children a deeper understanding of what actually happened," Ms Hoefer said.

Harsh reality

To this end, the St Konrad's production of Brundibar is framed by a spoken prologue and epilogue derived from a book about Theresienstadt by the Canadian writer Kathy Kacer.

In the book Clara's War, 13-year-old Clara and her fellow inmates discover the harsh reality of life in the camp and debate whether or not to take part in a performance of Brundibar.

Brundibar actors by Barbara Ehrmann
The children were touched by the experience

As Ms Hoefer points out, the children of the camp would no doubt have looked on performances of Brundibar as rare moments of sheer pleasure in what was otherwise a very bleak existence.

The young performers at St Konrad's certainly seem to have been deeply affected by the experience of working on the piece.

"It is very difficult for us to imagine what it must have been like. I felt I had to take part in this opera to have a better understanding of what happened," said Marc, aged 14, who sings the part of a policeman.

"One mustn't forget the things that happened in Auschwitz and other concentration camps," said Fabian, aged 15, who sings the part of Pepicek.

In the opera, Pepicek and his sister Aninka defy the curmudgeonly old organ-grinder Brundibar and insist they have the same right to sing their songs as he has to grind out his tunes.

Tyranny defeated

Brundibar tries to bully the children into silence but meets his match when three kindly animals - a dog, a cat and a sparrow - come to their assistance and prove that tyranny can be defeated if people have the courage to rise up against it.

The opera was performed in Czech in the camp, so one can only assume that the thinly-veiled symbolism of the story passed the Nazis by and that they simply took it to be an innocently jolly piece.

Brundibar actors by Barbara Ehrmann
The piece shows how good can prevail

Its optimistic message is reinforced by the catchy melodies, jazzy rhythms and orchestration.

The music was "modern" for its time - Krasa was one of pre-war Czechoslovakia's avant-garde composers. But it is still tuneful and immediately appealing.

The first Terezin performance took place on 23 September 1943 and was followed by 54 more over the next year or so.

The cast was constantly depleted by transports to Auschwitz, and the places of those who had been taken away were filled by newcomers to the camp.

After the Red Cross inspection visit in the summer of 1944, the Nazis decided that Terezin had served its purpose.

The frequency of transports to Auschwitz was stepped up, and on 16 October 1944 Krasa's own turn came.

He was sent to the gas chamber on his arrival at the death camp two days later.

Only a handful of the original performers of his opera survived.

BBC Monitoring selects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaus abroad.

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