By Daniel Massey
Students at PS 99 in Kew Gardens put on an extravagant production of the children’s opera “Brundibar” last Thursday, profoundly aware that while they performed the work by choice, children in Nazi concentration camps were compelled to do so.
Clad in colorful costumes they had designed themselves, 150 fifth-graders, coached by members of the citywide arts education program Inside Broadway, acted out the opera that was written by Jewish Czech Hans Krasa in 1938.
The work was performed more than 50 times at the concentration camp in Terezin, about 40 miles north of Prague, during 1943 and 1944. The performances were used by Nazis in part to trick outsiders into thinking the Jews were being well-treated.
“Brundibar” is the story of a brother and sister who go into town looking for ways to make money to buy milk for their sick mother. The two decide to imitate the organ grinder, Brundibar, who plays and sings for coins. They are drowned out by the greedy musician until the neighborhood cats, dogs and sparrows help them hatch a plan to out-sing him.
While the animals distract Brundibar, 300 village children join the brother and sister in song. Their united voice is so strong that the town’s people begin throwing coins their way. Brundibar steals the money, but after a chase with the help of the animals, it is returned.
In the PS 99 production, five classes used the entire school auditorium as a stage, with the student performers dressed as cats, dogs and sparrows flocking down the aisles from every direction. Since October, the students have worked with Inside Broadway staff members to both stage the story of the triumph of good over evil and learn its historical context.
“Before we started rehearsals, they went and saw the Holocaust museum to learn the history of concentration camps and the story of Brundibar,” said director and stage manager Warren Friedman. “Then we jumped right in.”
The students talked with Holocaust survivors at the Holocaust Memorial and Educational Center of Nassau County, and read “Daniel’s Story,” a child’s personal account of living under Nazi oppression.
On Feb. 25, they are scheduled to meet Ela Stein-Weissberger, a Holocaust survivor who sang in the opera as a child. In April, Stein-Weissberger will lead the students in a reprise of the victory song at the end of a special performance of “Brundibar” at Hofstra University on Long Island to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Following the opera, she will speak at a memorial service.
The opera’s inspirational message of hope and solidarity defeating tyranny is said to have provided a glimpse of light for those children like Stein-Weissberger who performed it in Terezin. Of 144,000 Jews restricted to the Terezin camp, 33,000 died there and 88,000 were shipped to Auschwitz to be gassed. Only 100 of 15,000 children survived.
The history lessons have made the presentation of the opera “more meaningful” to the students, said PS 99 Principal Judith Ibrahimi.
“We’ve seen how other people lived in different places and how they’ve been treated and how prejudiced people can be to people who are different,” said one fifth-grade girl who played a cat in the opera.
Ibrahimi said the play taught the students that one voice can be powerful, but that it can be more powerful “when lots of voices come together to express a single thought.”
Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.