|Greta Klingsberg (middle row, second from right in pinafore |
dress) and the cast of Brundibár at Theresienstadt concentration
camp in Czechoslovakia.
miércoles, 11 de febrero de 2015
The children’s opera Brundibár is a fairytale with a fairly familiar message: good triumphs over evil. But place the work in the context of Theresienstadt, the Nazi concentration camp in Czechoslovakia where it was performed between 1943 and 1944, and that message is thrown into much sharper relief. The resemblance to Hitler of Brundibár, the evil organ-grinder who claims the town square as his own, was obvious to adult audiences. But not, insists its lead singer, to its cast.
When she was 13, concentration camp prisoner Greta Klingsberg was thrilled to be cast as the lead in an opera – even though her audience were SS guards.
“The grownups interpreted it as this bad man who bullies everyone,” says Greta Klingsberg, who played lead character Aninka. “But the children never did. To us, Brundibár was the most popular character. He wore a moustache and, when he sang, it went up and down. We found him very funny.”
The opera, by the Jewish-Czech composer Hans Krása who was an inmate at Theresienstadt, tells the story of a brother and sister who try their hand at busking in the square, only to be chased away by the garishly dressed and talentless musician Brundibár (colloquial Czech for a bumblebee). So the siblings hatch a plot to turn him out. “At the end, when he’s thrown out, we welcomed him back on stage with open arms. He was one of us, our lovable Brundibár. It was not for us to see a political message.”
The opera provided a fantasy world for the children of Theresienstadt, even if the camp’s cultural life – due to the high number of prominent artists from central Europe imprisoned there – was cynically promoted by the Nazis for propaganda purposes.
“As a child, you identify with everything you do,” says Klingsberg, who was 13 at the time, with sole responsibility for her younger sister, her parents having escaped from Czechoslovakia to Palestine. “So when I was on stage, I had a school, a cat, and ice cream. All these things we hadn’t seen for years all of a sudden became quite real. It was wonderful. These were the moments of normal childhood for me, and for all of the children who participated in this opera. That’s why it was so special. In the camp, they stopped calling me Greta and called me Aninka.”
Having been chosen for the part because of her perfect pitch, and having already proved herself in other productions in the camp of Verdi’s Requiem, Smetana’s The Bartered Bride and Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Klingsberg performed it more than 50 times. There was a special show in 1944 for gullible representatives of the Red Cross who came to investigate the camp’s living conditions. Theresienstadt was turned into a “Potemkin village” for the visit, the most ailing prisoners having been deported to Auschwitz beforehand to reduce overcrowding. The Red Cross believed everything they were told and, on the back of their visit, a propaganda film was made called The Führer Gives the Jews a City, in which Klingsberg also featured – a tall pensive girl in a pinafore with a mane of dark hair, singing her heart out.
“I only found out I was in the film about 10 years ago,” says Klingsberg. A friend was visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust centre in Jerusalem, “and spotted the bit in which I appear. ‘How do you know it’s me?’ I asked. ‘Big eyes, big nose, now you just have a few more wrinkles,’ he replied. So I went to see it for myself and was really proud I hadn’t faked the singing for the camera.”
She remembers all the children being told to recite the line: “Uncle Rahm, sardines again?!” Rahm was their SS custodian. “I don’t know why – probably to show that we couldn’t have had it that bad if we were complaining about food.” The relish and speed with which the cast downed the sandwiches they had been given for the filming might have been comical were it not such a poignant reminder of how they were being starved. “We ate them so fast that they had to give us more, because they couldn’t film as fast as we ate. It was luxury – bread and margarine – out of the blue”.
Hope for more of the same kind of treatment was short-lived because, immediately after filming, all the cast and crew were loaded on to cattle trains and deported to Auschwitz. Most of the children, the musicians, the composer Krása and his director Kurt Gerron, were gassed. In the random selection process, Klingsberg was chosen for slave labour; her sister Trude, for death in the gas chambers, though she only discovered this much later. Klingsberg spent months in a series of camps before being returned to Theresienstadt, where she was liberated by the Soviet army in May 1945.
Klingsberg is now 85 and living in Jerusalem, where for years she enjoyed a successful operatic career. But Brundibár, she says, has never left her: she has translated the libretto into Hebrew, and is often called on to advise on productions around the world, most recently in Kosovo and Greece. “Once, years later, a woman came up to me when I was visiting Czechoslovakia and said, ‘I was in Theresienstadt with you. I was so happy once when you were sick and I was asked to sing your role. Thank you for that.’ We had a great laugh about it.”