Lined up on a bare stage, dramatically lighted against a black backdrop, 36 children ranging in age from 6 to 17 step forward one by one. They fix their gaze on a distant point and honor youngsters who sang for their lives in Nazi Germany.
They do so not only by performing the same opera the children of the Theresienstadt camp performed in wartime Czechoslovakia, but by calling them by their names rather than their Nazi-assigned numbers.
Juliana Reinharz, age 12.
Harry Federer, age 9.
Jirina Kahn, age 7.
On Sunday a young cast from Philadelphia's International Opera Theater will open a weeklong run of Brundibar and the Children of Theresienstadt at International House's Ibrahim Theater, timed to encompass Wednesday's International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
This production, the Opera Theater's third of the piece, can be traced back to 2003, when artistic director Karen Saillant came across a newspaper article about the history of Brundibar, which tells the story of a brother and sister trying to earn money for milk for their ailing mother by singing in the square.
They are thwarted by the evil organ grinder Brundibar - whose cruel nature and mustachioed face suggest Adolf Hitler - until the town's children unite to defeat him and sing a lullaby that moves all who hear it to give coins.
First performed in the early years of the war by children at a Jewish orphanage in Prague, Brundibar was composed by Hans Krasa, son of a Czech father and a German Jewish mother. By 1943, both he and most of the cast had been sent to Theresienstadt, where he reconstructed the score for the children to perform.
Saillant was enthralled.
"That children had performed an opera 55 times in Theresienstadt overwhelmed me," she said. "That this had actually happened and I didn't know anything about it propelled me to find out everything about that moment."
Pavel Deutschmann, age 11.
Inge Pfeffer, age 17.
Hanus Mahler, age 12.
Saillant went to the Holocaust Oral History Archives at Gratz College in Elkins Park, where she learned that the Nazis gave Theresienstadt (in Czech, Terezin) the facade of a tranquil ghetto to hide the labor and transit camp it actually was.
About 35 miles northwest of Prague in what is now the Czech Republic, Theresienstadt was filled with artists and musicians. In propaganda, Hitler billed it as the city he built for Jews; its amenities, seen in a notorious Nazi propaganda film, included soccer matches and community gardens.
"There was music, visual arts, education going on in children's barracks," says Josey G. Fisher, director of the Gratz Holocaust archives. But, she notes, "there was no illusion on the part of the residents that they were in a paradise."
The illusion succeeded with others, however. The Nazis allowed a contingent from the Danish Red Cross and International Committee of the Red Cross to visit Theresienstadt in 1944. Seeing only what guides showed them, they asked few questions, enjoyed a performance of Brundibar, and left with a favorable impression - unaware that thousands had died there from disease and the effects of hard labor or that, shortly before their arrival, buildings had been renovated and gardens planted.
Most sinister of all, the Nazis had made the ghetto seem spacious by deporting 7,000 - "the old, the sick, people who did not show well," says Fisher - to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. Ultimately, most of the 140,000 people who passed through Theresienstadt died at Auschwitz, including Krasa and all but about 100 of the 10,000 residents younger than 14.
Hilda Freidman, age 10.
Valter Eisner, age 12.
Herta Kohn, age 15.
The Brundibar run ended after 55 performances, not because it was no longer popular - residents had memorized the piece - but because there were not enough children left to stage it.
For the International Opera Theater's version, Saillant wrote a story line, describing the children and the ghetto, that bookends the opera itself. Her material came from transcripts of survivor interviews she found at Gratz.
The production's narrator, 12-year-old Anna Rudegeair of Ardmore, sets the scene with her opening speech:
"Do you realize what Brundibar means to us? You walk through Theresienstadt - the streets are jammed. People can barely steer clear of one another, and all you hear is Brundibar. . . . Everything else is forgotten and for a short time our lives are filled with lyrics and music."
And in Saillant's epilogue, the cast members speak the names of the Theresienstadt children with whom they have been matched by gender and age.
Before the first production, in 2003 (the second was last year), Gratz's Fisher was concerned that Saillant's approach - bracketing the fanciful tale with the bleak reality of its context - might have a negative impact on the young actors.
Then she spoke with some of them, and their parents. In the end, "I was impressed with what Karen did. They weren't just given the parts - there was discussion, kids were given an opportunity to talk about how they felt doing it."
Anna Rudegeair and her sisters Mary Rose and Rachel are in their second consecutive year of Brundibar. Just before last year's run, their father died in an auto accident. As they prayed for him in church, their mother, Karen, recalled last week, they also prayed for the children of Theresienstadt. Mary Rose, 8, put all her dolls on her bed, then held them up one at a time, calling them by the names of Theresienstadt children.
Jordan Cherry, 10, who plays the sister looking for milk, was assigned to say the name of Alexandra Schultz. "When I say it," she says, "I think, 'This is a girl tortured by Hitler.' I feel pretty bad" - though she adds that she loves being in the production: "It feels like you're on top of the world."
Dillon Rebock, 14, of Cherry Hill acknowledges that he enjoys his role as evil Brundibar. Not only is it fun playing a villain, but as a Jew, he likes the fact that the symbolic Hitler is defeated.
He says he searched the Internet for a photo of his assigned child, Andrej Reinharz, but couldn't find anything.
So instead, he says, "I picture myself. I'm hoping he could have been an actor, not shy, with the ability to speak and have his voice heard."
Brundibar and the Children of Theresienstadt
Daytime performances Sunday through Jan. 31 at International House, 3701 Chestnut St. Tickets: $8-$10. 215-923-3623 or www.internationaloperatheater.org
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