Brundibár – the child opera that premiered in the Terezín ghetto 75 years ago

Brundibár, photo: Public Domain

The Prague composer of Jewish descent, Hans Krása, wrote Brundibár using Adolf Hoffmeister’s libreto as early as 1938. Sadly however, the opera only became famous once it premiered in Terezín on September 23rd 1943. Krása himself studied the opera with small jewish children after being deported to Terezín. Here it was performed more than 50 times.

Brundibár,  photo: Public Domain
Unfortunately, the Nazis abused the noble undertaking for their own propaganda. In the spring of 1944, as Terezín was getting ready for a visit by the International Red Cross, which was to evaluate the camp’s function as an “exemplary” ghetto, Brundibár was chosen as the show that was to be performed in front of the visiting committee.

The stage was moved outside the ghetto, into a so called “Sokolovna”, a designation used for training halls used by the Czech Sokol movement. Meanwhile, architect, František Zelenka, who was also in the ghetto at the time, received material to improve the stage and costumes. The final scenes of Brundibár were also shot in the summer of 1944 for the propaganda film Theresienstad, which was then called “The Fuhrer has given the Jews a city). Shortly thereafter the opera stopped being performed. Most of the children along with the author of the composition, Hans Krása, were transferred to the death camps.

Plot of the opera

Aninka’s and Pepíček’s mum is sick and she needs milk to get better. The children do not have any money, but they get an idea of how to make some when they see Mr. Brundibár, who makes a living by playing a barrel organ at the market. Brundibár however, is mean and shouts over the children. In the night, animals walk out of posters to come and help the children and help them sing over the barrel organ player the next day. The children get some money, but the villain Brundibár takes their earnings away. In the end the children find him and get back what is rightfully theirs.

Adolf Hoffmeister’s final verse was: “Who likes mummy and daddy and our native home is our friend and can play with us.” For the performance in the Terezín ghetto, Erik A. Saudek changed this ending to: “Who likes the law, stands by it and is not afraid of anything…”. This final verse became something of an anthem in Terezín. Actors and viewers alike knew very well what these words in combination with the innocent children’s fight with evil Brundibár mean.