Ela Weissberger greeted the cast of the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre's production of Brundibár on Tuesday afternoon. "I was very lucky to be cast as the cat in this opera when I was 11 years old," she said. She was very lucky, because she was in a Nazi concentration camp at the time.
Weissberger lived with her family in the Sudetenland, a part of the former Czechoslovakia mostly populated by ethnic Germans. Her family ran a porcelain business, but her father became a target of the Nazi regime when he publicly spoke out against Adolph Hitler.
"He didn't believe that the Germans would take away the Sudetenland," Weissberger, now 80, said during an interview before the Brundibár rehearsal. "When they opened the Gestapo, they picked him up and we never saw him again."
Her family became a target of Hitler's forces, and they were soon taken to Theresienstadt, in Czechoslovakia.
They were greeted with the sight of men hanging in the middle of the camp. While there, they endured cold, starvation and the constant threat of the gas chamber.
One controversy she recalled was some survivors' assertions that they ate grass for sustenance.
"There was no grass to eat," she says. "When spring came and grass started to grow, they cut it down."
Some of the children eventually found an artistic refuge in Brundibár, a short opera by composer Hans Krása and lyricist Adolf Hoffmeister that had premiered in Prague in 1942. The score was smuggled into Theresienstadt, which became known as something of an artists' camp. Teachers got permission to present the opera with the children, who got lost in the story of two children who have to take on a mean organ grinder so they can sing to raise money to buy milk for their mother.
The organ grinder, named Brundibár, became a symbol of Hitler, and the opera's final victory song gave them hope.
Weissberger remembers several cast members with clear aspirations to become actors and musicians. But most did not have the chance.
There were 55 performances of Brundibár at Theresienstadt, including a performance for a delegation from the International Red Cross that came to inspect the camp and one that was filmed for a Nazi propaganda film.
After the final performance, many in the cast were sent to the gas chamber. In many equations, Weissberger defied the odds: Of the 141,000 prisoners at Theresienstadt, 21,000 survived. Of 15,000 children in the camp, only 132 survived. In her family, she was one of just four survivors.
It wasn't until 1965 that Weissberger, who lives in Tappan, N.Y., became aware of other Brundibár performances. Since then, she has been involved in numerous productions of the piece, often telling the story of the camp and the opera to groups in the areas where it's being performed.
In 2003, author Tony Kushner and illustrator Maurice Sendak created a picture-book version of Brundibár that became the basis for a new production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and other stages.
Weissberger also has been featured in documentary films and stories on 60 Minutes and the History channel. In 2008, she teamed with author Susan Goldman Rubin to write The Cat With the Yellow Star: Coming of Age in Terezin.
"I really wanted young people and children to know what happened — what helped us to survive," Weissberger says. "Even today, I feel I am not doing it only for people, I'm doing it for myself to remind people that I had such good friends who cannot speak for themselves, and Brundibár became a memorial for those that couldn't survive."