German schoolchildren perform “Brundibar” at Rīga Jewish community / Article

It was a really special performance. A German school ensemble took the stage at the Riga Jewish Community with a fairy tale opera that was once performed by Jewish children imprisoned in the Theresienstadt ghetto during World War II.

Fifty-five students and teachers from the Gymnasium Wülfrath in North Rhine-Westphalia presented the work on November 8 in the community hall of the Jewish community building.

The children’s play Brundibár is a short musical theatrical performance about solidarity and the triumph of good over evil. The performance on the eve of the 84th anniversary of the Nazi “Kristallnacht” pogrom on the night of November 9, 1938 was intended to commemorate the children murdered during the Holocaust.

Brundibár was composed in 1939 by Czech-Jewish composer Hans Krása (1899-1944) with lyrics by librettist Adolf Hoffmeister. The opera was performed dozens of times by Jewish children held in the Theresienstadt ghetto in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.

The performances were meant to give the imprisoned children some normalcy and joy again – footage of them also being used for a Nazi propaganda film. But the cast continually changed as participants were deported to concentration camps during the Holocaust.

Rīga was the destination of early transport from Theresienstadt, which is also often called Terezin.

“Although on the one hand Brundibár is music abused by mass murderers, on the other hand its duration to the present day illustrates the victory of humanity over the inhumanity of the Nazis,” said a tenth grader year of Wülfrath to the public before the performance. in Riga.

Among around 200 spectators were students from the Rīga Simon Dubnov Jewish Secondary School and members of Latvia’s Jewish community, as well as the German Ambassador to Latvia, Christian Heldt, and senior officials from the embassies of Latvia. Israel and the Czech Republic.

The opera tells the story of a poor fatherless sister and brother named Aninka and Pepíček who have to buy fresh milk for their sick mother. Seeing the town organ player Brundibár making money on the streets with his music, they also decide to sing in the market square to raise much needed funds. But Brundibár mocks the children and chases them away. However, together with a fearless sparrow, a lively cat, a wise dog and other town children, they are able to hunt him in turn and start playing for money.

Brundibár then tries to steal their earrings, but the town children band together and manage to defeat the bully.

“The performance was something very special and so touching. It was really a wonderful experience to be in this room and see all these young people on stage, playing and singing together wholeheartedly,” said Gita Umanovska, executive director of the Jewish Council. Communities in Latvia, after the performance.

The opera contains obvious symbolism, but has no overt reference to the conditions under which it was written and performed. Both joyful and poignant, Umanovska applauded the musical performance as a new, contemporary way to commemorate the past for young people that also looks to the future.

The school’s director, Joachim Busch, said he considered it a “great honor and a pleasure” to perform in the Jewish community of Rīga with a project which, in many ways, was a great challenge for the school orchestra and choir.

“For all of us, but especially for the young people here, this invitation is a huge symbol of solidarity,” said the teacher, himself also involved in the play. Busch reprized the role of Brundibár in a production with a large cast that featured many small solo parts. And while some of the young voices spoke louder and clearer than others, all shared a winning vitality and joy that engulfed the cheering audience.

The first and only staging in Rīga will not be repeated but the German school ensemble is planning another performance of Brundibár in February 2023 in Israel.

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There they also want to meet Zvi Cohen who, in May 1943 with his parents, was deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto and played his harmonica several times during Brundibár’s original performances. Cohen was an eyewitness to the Holocaust and was one of Theresienstadt’s few surviving children, as he said in a short video clip that was shown ahead of the performance at the Riga Jewish

Klaus-Peter Rex took the initiative to represent the Rīga School Ensemble. The retired pastor and former gymnasium teacher Wülfrath has a long-standing cooperation with the Jewish community in Latvia.

For nearly 20 years now, Rex has been tidying Jewish cemeteries across the Baltic state with young people from Germany and other countries. He also took the stage to perform a late-night Jewish song. Before returning home the next day, the German schoolchildren also paid a visit to the
Salaspils memorial on the outskirts of Riga and went to see Rumbula Forest, where one of the biggest mass murders of Jews in World War II took place during the Nazi regime in Latvia.

The schoolchildren’s trip to Rīga was supported by the office of the North Rhine-Westphalia state commissioner for anti-Semitism, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger. In a statement, the former German justice minister called the performance of the opera in connection with the story of the play “a reminder of our responsibility to continue to fight anti-Semitism in its various forms on a daily basis, with courage”.

The Holocaust in Latvia

Latvia became a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2004.

Holocaust victims in Latvia are commemorated on January 27, July 4 and November 30 each year.

For insight into the Holocaust in Latvia, we recommend the Latvian Occupation Museum virtual exhibit which provides a detailed and thought-provoking explanation of what happened in those dark days, including the liquidation of the Riga ghetto and details about the Nazis. camps located on Latvian soil.

This piece from our archives traces the events related to the Rīga ghetto.

We would also like to direct you to this short LTV documentary, which shows all too clearly how Hitler’s genocidal mania spread to small towns in Latvia, virtually wiping out a vibrant and important part of Latvian society.

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James R. Rhodes