By Lou Mancinelli
More than 70 years ago, Nazi soldiers began a systematic, bureaucratic rounding up of non-Aryan descendants living in Western Europe and sending them to concentration camps. The Nazi party believed the Aryan race to be superior to others and was responsible for cleansing the earth of its “inferior races.” Historians contend more than six million Jews as well as countless millions of Slavic people and other ethnicities, as well as gays, liberals, artists, professors, activists, Socialists, Communists, etc., were murdered.
In tribute to the memory and struggle of those lost, five Mt. Airy children — Lucce Guido, Levi Veleanu, Joanna Steinig, Neva Guido and Rachel Steinig — will perform in “Brundibár and the Children of Thereseinstadt,” a production of the opera “Brundibár” originally performed by children in the Thereseinstadt concentration camp located in the modern day Czech Republic (formerly Czechoslovakia), through March 6 at the Ibrahim Theater at University City’s International House, 3701 Chestnut St.
“We’re bringing their names forward and telling people what happened,” said 11-year-old Mt. Airy resident Rachel Steinig, a home-schooled student who narrates the play directed by Karen Saillant, an internationally acclaimed opera director known for bringing artists together from throughout the world to Teatro degli Avvaloranti, Città della Pieve, (Umbria) Italy, to create world premiere Italian operas based on texts of William Shakespeare.
“It celebrates the power of music to help those performing it overcome, uplift and become transcended in the midst of tragedy,” said Saillant, a Center City resident who was born and raised in Philadelphia. “Not just the performers but the people in the audience as well.”
The original opera was written by Jewish Czech composer Hans Krása for a political competition in 1938, according to Wikipedia. But the onset of World War II and the forcing of Jewish and other peoples into camps canceled the production. While in the Thereseinstadt camp, Krása revised the opera to be performed by children in a Jewish orphanage in Prague.
In short, the opera is based on the storyline of two children who venture out to buy milk for their mother. But the children have no money. The children chance upon Brundibár in the market square, a man who plays the organ for money. But when the children start to sing, Brundibár chases them away. The story is about the children’s struggle to sing in the marketplace.
“Just by itself it’s a folk play,” said Rachel’s father Sam Steinig, “but this performance puts it into context. At the end, everyone is happy and clapping, but then this somber music plays, and each child comes forward and recites the name of a child the same age, and the same gender, who died in Thereseinstadt … I was reading reviews, and one said it punches you in the stomach. It really does.”
For Steinig, whose own parents were Holocaust survivors — his mother was provided fake Aryan papers by a friend, and his grandfather and uncle pried open a loose window and jumped out of a freight train heading to Auschwitz — the performance was especially uplifting.
“But it doesn’t matter if your parents are Holocaust survivors,” he said. “If you have a hope for the human race, the performance sticks with you.”
Brundibár was performed more than 50 times in the camp itself by children ranging from ages six to 18, often to packed crowds in the barracks, according to Saillant, who researched the opera and camp four years ago at the Holocaust Oral History Archive at Philadelphia’s Gratz College before her first performance of the show. She said the Nazis kept meticulous records of their actions.
“I have a lot of experience working with children,” said Saillant, 66, the director at the International Opera House who has sung and trained musicians at all levels for 50 years. “I find them so inspirational … It’s important we remember and teach the children to do everything they can to find peaceful resolutions to situations.”
In addition to the opera, Saillant has been commissioned by many museums and organizations including The Smithsonian Institute, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, and in 2007 by the Philadelphia Orchestra to create and direct a new theatrical representation of “The Pulcinella Suite” by Igor Stravinsky. It was for their family concert series in celebration of the 150th anniversary of The Academy of Music in Philadelphia. Saillant utilized her research to add testimony from Thereseinstadt inmates as well as music performed in the camp to the show.
In 2004, while casting another opera a friend sent Saillant a review of “Brundibár,” and she “dropped everything. I thought it was so important, this story about these children who sang songs and later were taken to Auschwitz. I’ve always been interested in history and the message it can offer to those of us willing to listen. It’s not so much to educate as it is to inspire people to remember.”
Of the 15,000 children who passed through Thereseinstadt, only 100 survived. “I think it’s amazing when everyone says the name of a child who died, and then we sing a song about going home,” said Rachel Steinig, whose sister, Joanna, was in the chorus. “It’s powerful.”
“Brundibár” will be performed March 3 and 4, 10 a.m., and March 6, 3 p.m. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org, visit internationaloperatheater.org or call 215-545-4385 or 215-909-4791.