It was a truly special performance. A school ensemble from Germany took the stage at Riga Jewish Community with a fairy-tale opera that once was performed by imprisoned Jewish children in the Theresienstadt ghetto during the Second World War.
Fifty-five students and teachers from the Gymnasium Wülfrath in North Rhine-Westphalia presented the work November 8 in the festive hall of the Jewish community building.
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 in the Holocaust.
Brundibár was composed in 1939 by the Czech-Jewish composer Hans Krása (1899-1944) with lyrics by the 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 supposed to give the imprisoned children back a piece of normality and joy – with footage from it being also used for a Nazi propaganda film. But the cast continually changed as the participants were deported to concentration camps during the Holocaust.
Rīga was the destination of the first transports from Theresienstadt, which is also often referred to as Terezin.
"Although on the one hand Brundibár is music abused by mass murderers, its lasting up to our time on the other hand illustrates the victory of humanity over the inhumanity of the Nazis," a tenth-grade student from Wülfrath told the audience before the performance in Rīga.
Among approximately 200 spectators were students from the Rīga Simon Dubnov Jewish Secondary School and members of the Jewish community in Latvia, as well the German ambassador to Latvia, Christian Heldt, and high representatives of the embassies of Israel and the Czech Republic.
The opera tells the story of a fatherless poor sister and brother named Aninka and Pepíček who need to buy fresh milk for their sick mother. Seeing the town’s organ grinder Brundibár making money on the streets with his music, they also decide to sing in the market square to raise the much-needed funds. But Brundibár mocks the children and chases them away. However, together with a fearless sparrow, a keen cat, and a wise dog, and other children of the town, they are able to chase him away in turn, and start busking to earn money.
Brundibár then tries to steal their earrings, but the children of the town band together and manage to overcome the bully.
"The performance was something very special and so touching. It was really a wonderful experience to be in that hall and seeing all of these young people on stage, wholeheartedly playing and singing together," said Gita Umanovska, Executive Director of the Council of Jewish Communities in Latvia, after the performance.
The opera contains obvious symbolism, but has no overt references to the conditions under which it was written and performed. At once joyous and poignant, Umanovska applauded the musical performance as a new, contemporary way of commemorating the past for young people that is also looking to the future.
The school’s headmaster Joachim Busch said he considered it a "great honour and pleasure" to perform at the Rīga Jewish community with a project that in many respects has been a big challenge for the school's orchestra and choir.
"For all of us, but especially for the young people here, this invitation is an enormous symbol of being bonded together," said the teacher, who was himself also involved in the play. Busch took over the role of Brundibár in a production with a large cast that featured many small solo parts. And even if some of the young voices came over more strongly and clearly than others, all shared a winning vitality and joy that took over the enthusiastically applauding audience.
The first and only staging in Rīga will not be repeated but the German school ensemble plans another performance of Brundibár in February 2023 in Israel.
There they also want to meet up with Zvi Cohen who in May 1943 together with his parents was deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto and played his harmonica several times during the original performances of Brundibár. Cohen was an eyewitness of the Holocaust and has been one of the few surviving children of Theresienstadt, as he said in a short video clip that was shown ahead of the performance at the Riga Jewish
The initiative for the performance of the school ensemble in Rīga goes to Klaus-Peter Rex. The retired pastor and former teacher of the Wülfrath Gymnasium has a long-standing cooperation with the Jewish Community in Latvia.
For almost 20 years now, Rex has been tidying up Jewish cemeteries across the Baltic State together with young people from Germany and other countries. He also took the stage to perform a Jewish song at the end of the evening. Before flying back home the next day, the German schoolchildren paid also a visit to the
Salaspils memorial on the outskirts of Riga and went to see the forest of Rumbula, where one of the largest mass-murders of Jews in the Second World War was carried out during Nazi rule in Latvia.
The school children’s trip to Rīga was supported by the Office of the Anti-Semitism Commissioner for the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger. In a statement the former German Minister of Justice called the performance of the opera in connection with the history of the play "a reminder of our responsibility to continue to fight daily anti-Semitism in its various forms, with courage.“
The Holocaust in Latvia
Latvia became a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2004.
For an overview of the Holocaust in Latvia, we recommend the virtual exhibition of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia which provides a detailed and thought-provoking explanation of what happened in those dark days including the liquidation of the Rīga ghetto and details of the Nazi camps located on Latvian soil.
This piece from our archive traces the events linked to the Rīga Ghetto.
We would also point you towards this short documentary from LTV, which shows all-too-clearly how Hitler's genocidal mania filtered down to small-town Latvia, all but wiping out a vibrant and important section of Latvian society.