Czech Children’s Opera ‘Brundibar’ a Tragic Holocaust Memory

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By Pat Launer

The year was 1943. The Jewish composer Hans Krása was already incarcerated in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in occupied Czechoslovakia. He gathered together the children who had performed his opera, “Brundibár” (the name comes from a Czech colloquialism for a bumblebee) when they were in a Jewish orphanage in Prague.

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After 55 successful performances of the musical fable in the camp, the Führer requested a special presentation of “Brundibár” in 1944, for representatives of the Red Cross who came to inspect living conditions at Theresienstadt. What the Red Cross didn’t know was that much of what they saw during their visit was a show and a sham, and one of the reasons the camp seemed so calm and comfortable, besides the massive renovations completed just before the visit, was that many of the residents had been deported to the Auschwitz death camp, in order to reduce crowding.

Later that year, this “Brundibár” production was filmed for a Nazi propaganda movie, “Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt” (The Führer Gives the Jews a City). Immediately after the filming, all the participants in the Theresienstadt production were herded into cattle trucks and transported to Auschwitz. Most were gassed upon arrival, including the children, the composer, the director and the musicians.

A rehearsal for “Brundibár” at Warren Walker Middle School.

“The history of the piece is horrific,” says Diana Dumelle, founding director of Bodhi Tree Concerts, which is presenting a one-night-only production of “Brundibár” on June 11. “But the piece itself is charming, innocent and lovely.”

The plot has elements of fairytales such as Hansel and Gretel. Aninka (Annette, in English) and Pepíček (Little Joe) are a fatherless sister and brother. Their mother is ill, and the doctor tells them she needs milk to recover. Since they have no money, they decide to sing in the marketplace to raise the needed funds. But the evil organ grinder Brundibár steals their cash and chases them away. Their protesting voices are too small to be heard, but three smart and fearless animals — a sparrow, cat and dog — join with the children of the town to get the money back, chase Brundibár away, and sing a victory song in the market square.

“The victory song at the end is what the Nazis filmed for the propaganda,” says Dumelle. “Amazingly, the Nazis never translated the opera from the original Czech (we’re singing it in English). There were subversive aspects of the concentration camp production which the Nazis failed to see.”

The malevolent, mustachioed Brundibár seemed to be a stand-in for Hitler, and the communal raising of voices represented an uprising against injustice.

“The moral is about working together and banding together so good can triumph over evil. All those voices cannot be silenced,” says Dumelle.”We’re doing this to honor the memory of those children.”

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She’s doing it in a big way. The five year-old Bodhi Tree Concerts was founded (with her husband, singer Walter Dumelle) to present “random acts of kindness” as music events, using exclusively local artists, “to inspire community engagement, philanthropy and enlightenment through music.” For every production, they partner with and donate to a charity. This time, they’ve chosen to give 100% of the proceeds to  the Jewish Family Service program called SOS, Serving Older Holocaust Survivors.

“It’s a perfect fit,” says Dumelle. “Some of these survivors are struggling to live with limited finances; they may not have family in the area, and need assistance. JFS is an army of good; their work is inspirational.”

A highlight of the evening will be the introduction presented by Holocaust survivor and La Jolla resident Edith Eger. Born in Hungary, she was a teenager in 1944 when her family was sent to Auschwitz. Her parents lost their lives. It was her artistic skill, her ability to dance, that saved her. She repeatedly entertained her captors, including the monstrous Dr. Mengele. Toward the end of the war, she was sent to Austria. In May 1945, an American soldier noticed a hand moving slightly among a pile of dead bodies. She was miraculously saved. Eger went on to become a clinical psychologist and in-demand public speaker. Her many inspiring appearances include The Oprah Winfrey Show.

To ensure that those who most need to see the opera will be there, Bodhi Tree is giving away 200 seats to the performance, for schoolchildren and seniors.

The 42 performers onstage (24 singer/actors, 18 musicians) range in age from 8 to 18, and come from music classes in three different schools: Warren Walker Middle School in Mission Valley, which also brings choral director and conductor Michael Morgan; the Language Academy, a magnet school in San Diego Unified; and the string orchestra from La Jolla Country Day School, directed by Joan Diener. Shirley Johnston directs.

“It’s really a staged concert,” Dumelle explains. “A concert with movement. The kids take costume pieces out of a trunk and become the characters. For most of the performers, it’s their first opera. It’s a challenging score, but the opera is short, about 40 minutes.

“I love the music,” Dumelle continues. “It’s innocent, charming, old-fashioned. Some of the songs are straight-up folk tunes. There’s a lullaby. The piano (played by adult concert pianist Brian Verhoye), accordion (played by multi-instrumentalist Mark Danisovszky), along with the strings, guitar, flute, oboe and clarinet, are really evocative, and set the mood. Brundibár’s music is very militaristic and angry, the complete opposite of the rest of the score.”

Several free performances at the schools served as ‘previews,’ Dumelle expects the mainstage performance, in the beautiful Irwin Jacobs Qualcomm Hall, to sell out.

“This is not just for kids,” she asserts. “It’s for everybody. There’s so much happening in our country and in the world now. It’s so important to combat hatred and racism of any kind. We hope we can honor the children that died presenting this opera. To do them justice — and never let this happen again. It’s important to remember.”


  • Bodhi Tree Concerts’ presentation of “Brundibar” will be one night only: Saturday, June 11 at 7 p.m., at Irwin Jacobs Qualcomm Hall, 5775 Morehouse Drive in Sorrento Valley.
  • Tickets ($10-$20) are available at bodhitreeconcerts.org.

Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.

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