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Cover of BRUNDIBAR by Maurice Sendak and Tony Kushner
Arts and Culture:
Maurice Sendak
More on This Story:
BRUNDIBAR and the Children of Terezín

Maurice Sendak was stunned not too long ago when he listened to the CD of a children's opera written by a Jewish composer in Czechoslovakia just before the Nazis overran his country. Sendak loves music — Mozart and Schubert especially — but he had never heard anything as sweet and haunting as this.

He was just as stunned to learn that the opera had been performed 55 times by the children in one of Hitler's concentration camps before most of them were sent to die in the gas chamber, along with the composer.

Sendak took the story to his friend, the playwright Tony Kushner, who had won the Pulitzer Prize for his own dark drama of love and suffering called ANGELS IN AMERICA. And with Kushner writing the libretto and text and Sendak painting the pictures and designing the set, they produced first the opera and then the picture book…BRUNDIBAR. Learn more about this history of BRUNDIBAR below.

Women and children liberated from the  concentration camp for Jewish prisoners at Lambach, Austria, National Archive, NWDNS-111-SC-266491

The catalog of indignities suffered by Jewish children began early. Many will remember the diary entry in which Anne Frank recalls being forced to give up her bicycle. In the mid-1930s Jewish children were expelled from German schools. In addition, they were banned from many public spaces, and everyday activities like going to the park or going swimming were forbidden — practices that were carried into the territories occupied by Germany.

While exact numbers will never be known, it is estimated that between 1 million and 1.5 million Jewish children of the 1.6 million living in the territories occupied by the Germans in 1939 had died by the end of the war. In addition, a huge number of Gypsy children and thousands of institutionalized handicapped children perished under Nazi rule. Children, fragile and ill-suited to forced labor, were especially likely to die and were killed upon arrival at extermination camps. According to the United States Holocaust Museum, survival rates for Jewish children ranged from 6% to 11% while 33% of the adults survived.

Many of the stories of such children run like the one quoted below, from the Museum of Tolerance. Read more stories of the children of the Holocaust from the links below:

Eva, the daughter of Hartog and Rosette Beem, was an eight year-old schoolgirl when the Germans invaded Holland in May 1940... Eleven year-old Eva was denounced as a Jew in February 1944. Eva, along with her younger brother Abraham, was soon deported to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland, where both were murdered upon arrival.

Performance of BRUNDIBAR

Before World War II, Terezín was simply a small town of approximately 5,000 people — at the height of the war the camp held over 55,000. The eighteenth-century fortress city northwest of Prague was named for Hapsburg Empress Maria Teresa and called Theresienstadt in German.

The concentration camp Terezín was Hitler's "Model Ghetto." A careful facade of a village, complete with schools, shops and even an orchestra was created to mask the ghetto and camp functioning within. In 1941, shortly after the camp was created a film, HITLER GIVES THE JEWS A TOWN, was shot in Terezín. Images of schoolchildren singing were sent to the outside world by the propaganda machine.

The camp was again "beautified" in 1944, when the Nazis permitted the Red Cross to visit in June 1944. In reality, deportations to the extermination camps to the east had begun in January 1942. Some 15,000 children came through Terezín. According to the Terezín Memorial Museum, "63 transports left Terezín for the East, carrying a total of more than 87,00 individuals; of these, only 3,800 would see liberation. The fate of the children of Terezín was equally tragic; of the 7,590 youngest prisoners deported, a mere 142 survived until liberation. Only those children who remained for the whole period at Terezín had any real chance of being saved; on the day of liberation, Terezín contained some 1600 children aged 15 or under."

One of the performances the children of Terezín gave to outsiders was the opera BRUNDIBAR. The opera BRUNDIBAR, with a libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister and set to music by Hans Kraása was completed in 1938. It was performed fifty-five times by the children of Terezín concentration camp, rarely by the same cast as children were deported east. Kraása, also Jewish, was killed in Auschwitz in 1944.

Image from BRUNDIBAR, Maurice Sendak

Terezín was noted for it's artistic and musical output — and legacy. As part of it's "Model Ghetto" status, many Czech, and later other nationality, artists and musicians passed through its gates. Although most of the creators perished, fortunately some of their work has survived. The United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC will be presenting a public program April 14, 2004 of music that was performed in the Terezín Ghetto.

Final page of BRUNDIBAR

Reviewers of Sendak and Kushner's version of BRUNDIBAR have noted that the book contains a coda that the opera did not as it was performed during the war. It ends with a note from BRUNDIBAR, warning of his return. Maurice Sendak explained its purpose to Bill Moyers: "You can't get rid of evil. We can't, and I feel that so intensely."

Use the following links to learn and remember what happened to the children of the Holocaust and the millions of others.

Special thanks for image permission: BRUNDIBAR, text copyright © by Tony Kushner, pictures copyright © by Maurice Sendak, published by Michael di Capua Books / Hyperion Books for Children

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