History of Brundibár

Brundibár is the tale of two children who seek money to buy milk for their sick mother. Their quest is thwarted by an evil organ grinder named Brundibár, but with the help of three intelligent animals, the children defeat the bully and return home in triumph.

An image from the book Brundibár by Maurice Sendak & Tony Kushner The original poster for the performances of Brundibár in Terezín.


The opera Brundibár was written by Czech composer, Hans Krása with lyrics by Adolf Hoffmeister in 1938 as an entry for a children’s opera competition. It was first performed by children at the Jewish Orphanage in German-occupied Prague.

In 1942 the Nazis began forcibly removing Jews to Terezín, a Nazi camp. Amongst those deported was Hans Krása.

In July 1943, the score of Brundibár was smuggled into Terezín. The first performance took place on 23 September 1943. It was performed 55 times. The story of overcoming evil gave comfort and hope to the performers and their fellow prisoners who attended their performances. Those who survived the horror and deprivation of Terezín, speak of the performances of Brundibár as "small bright sparks of hope and defiance in a long, dark night."

The Nazis used Brundibár as part of a propaganda film, and in 1944, as the highlight of a Nazi propaganda campaign aimed at persuading the International Red Cross that the living conditions in the camp were adequate. Two weeks later, Hans Krása and most of the children in the cast were sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. It would take almost thirty years before the next production would be staged.

Children across the world have performed the opera. Although only 30-40 minutes long, the message of the opera continues to sound across the decades.

While the history of the performance of Brundibár in Terezin is brutal, the opera itself is a parable of hope and justice.

Ela Weissberger, who played the role of the Cat in all 55 performances at Terezín, will be coming to Cape Town in July 2011. She will share her experiences of Brundibár and surviving the Holocaust.

  Hans Krasa

This is a propaganda photograph taken by the Nazi's of the original Brundibár cast in Terezin. The opera was an allegory of Hitler’s
tyranny and resounding defeat, the opera was performed 55 times under the eye of their oppressors. The opera empowered its child
performers and allowed them to experience a brief moment of freedom as they discovered the weight
of their collective voice


In November 1941, the Nazis established a Jewish camp in Terezín, a Czech town about an hour’s drive from Prague. The Nazis renamed Terezín, Theresienstadt.

Terezín was a ghetto, a concentration camp, and a transit camp for Jews. It was a link in the chain that inevitably led to the gas chambers.

Of the 144 000 Jews sent to Terezín, almost one in four (33 000) died there because of the terrible conditions. 88 000 were deported to Auschwitz or elsewhere. By the war’s end, only 19 000 were alive.

15 000 children passed through Terezín. 100 survived.

Some of the most prominent Czech, Austrian and German artists, writers, scientists, jurists, diplomats, musicians, composers and professors were imprisoned in Terezín. The Nazis forced the Jewish artists to create Nazi propaganda. Secretly, the artists recorded and interpreted their experience of the Terezín world. They hid their works in the double walls of the camp, or buried them in the ground. The punishment for painting the truth was severe.

The adult prisoners believed that the traumatised children of Terezín could be given a sense of dignity and helped through artistic and creative expression. Defying camp rules, and risking their lives, adults taught children literature and art and organised cultural programmes.

Art was a form of therapy, and a transmitter of a cultural and religious heritage. Art became a form of resistance and education for survival. In two years, children in Terezín created 5000 drawings and collages. 4000 of their drawings survived. The artwork of the adults and children has added invaluable depth to our knowledge of what happened at Terezín.

The poetry and art left by the prisoners of Terezín, and the determination of the adults to nurture the children and counter the spiritual and physical desolation of the camp, remains a powerful testimony to the desire to live creatively in the face of oppression and death.

  The entrance to Terezín, which reads “work will set you free”.
Zdenka Eismannova: Women’s Dormitory
Within Terezín’s walls of brutality and injustice lived a culture of creativity, ingenuity and irrepressible human spirit that is best exemplified by the children’s opera Brundibár.

For further information about Terezin see
http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/terezin.html http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/othercamps/terezin.html

References and some suggested resources:
Gilbert, M. Never Again: A history of the Holocaust , Harper Collins, Bath: 2000
Rubin, S. Fireflies in the Dark , Holiday House, New York: 2000
Dutlinger, A. D. Art, music and education as strategies for survival: Theresienstadt 1941 – 1945,
Herodias, New York: 2001