Echoes of a Troubled Time

The following is a guest post by Charles Coe, Program Officer for Cultural Investment Portfolio, Massachusetts Cultural Council –

Misha Gruenbaum at the Terezin Concentration Camp

As the audience sat in rapt attention, the speaker described how during World War II, the Nazis cynically promoted arts and culture at the Terezin concentration camp to maintain the fiction that the prisoners (who the regime claimed were in “protective custody”) were being treated well.

Among those at Terezin were children from an orphanage in Prague who sang frequently for fellow inmates. This all ended abruptly in October of 1944 when most of the children, along with the other prisoners, were sent to the death camps.

At one point during the lecture, the speaker showed a slide of children performing the final chorus of the opera Brundibar, which had been written for them while they were at the orphanage. Suddenly an elderly man got up, walked slowly to the screen, and pointed with a shaking finger to a child in the corner of the photograph. “That’s me,” he said softly, to a completely silent audience.

The lecturer was stunned. “I couldn’t speak,” she says. “Something poignant and very special was happening. I felt humble and grateful to share that moment with the audience.”

It was the evening of November 12, 2009, at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. The speaker was Ludmilla Leibman, founder and director of The Educational Bridge Project, a unique organization that uses collaboration in the arts to promote understanding between the United States and Russia. The project is sponsoring and promoting two performances of Brundibar this October.

Although this isn’t the opera’s first Boston-area performance, it represents a unique collaboration between children from the Lincoln Elementary School in Brookline and the musical theater Zazerkalie from St. Petersburg, Russia.

Brundibar will be presented at the Lincoln School. Music teacher Molly Quinlan has rehearsed the American children, and Sofia Drabkina, who directed a production of the opera in St. Petersburg, has been working with their Russian counterparts.

Michael (Misha) Greunbaum had not come from the orphanage in Prague, but at Terezin he joined those children in the chorus and played soccer – the only activities that helped him “forget the crowded conditions, the hunger, the diseases, the separation from our parents and constant fear of being sent ‘to the East,’ from where no one returned.” Ninety percent of the children at Terezin were eventually sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz; only a handful of the children in the photo survived the war.

When the children perform Brundibar in Brookline, Misha Gruenbaum will be there, although he plans to stay in the background, and Ludmilla will honor his wish not to speak to the audience. As the lights go down and children’s voices fill the auditorium, he will be sitting quietly, carried back to a time too terrible to remember that must never be forgotten….

Brundibar Performances:
Wednesday, October 27 and Thursday, October 28
7pm
Free Admission
Lincoln Elementary School Auditorium
19 Kennard Road, Brookline

Learn more about the Educational Bridge Project’s 18th-annual festival and Brundibar.

You can watch a documentary film about the Terezin camp and its artists – Prisoner of Paradise by Malcolm Clarke and Stuart Sender – on Hulu.

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