Category Archives: Terezin singers

Hans Krasa and Brundibar: A Children’s Opera

Hans Krasa was born in Prague on November 30, 1899 to a Czech father and a German Jewish mother. He began studying the piano and violin as a child and his musical gifts became evident at an early age. Hans later studied composition at the German Music Academy in Prague and after graduation he worked at the New German Theater as a pianist and vocal coach. While working there, he met an Austrian-Jewish conductor and composer named Alexander Zemlinsky, who became his mentor. In 1927 Krasa accompanied Zemlinsky to Berlin, where he continued his studies and was introduced to prestigious composers of the day. Krasa was terribly homesick for Prague, and returned to his former job at the New German Theater. However, Hans also made his debut as a composer during this time with his work Four Orchestral Songs. Several other works followed, the most successful being his opera Betrothal in a Dream, performed in 1933.

Composer Hans Krasa
Composer Hans Krasa

His most notable work, however, the one which would become his legacy, was a children’s opera called Brundibar, the final work he completed before being transported to Terezin on August 10, 1942. In Terezin, he produced an arrangement of the opera which became wildly successful, performed a total of 55 times. The premise was straightforward: two poor children, a brother and sister named Pepicek and Aninka, go to the market one morning, hoping that by singing they will be able to raise enough money to buy milk for their sick mother. A cruel organ grinder named Brundibar bullies the children and prevents them from singing. Pepicek and Aninka are joined by a dog, cat, and brave sparrow and the children of the town and together they prevail over the tyrannical organ grinder.

The message of triumphing over a tyrant resonated strongly with many people imprisoned in Terezin, which may have contributed to its popularity. It also provided a creative outlet for the children in Terezin, and those who survived remember how participating in the opera offered them a temporary relief from the horrors of their daily life in the camp.

Brundibar was involved in the Terezin deception, as it was performed for the Red Cross and featured in a propaganda film shot at the camp. This is by far the darkest aspect of the opera, the way in which it was exploited by the Nazis. At the same time, Brundibar should be remembered for the respite it provided for the children of Terezin.

Hans Krasa continued to compose in Terezin but Brundibar is by far his best remembered work. In October 1944, Krasa, along with other composers and many of the children who performed in the opera were put on a transport to Auschwitz where most were murdered upon arrival, including Krasa. He is memorialized by the opera Brundibar, which continues to be performed to this day.

Below: Clip of Brundibar performance at Terezin

Below: This video tells the story of the children’s opera Brundibar, and follows a present-day staging of the opera.

 

Picture of Hans Krasa from Krizkova, Marie R., Kotouc, Kurt J. & Ornest, Zdenek. We Are Children Just the Same: Vedem, the Secret Magazine of the Boys of Terezin. The Jewish Publication Society, 1995. Print. Used with permission.

More on Hans Krasa and Brundibar:

We Are Children Just the Same: Vedem, the Secret Magazine by the Boys of Terezin (by Marie Krizkova, Kurt Jiri Kotouc and Zdenek Ornest)

http://www.theguardian.com/music/2003/sep/06/classicalmusicandopera

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/09/theater/reviews/09brun.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Anna Flach: A Caged Bird Who Sang Anyway

The second woman from Room 28 I have chosen to profile is the singer, pianist and professor Anna Flach. During her days in Terezin, she was given the nickname Flaska, meaning “little bottle.” Many of the girls in Room 28 were known by whimsical nicknames while in Terezin, a tradition that children in other homes participated in as well. By all accounts, Flaska was outgoing, compassionate and imaginative, and a very talented singer. Her musical talents were cultivated in Terezin, where she participated in many musical performances. The Girls of Room 28

In the cellar of her Girls’ Home, the famous composer Rafael (Rafik) Schacter often rehearsed with his choir and Flaska would slip down to the cellar to listen. She auditioned for a Mozart opera and was thrilled when she was selected to perform. Things didn’t go as planned, however, as Rafik had incredibly high standards and the young singers struggled to meet his expectations. After two weeks of rehearsal, Rafik decided to present it as a concert with adult singers, and Flaska and the other children were dismissed.

Though disappointed, Flaska did not give up on her dreams of being a singer. She continued to perform with the girls’ choir, and with two other girls as a musical trio. The three girls would sometimes go to the quarters where the elderly lived to sing for them and to assist them in any way they could. This arrangement was set up by a Terezin youth organization called Yad Tomechet (helping hand). The elderly were often neglected, struggled to get enough water and food, and many could not get to the washrooms. In these wretched conditions, many lost the will to live and some even committed suicide. The youth group was created as a way to help these older people. Flaska and the other girls helped to bring meals to the elderly, accompany them to toilets, bathed them, cleaned their rooms. They also helped in any other little ways they could, such as singing to them, and bringing small gifts for birthdays.

Even as a young girl, Flaska was compassionate and desired to help others. Serving others was a value that was instilled by her mother and Flaska’s own experiences in Terezin further sensitized her to the suffering of others. She wrote about her great happiness when she was released from the hospital and was able to visit her father and brother bearing a gift for them – a piece of bread she had managed to save. She strongly desired harmony with others and tried to be on good terms with all the girls in her barrack.

Flaska was one of four girls of Room 28 who were spared the transports to Auschwitz. She and some of the other girls would sneak to the Hamburg barracks, where people waited to board the cattle cars. There, the girls tried their best to comfort them. This action was certainly risky, since it could have easily resulted in Flaska being placed on a transport, but she undertook it anyway. Her compassion and bravery in such circumstances is a real testament to her character. I can only hope I would be able to act like Flaska if I were in her place.

After the transports, the room was empty with only four girls remaining. They took down a flag that the girls had made for their home and divided it into four pieces, promising each other that they would meet again after the war to sew it back together as a symbol of their friendship.

Anna Flach, her parents and her siblings survived the Holocaust but most of her other relatives did not. She and her family returned to Brno, their hometown, and she later became a singer, pianist and professor of music at the Brno Conservatory. She married an oboist named Vitselav Hanus and together they performed in many concerts all over the world. Their son Tomas is an esteemed conductor of the Prague Chamber Orchestra and Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra. Anna remains an educator and advocate for music and is committed to preserving the memory of the Terezin composers. She feels it is her responsibility to speak out about their experiences to preserve the memories, especially since there are those who still deny the Holocaust.

Further Reading
The Girls of Room 28: Friendship, Hope and Survival in Theresienstadt by Hannelore Brenner