Category Archives: Terezin prisoners

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)

Gavrilo Princip and the Butterfly Effect

One of the most notorious Terezin prisoners was neither Jewish nor an artist. He was instead a Serbian teenage assassin whose actions lit a fuse that ignited the First World War and set the stage for the rise of the Nazis. His story is a sobering reminder of how the unintended consequence of a single action can affect the lives of others  in another time and place.

In 1914, Terezin was not yet a ghetto. The Large Fortress was a garrison town inhabited by a Czech-speaking population, and the Small Fortress was a military prison. It was to the Small Fortress that nineteen year old Gavrilo Princip was sent for assassinating Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Hungary.

Who was this teenage assassin? He was born in 1894 to a poor Serbian family living in Bosnia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Gavrilo first attended school at age nine, and was a very successful student. At thirteen, Gavrilo was sent to Sarajevo, Bosnia, to attend a merchant school. He came to admire a Bosnian Serb who tried and failed to assassinate an Austro-Hungarian governor. He also joined a group called Young Bosnia, which wanted to free Bosnia from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and join it with the neighboring Kingdom of Serbia. After being expelled from his school for demonstrating against Austria-Hungary, Princip was recruited and given military training by a Serbian guerilla organization.

In 1914 Princip became involved in a plot to assassinate the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. During a June 28th visit to Sarajevo, the Archduke and his wife were taken by car through the city. Princip and six other conspirators were among the spectators, armed with grenades and pistols. One of them threw a grenade, which missed the Archduke’s car and wounded the occupants of another vehicle. Chaos ensued, and the conspirators were unable to continue their plot.

Ferdinand later decided to visit the victims of the grenade at the hospital. On the way there, the driver of the car made a wrong turn into Franz Josef Street. Gavrilo Princip was also on Franz Josef Street at the moment, standing outside a café, when he spotted the car. The driver was turning the vehicle around when the engine stalled. Princip raced toward the car, pulled out his pistol, and fired twice at the vehicle, mortally wounding Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. They died within minutes of the shooting.

Princip then attempted suicide but his weapon was snatched from him and he was taken into custody. At 19, he was too young to receive the death penalty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was sent to the Small Fortress in Terezin, where he died from tuberculosis four years later.

Princip’s action set off a chain of events that he himself could never have envisioned. A month after the assassination, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia, which had an alliance with Serbia, declared war on Austria-Hungary the following day. Russia then mobilized against Germany, which was allied with Austria-Hungary. In response, Germany declared war on Russia. After disputing with France and Belgium, Germany declared war on them as well. That same day Britain declared war on Germany. The Great War had begun.

By the end of the war, Imperial Germany ceased to exist, replaced by the Weimar Republic. Weimar signed the Treaty of Versailles, which forced Germany to disarm, surrender territory and colonies, and pay billions in war reparations. It also forced Germany to accept total responsibility for the war.  Many Germans denounced the Treaty and blamed it for the near collapse of their economy. Later, Nazi propaganda would take advantage of the widespread view that the Treaty was unfair, and Hitler would blame the Weimar for accepting the Treaty. It helped to create an atmosphere that allowed the Nazi party to thrive and set the stage for the rise of the Nazis and World War II.

Gavrilo Princip did not live to see the massive consequences that resulted from his assassination of the Archduke. He was dead long before the Nazis occupied Terezin and transformed it into a ghetto. He could never have imagined the long-ranging consequences of his action. And we can never know what would have happened had he not assassinated the Archduke. Would the world have just plunged into war anyway? Or would war have been avoided, and millions upon millions of lives saved? We can never know, but we can reflect on the story of Gavrilo Princip and how one act of violence can flare and blaze wildly, triggering destruction that spreads far and wide. But as the stories of people such as Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and Franta Maier show, one act of goodness can also radiate into the world, across vast distances of space and time. May we never forget.