The opera returns to the death camp

A poster for a performance of Brundibar from Theresienstadt, 1944

For John Freund, this performance of an opera he loves promises to be bittersweet.

The 87-year-old Holocaust survivor, who now lives in Toronto, hopes to be well enough to travel this month to  Theresienstadt – a concentration camp and ghetto in the Czech town of Terezin, near Prague, where he was once interned. There, he will see a performance of the renowned children’s opera, Brundibar, which he witnessed as a teenaged inmate of the Nazi-era camp.

Freund served as a consultant to the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, which, on July 2, began a 10-day tour of Brundibar. The company of 48 children and youth are to perform the work in Prague, where it premiered at an orphanage in 1942, as well as Krakow and Budapest. The tour ends in Terezin, where the opera was performed more than 50 times by the child inmates of the camp.


It brought laughter and music to the imprisoned children, Freund recalled in a CJN interview.

“I was very impressed with it. We all knew the people involved, so we sang the songs. The songs became quite popular. Sure, it helped our spirits, but we were naive. We had no idea what was in our future,” Freund said.

That future included Treblinka and Auschwitz, where many of the performers and Freund’s friends were later murdered in gas chambers.

More than 150,000 Jews were shipped to Theresienstadt, including about 15,000 children.

About 33,000 Jews died there and thousands more were deported to death camps. Fewer than 150 children survived.

But the arts flourished. “There was quite a bit of cultural activity there,” Freund remembered. Lectures, concerts and plays were presented. Many of the children’s paintings survived and have been exhibited.

Freund recalled seeing Brundibar just once at the camp, and later saw it in New York and Prague. The last time he saw it was this past March, when it was performed at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto by the Canadian Children’s Opera Company.

The work was by Jewish composer Hans Krasa, who was also deported to Terezin and was murdered at Auschwitz. Smuggled into the camp inside Krasa’s suitcase, the opera told the story of a wicked organ grinder who does not allow two children to sing in the streets to raise money for their sick mother. But the children outwit him and emerge victorious against the darkness.

“The story is lovely,” Freund said.

Freund estimates he has returned to Theresienstadt about six times, sometimes with family members.

He was nine years old when the Nazis marched into his native Czechoslovakia in 1939. Jews were immediately barred from public life and places.

“It became stricter and stricter all the time,” Freund recalled, and culminated in the forced wearing of the yellow Star of David.

He and his family were deported to Theresienstadt in April 1942. His father, a pediatrician, was in demand.

“It was a horrible place,” Freund said, “but not as bad as what came later.”

In December 1943, the clan was shipped to Auschwitz, where Freund’s father and brother were shot and his mother gassed.

Freund was one of 89 boys who were spared. They were sent to a nearby men’s camp for a work detail. Only 45 survived the war and became known as the “Birkenau Boys.”

“I must have been very strong and lucky,” he said.

In 1948, Freund was among the roughly 1,100 Jewish war orphans admitted to Canada under a special program. He became an accountant and today has 10 grandchildren.

The trip to see Brundibar in Theresienstadt, he said, will have extra meaning, as Freund is being accompanied by two of his grandsons.