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The Children's Opera "Brundibar" Belongs in a Museum, Not a Theater

The time is January, 2002; the setting, the interior of the largest, most respected church of a German city: Accompanied by music conservatory students, a class of local school children is about to perform "Brundibár", a famous children's opera from the Theresienstadt Ghetto. An ambitious program of related events is on offer, and, under the auspices of the state bishop and governor, impressive speeches serving to remind and warn have been given. The seats are filled with people of all ages, and the places of honor, in sight of all, are filled by older women who as girls had been among the performers of the opera in Theresienstadt, a transit camp to Auschwitz. These women will be available for questions and comments after the performance, indeed after all six performances.
The house lights are turneed off, and in the remaining auroral glow roughly 30 children parade oppressively onto the platform-cum-stage, all in dirty-gray cloaks onto which are pinned screaming-yellow Stars of David. The children throw the cloaks off, form a semi-circle, spotlights bathe them in glimmering morning light, the music begins, and they start to sing: radiant children in adroitly fashioned clothes such as could still have been worn in Germany in the 50s, These are normal children, happy at the chance to sing, act out and present something. Just ordinary, every-day children.
A scene can hardly be more moving.
And then a plot unfolds that plummets this audience member -- who sees seventy years worth of German-Jewish history in a practically unbearable, condensed version before him -- into a swarm of emotions. Played out in front of him is not the advertised tale of cunning resistance that ends in a peaceful singing competition. The children gang up against someone weaker who happens to belong to an itinerant community; the children are violent with him, degrade him and finally drive him away. Intentional or not, the hunted-down figure in many ways cannot help but bring to mind the quintessential Jew. The very German-looking girl who plays the figure is outfitted in a black smock and black pants. She wears a black top hat, and a thick black beard and eyebrows have been painted onto her face. Beside himself, the audience member begins to study the text of the opera as well as its historical background. All this leaves him no peace.
The time and place of the opera's origin are key. "Brundibár" was written in Prague already in 1938, too early to have any associations with concentration-camp culture and resistance. The opera's librettist would later go into exile; its composer was later murdered at Auschwitz. 1938: it would be another year before the Nazis would march in and officially brand the composer and the librettist "Jews" because of their ancestry. 1938: It was a time when the composer and librettist belonged to a minority of Germans living in Prague. Both were baptized with German names (Adolf Hoffmeister, Hans Karl Krása); German was the mother-tongue of both; both studied at German universities; both published in German. The children's opera was originally composed in Czech only because it was intended for submission to a State competition. Its first performance took place in 1942 in Prague's Jewish orphanage, in secret, in front of a small audience, as Jews were no longer allowed to perform publicly. From there, the opera made it to Theresienstadt, where it became an out-and-out success, a legendary pillar of concentration-camp culture. It helped many of the camp's young inhabitants, who lived in continuous fear of being shuffled off to Auschwitz, find a happy distraction: A consequence that was recognized and put to use by the camp's German authorities (see Milan Kuna's account in "Musik an der Grenze des Lebens" [Frankfurt: Zweitausendeins, 1998]). The Nazis used an excerpt from the opera's final chorus in the propaganda film "Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt", and had the opera performed for a delegation of the international Red Cross, which had come to inspect the camp.
The opera's plot is quickly summarized: A brother and sister cannot afford to buy their sick mother milk for her coffee. The siblings try to earn money by singing on the streets but are foiled by disinterested passersby and an organ grinder who makes it clear to them that the streets are his rightful turf. (The opera is named for this organ grinder.) Eventually a chorus of three hundred school children bands together, and the strength of the combined voices makes it impossible for the organ grinder to be heard. Money for the milk is collected, and Brundibár is humiliated and driven away forever. The final chorus praises the community spirit won through this "war" and encourages the children of the audience to model themselves after the children of the play.
What springs to mind immediately is the imbalance between the root of the conflict and its resolution: The call-to-arms, all the strong words, all the drama -- all this for a bit of milk? Indeed, in gruff contrast to the insignificant cause, an elaborate drama is built on the most basic of material: the conflict between the cold egotistical, money- and rule-oriented adult world and the children's world, where kindheartedness, spontaneity and enthusiasm are what count. When Aninka and Pepicek, at the beginning of the story, quite rudely demand milk of the milkman instead of asking him politely for help; when they naively and inconsiderately "move in" on the organ grinder's business; when they get on the nerves of the passersby: all this is dramatic "method," as are the policeman's instructions on the meaning of money and Brundibár's rebuke of gentility. The children are unrefined and raw, but goodnatured. The opera is partial to them, while the adult world is ascribed the "unjust" qualities that make the world a modern one: lawfulness, trade, professionalism, conventions.
As the opera's acts change over, it becomes clear that indeed everything essentially revolves around the conflict between the old world of the adults and the new child-friendly one. It is evening, the children have experienced set-back after set-back and are at a loss for what to do. Then, Nature itself, in the form of Sparrow, Cat and Dog, intervenes and offers advice and assistance, thereby making it clear that Nature is on the children's side. In order to defeat the powers of evil, it is necessary to band together with as many children as possible. The start of the new day is as poignantly underlined by music as was the previous evening, heralding a new time. Appropriately hopeful and happy, the children and animals join forces in a "war" in which there is much more to be won than the small amount of milk money whose absence set everything in motion.
The children grasp that banded together with others they are strong. Though their friendship with the animals lacks any real basis, it is powered by a catalytic agent: namely, Brundibár, who has been decreed the enemy, and against whom the majority of the school children are prejudiced. And, because he is an itinerant and outsider, Brundibár is easy enough to isolate and defeat.
The children also make an important musical discovery. The organ grinder was able to satisfy the public's musical tastes, something the children were previously unable to do. Aninka and Pepicek now learn that if they step in time to a romantically folksy ditty, not only are they able to muster up both courage and community spirit among all the children, but are also finally able to reach the adults in a way the organ grinder's mechanically reproduced music could not: moved, the adults turn away from the organ grinder towards the children and give them the money Brundibár was counting on to make his living. The musical marketplace operating on the calculated basis of supply and demand has been replaced by spontaneous, from-the-heart folk music capable of uniting the masses.
Thus, a new form of society is born: a children's world in which you do not have to pay for the absolutely necessary things in life; in which you do not have to be professional in order to earn money; where discipline, manners and rights do not really matter. In short, a child-friendly, folk-like community operating outside the rules of modern society. Though this world is not truly realized -- the milkman's business would otherwise need to be expropriated, the policeman driven away, etc. - we nevertheless sense that this world is on the way to being established via the targeted elimination of the one figure who least belongs: Brundibár the organ grinder. His existence is, in the end, the most fragile; he is the one recognized as both a foreign influence and alienating presence, the one working with small capital invested in modern technology, the one dependent upon financial returns (however small), the one dependent upon the preservation of manners, customs and decency, the one who is professional and market-oriented, the one who shoos away the annoying kids, the one who stands in the way of folk culture.
Resistance is not the true "message" of the children's opera Brundibár (there would otherwise have to be a struggle against something or someone genuinely strong; against the true powers-that-be), but rather a rebellion against the symptoms of the modern world. A rebellion, moreover, that fails to change any actual balance of power and instead projects its antipathies on a substitute for those symptoms: a scapegoat who turns out neither to have access to, nor the protection of the powers at hand, who is suited for isolation and the embodiment of evil.
It should not come as such a great surprise that Brundibár is portrayed with "Jewish" characteristics. "Strange" and "bad," as defined by the opera's world view, are, on the strength of historical/sociological clichés, all too easily associated with "the Jew", and it follows that the opera's world view is associated with Fascism. This Fascism is the direct result of the opera's established patterns of thought which dictate that contemporary woes be equated with "the Jew" as modernizing agent and destroyer of folk society. The reality behind these patterns does not have a thing to do with actual Judaism, but rather with objective exclusionism and subjective demonization.
Brundibár -- on the borderline of society yet also part of "the system;" with acapital-based mode of production; with his success in the market (attributable to his support of technology and advertisement, his dependence upon even the smallest income, the protection of police and polite society) -- clearly leads a "Jewish" existence. He is denounced as worthless, uncreative, greedy and hard-hearted, a surreptitious criminal and bogeyman as well as the enemy of national characteristics. His very calling name (Brundibár = Bumblebee) devalues both the man and his work. He is thus saddled with a great many of the characteristics that make up an antisemitic cliché.
Worst of all, Brundibár is portrayed from the start as an enemy of Nature, an enemy the animals of the story are all too ready to hunt and persecute: The dog, barely awake and only just introduced, hankers for Brundibár's flesh and blood.
Hidden beneath the fairy-tale trimmings, the opera is about establishing Brundibár as the object of eliminationist antisemitism.
It follows that Brundibár's fate its also a Jewish one. What he suffers is a naively played-down, hate-filled Pogrom, replete with pack-of-hounds and hunt imagery (the Dog: "Spuer' ich einen Hasen auf, / folg' ich niemals seinem Lauf./ Ich allein krieg' keinen Hasen klein./Hol' ich Freunde mir dazu, / hat der Hase keine Ruh. / Eine Meute ist des Hasen Pein!" The official English translation reads: "When a Russian greyhound mean / stalks a rabbit quick and keen, / watch the clever rabbit outsmart him./ But, if many Russian hounds / chase the rabbit on their grounds, / chances to escape are slim.") . Both the children and the animals look at the opportunity to "get" Brundibár as something of a festive hunt they are all too glad to join. This hunt ends in the degradation of Brundibár, who is both bitten by and thrashed around by the dog, who has got Brundibár by the pants. ("By the pants": Something with particularly dangerous and obscene associations for a circumcised male Jew -- see for instance Louis Begley's Wartime Lies [New York: Knopf, 1991]: cf. quotation 15 in Brundibár / Essay: click on the left side).
No one, not even a child, responds to Brundibár's cries for help. Further, this is the place in the opera calculated to elicit the most laughter from the children in the audience. Germans can't help but recall Wilhelm Busch's popular Schmulchen Schievelbeiner (from the end of the 19th century):

(Despite all his squirming effort,
He realizes it's too late for him.
Underneath his cloak
Everything gets spoiled.)

These Busch cartoons are perhaps the most famous to disdainfully represent the Jew. The dogs ("Plisch and Plum") do not have any particular reason to be angry: its enough that a Jew should walk by to set the generations of children who grew up with the cartoons to laughing at what follows. In the case of Brunfibár, the Dog even takes pleasure in his intentions to bite the organ grinder, and carries out his deed of his own accord, backed by Nature's authority.
The inhumanity, fascism and antisemitic tendencies here diagnosed cannot be misconstrued, despite the story's seemingly harmless surface narrative. But how can it be that the above tendencies have gone largely unnoticed? Why is it that even today, despite an internationally-minded audience, for whom Brundibár has become a hit, no one thinks to raise a protest?
The deciding factor is that the title figure is not identified as a Jew. He is portrayed as being neither really Jewish nor even comically Jewish (as is Busch's Schmulchen Schievelbeiner, who speaks pseudo-Yiddish). Countless eastern European Jews would certainly have had to live at the very bottom rung of Society's ladder, many may even have eked out a street-musician's existence; and almost all would certainly have worn a black cloak and black hat. The quintessential organ grinder was, however, not Jewish, but Italian, accompanied by a trained monkey. He was also a wanderer, decried for his thievery. (Brundibár does have to stoop to stealing, and Aninka and Pepicek at one point play dancing apes to his music; also, organ grinders were historically often crippled veterans of the first World War, whom the State supported by lending them street organs with which they could earn money: this, perhaps, explains the children's mocking of Brundibár as a "musician without legs" in the original Czech text.)
Had Hoffmeister and Krása really intended to attack their forefathers with antisemitism in Prague in 1938 they would have called the object they wished to denounce by name.
How is it that the opera's dangerous world view, which so easily serves the antisemtism of the time, has remained latent, and is even today so easily overseen and obscured? In an informative autobiographical account, the composer offers a clue:

The biggest problem in planning this children's opera was certainly the libretto. The usual dramatic conflicts -- erotic, political, and the like -- were, of course, not usable. Fairy tale lore suited neither me nor the librettist. Despite this, the writer was able to come up with a book that is entertaining to children and at the same time an important comment on real life, in that it plainly shows how important it is to band together against evil. In this children's opera this is demonstrated by the singing war between the children and the organ grinder.

(Cited in Kuna, p.2O7)

An artist's intentions could not be more harmless, yet the account contains all the ingredients of a calamity in the making.
Inspiration for the children's opera was apparently intended to come not from fairy tales but from "real life." In order to please the children of the audience, however, a political perspective and any thought of a serious societal critique had to be abandoned. We have seen just how the weak dramatic motive (the missing milk money) so easily became politically charged with the criticism of contemporary conservative culture; how "reality" (the adult world) was established as decayed and in need of renewal (by the children). And because this reformation of reality -- the deliverance from the evils of the modern world -- would not be able to occur through political means, it fell to a rebellion involving unfettered Nature (reflected in simplicity and naivety of children and folk culture) and an all-out "war" against those on the borderline of society. The idea itself of the decayed modern world; the abandonment of politics; the "banding together," the collective displacement of woes on an outsider: these are all symptomatic of the folky, fascistic and antisemitic patterns of the day.
The opera's latent fascism and antisemtism were not planned. They are the products of an artistic failure. Krása and Hoffmeister were apparently the kind of conservative rebels and political romantics who suffered under the alienating symptoms of modern society without knowing how quite to counter it other than by running away from it and back towards the comforts of unrestrained nature, folk society and naive art. The project of the children's opera unwittingly landed them with a loaded and dangerous mix: a reality-based impetus with societal critique with regression to atavistic thought patterns and a ritual casting-out of someone stigmatized. Fascism and antisemitism out of a test-tube; monsters left free to awaken as Reason dozed off.
An interesting side-note betrays just how close Krása and Hoffmeister had come to portraying the dire realities of the time: in Prague, one year later, Hitler's program of racial cleansing touched the city's organ grinders. Mussolini had been trying since 1924 to have the organ grinders recalled to Italy; it was felt that they were giving Italy a bad reputation.
No reproach ought to fall to those who, upon deportation, took the opera with them to Theresienstadt. The destructive message of the opera, as outlined above, was perhaps just what made it acceptable for the Germans and those cooperating with them to have the work performed there (while attempts to perform other antitotalitarian works in Theresienstadt, such as Ullmann's "King of Atlantis", were met with death sentences). It remains decisive that in the end the children of the camp had something to act out and sing and to give them courage.
These children were themselves uprooted, in a foreign setting, living in fear of death. In such situations people are apt not to rebel against, but side along with their tormentors, a phenomenon known to psychologists as "identification with the aggressor."
In "Masse und Macht", Elias Canetti writes that the people most susceptible to mob mentality are those living in fear of death (Canetti uses the word "Meute" when referring to mob mentality; the German word is used when referring to hunting with a pack of hounds). This would certainly explain the cathartic effect of Brundibár in Theresienstadt: In the acting out of something that could only be understood as "good" by their tormentors they could prove themselves worthy; for once they could belong to the stronger side, the side which is allowed to hunt down the weaker side.
It is a very different matter for the German children of today to see and identify with this opera. With Brundibár today's children are confronted with something familiar to them as the history of their people; they are being presented with an example in how to exercise their collective power on stigmatized outsiders, weaklings and foreigners. What, in the end, does it matter that today's children are told that the children of Theresienstadt saw Fascism itself and Hitler in the figure of Brundibár? This simply makes it all the more difficult, if not impossible, to take a critical view of the opera's fascistic and antisemtic pack mentality: if we are up against the most evil villain imaginable, aren't any available means fair game? And further, isn't the "positive" experience of attaching oneself to an emotionally strong group valid? The instrument intended to defeat fascism has taken on the disease's very characteristics. The famous final chorus of the opera reads:

Freundschaft alle Zeit
Hilft euch in jedem Streit
Und schafft Gerechtigkeit.
(Friendship at all times
Helps in every struggle
And creates justice.)

The unanimity of the mob creates a justice of its own: vigilantism. What is this but dictated justice and willful force, the legitimization of violence against an outsider because the violence comes from children, the legitimization of a "gesundes Volksempfinden" [healthy folk mentality]?
No less problematical are the historical implications: When the Germans of today explain the figure of Brundibár as the embodiment of Nazism to their own children, who copy Aninka and Pepicek yet at the same time identify with the children of Theresienstadt, they are basically being told that they are the descendants of victims; that they belong to a people that once fell prey to someone evil who did not actually belong to their society and had to be banished. Hitler as Brundibár: The monster who was not lurking among the natives of our past but was rather the product of the coldness of modern society, and was, furthermore, of foreign origin and the outskirts of society. We ourselves are not to blame.
No, this opera, which invites children to mimicry, does not belong on the stage but in a museum, where it can be considered from a critical distance and in its historical context.
Performed with great feeling but little critical scrutinization and with myriad related events, the opera becomes part of the reigning Zeitgeist which distinguishes itself by coming up with new methods for dealing with the past on one hand, but debases itself on the other with a neo-liberal society of a critical, peer-pressured consensus.
On a number of occasions after the performance in the largest and most respected church of a German city, the audience member, who had been so troubled by the performance that he was moved to study the opera's text and historical context, sought to share some of the ideas outlined here. His ideas were met with frustration and ridicule, and became the impetus for a hunt that led to public defamation. But this "Brundibár 2002" is another story.

For additional quotations, more informations, bibliography, links...: visit the homepage and the other "Brundibár"-sites (click on the left side)!