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,
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
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
(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
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)!