She was 11 years old when she arrived on the transport to Terezin. It was Feb. 10, 1942, and Ela Stein Weissberger didn't understand what the Nazis had in mind for her in the Czechoslovakian camp in the hills above Prague. "We thought that they wanted us to work for them," Weissberger recalled. "We didn't think we would be killed."
In time, Weissberger and the other inhabitants of Terezin had to face the terrible realization of the fate in store for those summoned on the transports to Auschwitz. Her voice takes on a somber tone as she returns in memory to the haunting reality of a young girl's perspective of Terezin. "We saw people going, and nobody was coming back."
In the three and half years that Terezin was in operation, 141,000 Jews were brought to the camp -- 33,456 of them died there. Another 88,202 were sent to death camps like Auschwitz. Of the 15,000 children sent to the death camps from Terezin, only 100 survived. Ela Stein Weissberger is one of them.
There is no way to overstate the importance of art in the lives of the children at Terezin. Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was an artist and teacher who brought as many supplies as she could muster together with her when she was sent to Terezin. Brandeis made it her mission to administer to the children's spirits through poetry, art and music, using creative expression as an antidote to chaos.
"She didn't have children, so her life was really with us," Weissberger recalled. "She lived her life through us. She always was talking about nice things. She would bring in a really simple jar and put in some twigs of trees, and we would paint. She would tell us, 'See how beautiful it is.' "
"We couldn't do it officially," Weissberger remembered of the lessons she came to value so highly. "It was really a secret when we had our professor explaining something about history, because they really didn't want that we should get educated."
Many of the drawings and poems from the children of Terezin are on display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and collected in the book ...I Never Saw Another Butterfly. Still more are collected in a book by Weissberger's friend from Terezin, Helga Weissova-Hoskova.
Hoskova painted 100 pictures after arriving in Terezin at age 12, documenting her experiences and hiding the work in a wall. Many of the adult artists were killed for trying to document camp life. Young Helga was sent to Auschwitz, but she survived and returned after the war to rescue her paintings from the barracks wall. They are now collected in a book, Draw What You See.
Ela Stein Weissberger's legacy is in another medium. She was an original cast member of the Hans Krasa opera Brundibar, soon to be performed in the Springs at the Fine Arts Center. Krasa, a prisoner at Terezin, wrote the opera specifically for children and brought it with him to the camp where it was performed 55 times. Though only two of the original cast members survive today, Weissberger eagerly participates in new productions of the opera as her way of remembering her friends and passing on the lessons to be learned from their deaths.
"Singing, especially when we started to sing Brundibar, was part of the resistance against the Germans," Weissberger explained. The opera tells the story of two children who try to raise money to buy milk for their sick mother. They are thwarted by an evil organ grinder, Brundibar, who makes money in the town by playing his "puff box." A sparrow, a dog and a cat -- Weissberger's role -- come to the aid of the children, gathering all the schoolchildren together to join forces and sing over the organ grinder's music, winning the admiration of the townsfolk and collecting enough money to help their mother.
Brundibar was used famously as part of a Nazi propaganda film meant to depict the pleasant life in the camps. "Goebbels wanted to use this propaganda film for Nuremberg when he would be brought to trial," Weissberger recalled. "But he killed himself before ... It's OK with us."
The irony in the Nazi's use of the opera as propaganda lay in the cast's interpretation of the story as a rallying cry of the resistance. Weissberger points out that in their minds the victory was not simply over Brundibar. "The victory was over Hitler. We sang with such enthusiasm!"
Weissberger continues telling the story of her friends who were sent to their deaths on the transports from Terezin. She recently sat for eight hours of interviews for a documentary airing on the History Channel, Secrets of War: The Holocaust. The documentary includes clips from Brundibar culled from the propaganda film. "This was really the last production of Brundibar in Terezin," Weissberger said of the film clip. "After this last production, most of the children were taken to the gas chambers."
Weissberger travels frequently from her home in New York to help keep the legacy alive. "I don't speak about atrocities to children," she asserted. "I don't think that this is missing in their life. They can see it every day on the news. I speak mostly about friendship, what it meant to us to have good friends... It isn't always easy to remember. I have to cry, too. But I think it does something to people when they know the background of it. Somehow, when I go up to sing with them their victory song, they get some other energy."
"Brundibar was our life, and we will never forget it in our lifetime," Weissberger assured. "I always thought with the kids going to the gas chambers, Brundibar died with them.
"Now I can't believe it; if it's sung in the Kennedy Center in the United States and I'm here as a free person, it will never die."