Ela Weissberger may be 85, but her calendar has been so booked for so long, she can’t estimate the number of talks she gives each year. In the coming months, she’ll travel to Brazil, Argentina and France. It’s her mission to speak out as a survivor of the Holocaust.
The Nazis sent her and members of her family to Terezin, a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, when she was 11. Her upcoming travels include returning to the site in what is now the Czech Republic in May for the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.
“Our children never can imagine what it was like,” said Weissberger.
That’s why she continues to talk, why she shares her memories of hearing Adolf Hitler on the radio. She understood very little of what he said, aside from his frequent mention of Jews. She knew to be afraid of the sound of his voice. She still carries with her the Jewish star she was forced to wear under the Nazi regime. She calls it her “lucky star,” because she’s alive.
On Wednesday, Weissberger attended a rehearsal for the Opera Idaho Children’s Chorus’ performance of “Brundibar,” a folkloric children’s opera. The chorus will perform the piece in Boise on April 16.
Weissberger has a particular connection to “Brundibar.” She was among the child prisoners who performed the opera at Terezin.
Terezin was unique among concentration camps. It held an unusual number of artists and musicians, elderly people and children. It was the Nazi’s propaganda camp, one of the few camps the Nazis opened to inspectors from the Red Cross. To create the illusion that Terezin prisoners were living good lives, Nazis staged a sham community at the camp, complete with a kindergarten, a coffee house and musical performances for visitors. “Brundibar,” set to the music of Hans Krasa, who later died in Auschwitz, was among the works the prisoners performed.
The opera tells the story of children and their animal allies who triumph over a bully. The Nazis apparently didn’t realize the opera was a veiled comment on their brutality, or they didn’t care, because the cast of child prisoners performed it 55 times. Weissberger played the role of the cat in all 55 performances. While some of her fellow castmates also survived the camp, Weissberger is one of just two cast members who are alive today.
“My dream is very close,” said Weissberger, “that these children who died in the camps will not be forgotten.”
A few years after the liberation of Terezin, Weissberger moved to Israel and served in the Israeli army. She met her husband, Leo, also a concentration camp survivor, there. After the birth of their daughter, Tammy, the family, including Weissberger’s mother and sister, who also survived Terezin, decided to come to America. Weissberger had a career in design. She lives in New York state.
On Tuesday, she planted daffodils at the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial. A Holocaust education nonprofit, Am Yisrael Chai!, has organized a project to plant 1.5 million daffodils around the world, one for every Jewish child who died in the Holocaust.
The gift of a personal story
Linda Berg, director of the Opera Idaho Children’s Chorus, said it’s impossible to describe what it means to have Weissberger meet the chorus members who range in age from 10 to 17.
“Occasionally, if you’re lucky, a composer will write a piece and come and work with us, but to have someone like Weissberger visit, that just doesn’t happen,” said Berg.
“Brundibar” rehearsals began just after Christmas. Part of Berg’s work has been to make sure the students master the opera’s challenging musical content and harmonies, but also its place in history and its relation to one of the world’s darkest eras.
While in Boise, Weissberger also spoke to junior high and high school students at Timberline and Borah high schools. She’ll also speak at Boise and Capital High, and give a public talk Thursday night at Borah.
Lisa Uhlmann, one of the founders of the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial, estimates that Weissberger will have spoken to 2,000 students this week alone. Each of Weissberger’s Boise audiences has included refugee students who fled war-torn homes.
“Ela has devoted her life to sharing the gift of her personal story with young people so the Holocaust will never happen again,” said Uhlmann. “In her talks she always brings up genocide that continues around the world.”
On Tuesday, Weissberger spoke to teachers at an in-service workshop where they were discussing how to teach the Holocaust in schools. She shared a story about one of her own inspiring teachers, the artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who was also imprisoned at Terezin and died in Auschwitz.
“She is still alive in my heart,” said Weissberger. “She would tell us, ‘You are not numbers. You have a name.’”
Dicker-Brandeis secretly taught the young prisoners how to paint. Before being transported to Auschwitz, Dicker-Brandeis hid thousands of children’s paintings from Terezin. Those paintings have since become the subject of books and exhibitions.
“Friedl Brandeis told us, ‘Children, look outside. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is out. Terezin is a fortress surrounded by mountains. But behind those mountains is hope, the hope that you will survive,’” recalled Weissberger.
“So here I am.”