Holocaust survivor returns to concentration camp for Canadian children's opera performance

During the Second World War, an opera about a pair of siblings trying to overcome adversity and help their sick mother was performed for children being held in a Czech concentration camp.

Canadian Children's Opera Company to perform Brundibar on 75th anniversary of its debut

John Freund will return to Terezin with the Canadian Children's Opera Company for its performance of Brundibar. He first saw the opera performed at the concentration camp as a teenager. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

During the Second World War, an opera about a pair of siblings trying to overcome adversity and help their sick mother was performed for children being held in a Czech concentration camp.

On Sunday, the 75th anniversary of the production's first performance, the Canadian Children's Opera Company will travel to Europe to perform Brundibar — including at the Terezin concentration camp where it was put on more than 50 times.

Brundibar, written by Czech composer Hans Krasa, tells the story of a pair of siblings who need milk to help their mother, but can't afford to buy any. They see an organ grinder making money at the local market, and decide to sing for shoppers to raise some of their money of their own.

The organ grinder, Brundibar, tries to stop them, but the siblings band together with other children, as well as a dog, a cat and a sparrow, to defeat him.

A poignant message

The tale about overcoming a dictator-like figure was apt for the children who first performed it in a Prague orphanage, and for those who both performed it and sat in the audience at Terezin.

Among those children was John Freund, now 87 and living in Canada, who will travel with the chorus for their 10-day tour. He was 13 years old when he saw Brundibar performed at the concentration camp.

"It was a very hopeful event because the story is about a bad, bad guy, a bad dictator and if we all come together we can defeat him," Freund told CBC Toronto on Thursday. "He's bad but all the people, including the animals, if we get together we can defeat him and have freedom again, which of course didn't happen."

Freund was eventually sent to Auschwitz, where his parents and brother died. But he remembers the opera performance so many years ago giving him a "positive feeling."

"I was very impressed," he said. "It was a very moving play and beautiful music."

That's exactly how Dean Burry, artistic director of the Canadian Children's Opera Company, hopes current audiences view the show.

Dean Burry, artistic director of the Canadian Children's Opera Company, was determined to make Brundibar his first production. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

"When we think of the arts and when we think of entertainment and those kinds of things, they are a chance to escape. But normally we are just escaping the traffic out on the streets in Toronto," Burry told CBC. 

"They were escaping from something a little bit more intense."

Burry first discovered Brundibar about 20 years ago, and he knew it was the first opera he wanted to stage when he took on the job at the CCOC. When he learned that this year marked the 75th anniversary of the opera's first performance, he became even more determined.

"It had to happen," he said.

Finleigh Smart, 13, said that performing in the opera is "meaningful and powerful." (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

Finleigh Smart, who is playing a police chief in the show, said it is "meaningful and powerful" to be part of a production with such a rich history.

"I think about how kids would perform this opera in dark times," Finleigh, 13, said. "But this was the opera that brought a little bit of joy into their lives, even with the stuff that was going on."

Ethan Cohen, 18, plays the title role in the opera. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

Ethan Cohen, who plays the title role, said he doesn't know how he will feel performing the opera in Europe compared to Toronto.

"When you hear of the history of this, it kind of brings a whole different meaning and feeling behind performing and recreating it," the 18-year-old said.

Freund consulted on the CCOC's production, which they performed in Toronto earlier this year. He is travelling with the company on the tour, which also includes stops in Prague, Budapest and Krakow.

Freund said travelling back to the concentration camp won't bring back bad memories, because he has never forgotten his time there.

"It's something that is always with you," he said.

But the opera is an important part of helping people remember what happened so many decades ago.

"The fact that people will remember what happened 60 or 70 or 80 years ago, is certainly a positive thing."

Members of the Canadian Children's Opera Company rehearse Brundibar before their 10-day tour of Europe, which starts on Sunday. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

With files from Nick Boisvert