Holocaust survivor shares experience at Georgia College

pramati@macon.comJanuary 24, 2014 

MILLEDGEVILLE -- Before performing two songs from the children’s opera “Brundibar” with Georgia College & State University students, Ela Weissberger pulled out a small plastic bag.

Many in the standing-room only crowd gasped when the 80-year-old Holocaust survivor pulled out what was inside the bag -- the cloth, yellow Star of David with “Jude” (the German word for Jew) printed on it. Nazis forced Jews to wear a cloth star.

Weissberger, who was sent to the Terezin concentration camp when she was 11, wore that star virtually every moment for about four years until the camp was liberated in 1945. There was only one time when she and others in the camp weren’t required to wear it.

“When we performed (‘Brundibar’), we didn’t have to have it on,” she said. “Those were moments we felt free.”

Weissberger was the featured speaker Friday at Georgia College’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day event. She told students, faculty members and area residents about her experiences in the camp.

Terezin, also known as the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic, was somewhat unique among the other concentration camps run by the Nazis because it was used as a propaganda tool in an attempt to show the International Red Cross that Jews were being treated humanely. As part of the facade, Jewish children were made to perform “Brundibar,” written by inmate Hans Krasa.

“Brundibar” tells the allegorical story of two children trying to earn enough money to buy milk for their sick mother. A cruel organ grinder (representing Adolf Hitler) is ruthless to the children and steals their money. But with the help of some friendly animals, the children are able to defeat the organ grinder and get their money back.

Weissberger played the cat in all 55 performances of the opera. Friday, she sang her part in her native Czech while the students sang in English.

Weissberger told those in attendance that when she performs songs from the opera, she does so in memory of her fellow performers who didn’t survive the camps. Weissberger is the last survivor of the cast.

“Because I am so connected with the opera, I see much more in it than other people,” she said, calling the opera a symbol for the children who died during the Holocaust. “Life was taken from them too early. They could have grown up to become special people. But they were taken to the gas chamber with no mercy. I’m really honored to be here. It’s very, very important.”

Before the performance, Baldwin County Commission Chairman Sammy Hall welcomed everyone, and Georgia College Theatre Department Chairwoman Karen Berman -- who helped organize the event -- read a proclamation from Milledgeville Mayor Richard Bentley.

Rabbi Larry Schlesinger, a Macon-Bibb County commissioner, spoke as well, comparing the Holocaust with the biblical story of Cain and Abel and the dual nature of humanity.

During World War II, the “Cains” took over their country, Schlesinger said, “and they went after people like you and me, the Abels.”

In addition to the 6 million Jews killed during the war (including 1.5 million children), Schlesinger said the Nazis also executed gypsies, homosexuals, Freemasons and others who didn’t fit Hitler’s notion of “the master race.” Schlesinger also told the students about some of the things they would have experienced in a camp, including forced labor, rape and starvation before being executed.

Wendy Mullen, chairwoman of Georgia College’s Music Department, wrote her dissertation on the camp and its music. She helped organize Friday’s concert.

“To meet somebody from there is really exciting for me,” she said.

Studying the music for the show also was a good learning experience for the students who performed Friday.

“It’s a really odd feeling,” said Allie Bankston, a senior history major from Barnesville. “It’s an exciting experience, but it’s also such a sad thing to remember. But it also needs to be remembered. It’s strange to sing such joyful songs about something that was so horrible.”

The event was co-sponsored by the university, the Goodrich Hillel student group and Am Yisrael Chai, which means “Survival of the Spirit.” Weissberger and the choir also will perform Sunday in Atlanta.

As part of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, there’s a worldwide effort to plant 1.5 million daffodils -- which resemble a Star of David -- to honor the children who died. Friday, organizers planted some of the 1,360 daffodils on the Georgia College campus that have been donated by the college and the Goodrich Hillel group.

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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