In the wake of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Leonard Bernstein posited that, "Our response to violence is to make music more beautifully and more intensely than ever."
Composer Oliver Messiaen, who was interned in a German prison camp during World War II, believed that the work of artists and musicians, even — or perhaps especially in the midst of war — "is what provides humanity with a reason for being."
At Terezin, a "model" camp 40 miles north of Prague designed to provide the illusion of "normalcy" to the Red Cross, and indeed the world, the art and music produced by the residents did provide them with a "reason for being," and a visit there in the summer of 2007 provided local musician and teacher Paula Rothman with a vision — and a mission.
Paula, her husband Alan, and 20 others had traveled to Eastern Europe with Cantor David Tilman and the Men's Choir of Beth Sholom Congregation. Their stop at Terezin was part of a tour that mixed live performances with tributes to the dead.
While touring the camp, Paula was captivated by an unusual item mounted on the wall: the score of "Brundibar," a children's opera by Hans Krasa and librettist Adolf Hoffmeister that was one of the most popular of the many musical and theatrical works performed there.
A simplistic children's tale in which two youngsters are prevented from singing in the town square to earn money for their ill mother by an evil grinder named Brundibar — and how they thwart him — has been told often since its original version in the camp some 65 years ago, including a production by playwright Tony Kushner and artist Maurice Sendak, whose published illustrated version proved popular.
As a teacher at the Saligman Middle School in Elkins Park, Rothman realized that presenting a production of "Brundibar" with her students would offer an unusual vehicle to teach the difficult subject of the Holocaust to young teens.
After an 18-month campaign, Rothman's vision will be realized March 22 when a dozen of her students will join with younger children from the choirs of the Forman Center of the Perelman Jewish Day School and Beth Sholom Congregation, and a small orchestra, all under the baton of Tilman. The performance is set for Gratz College at 3 p.m.
Rothman credits many for help, including local singer and vocal coach Donna Levin, who taught the challenging "Weill-esque" score to the children; "Mr. Alex" Panku, a local pianist who worked with the students and accompanied at all the rehearsals; Emily Steinberg, the school's art teacher, who directed the production as well as designed the spare sets; Bayla Rubin, a theater intern from the University of the Arts (whose parents, Harvey and Anne, were also part of the Beth Sholom tour), assisted; Tilman; and a supportive school administration headed by principal Susan Friedman.
Rothman also had high praise for retired businessman Peter Rafaeli, the "honorary consul general of the Czech Republic in Philadelphia," whose efforts and contacts contributed to the production in many ways.
Rafaeli, a non-Jewish ex-patriot from the former Czechoslovakia, who lived on an Israeli kibbutz from 1949 to 1961 before coming to the United States, put Rothman in contact with Ela Weissberger, a surviving member of the original cast.
Weissberger's book, The Cat With the Yellow Star, detailing her life in Terezin and her experience playing the role of the "cat" in the opera, have been required reading for the Saligman students.
Weissberger will be attending the program, and will give a pre-performance talk, moderated by Josey Fisher, Holocaust educator and director of the Holocaust Oral History Archive at Gratz College.
Weissberger's comments will have special significance for one cast member, 13-year-old Leah Shatz, who is singing the role of the "cat" in the "Brundibar" performance. An eighth-grader at Saligman and a member of Beth Sholom, Leah is a veteran of many other shows, but finds "Brundibar" "more somber, with more depth" than the other productions in which she's been involved.
"It's an important historical play," she commented, "and we're doing a really authentic version, but in English."
A segment on the music and art of Terezin that was originally broadcast on the CBS television program "60 Minutes" will also complement the performance of the 35-minute opera.
For information, call the Saligman Middle School at 215-635-3303.