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Aug 2008 Journal

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Theresienstadt martyrs remembered

Every year the Theresienstadt Martyrs’ Remembrance Association holds its annual general meeting at Beit Theresienstadt, located in Kibbutz Givat Hayim-Ihud, where there is a museum and archive devoted to the Theresienstadt Ghetto. Every three or four months a newsletter is sent out to members and during the year educational activities are held there for schoolchildren from all over Israel.

I have kept up my late father’s membership of the association because I feel that this is one way in which I can maintain some kind of connection with the memory of my grandmother, whom I never knew. Regina van Son perished there a few months after I was born in London, a thousand miles away from where she was incarcerated.

The annual meetings of the association are not mournful occasions of remembrance, though obviously the commemoration of the dead does play a part. The participants are of all ages, and the sight of several hundred people, some of them former inmates (albeit fewer and fewer every year), alongside members of the second, third, and even fourth generations, all sitting together on a sunny Saturday morning to hear the committee report on its activities, is heart-warming. The drive to the kibbutz, through the fields and orchards of the lovely Hefer Valley region, also constitutes an enjoyable outing into Israel’s countryside.

This year the annual general meeting was particularly festive. It marked the opening of the new permanent exhibition in the renovated museum, the dedication of a new classroom and a performance of the children’s opera Brundibar, given by children from schools in the region. The libretto of the opera was written by Adolf Hoffmeister and the music by Hans Krasa in 1938, when both were still in Prague. Later Krasa was sent to Theresienstadt, where he managed to reconstruct the score. The fact that cultural and educational life continued in the inhuman conditions of the camp represents the triumph of the spirit that inspires us still today. Brundibar was performed at Theresienstadt 55 times by a group of children under the guidance of Krasa, bringing pleasure and hope to the starving, tormented prisoners. Most of the audience as well as many of the young performers were later sent to Auschwitz and murdered.

At the initiative of Hanni Ricardo, a spirited and caring music teacher in several schools in the Hefer Valley region, the opera has once again been brought to life, after many years in which few people in Israel were aware of its existence. Accompanied by a talented young pianist from nearby Zikhron Ya’akov, the youngsters sang and acted the Hebrew translation of the original Czech text with gusto and sensitivity, throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the spirit of the story. The message of the text, which tells of the triumph of good over evil and the power of unity in overcoming adversity, was as potent today as it must have been when it was originally performed

But the pinnacle of the event was what happened once the main performance was over. In the audience were three well-dressed ladies who, it transpired, had all participated in the original performances given in Theresienstadt. They were called to the stage and each one was asked to say a few words about herself and her life. Then each of them joined their young counterpart to sing their role in the opera. The original participants sang in Czech while the youngsters sang in Hebrew, but the music was the same. The adult and youthful voices blended perfectly, inspiring all those present with admiration and joy.

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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