2017-07-13 / News

Bringing the history of the holocaust to a local synagogue

By Sarah Beth Campisi
Contributing Writer


Rebecca Comerford, professional singer and actor, performs, “Wiegenleid,” by Gideon Klein, a composer who died in the Holocaust July 6. (Sarah Beth Campisi photo) Rebecca Comerford, professional singer and actor, performs, “Wiegenleid,” by Gideon Klein, a composer who died in the Holocaust July 6. (Sarah Beth Campisi photo) BIDDEFORD -- Congregation Etz Chaim is usually quiet on a Thursday night in July. While the sanctuary remains empty, a few dedicated congregation members set up rows of plastic chairs in the downstairs hall. People embrace and mingle with one another before finding their way to their seats.

Etz Chaim holds cultural and religious events year round, from potluck suppers, to Passover seders, to Saturday services. People go to feel connected to their community and culture. Rebecca Comerford, a professional singer and actor, brought some more culture to Etz Chaim July 6 with a talk on her company’s performance of “Brundibar,” a resistance opera written and performed by Jews in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II.

Comerford has performed locally at the Ogunquit Playhouse in a production of, “My Fair Lady,” as Eliza Doolittle, and also with Portland Players in, “Night of January 16th,” as Attorney Stevens. She has also performed in New York theaters in plays such as, “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Comerford has acted in several prominent film festival movies, including Sundance and Woodstock Film Festivals. As a singer, Comerford has performed at prestigious theaters, including Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.

Comerford has an extensive professional resume, and is now using her knowledge of performing to educate young performers. Comerford is a founder of Ojai Youth Opera, the first youth opera company in the United States. Ojai Youth Opera, based in Ojai, California, was formed in 2012 by Comerford along with friend and colleague Julija Zonic.

Ojai Youth Opera performed, “Brundibar,” as part of its 2017 season. “Brundibar” was written by composers Krása and Adolf Hoffmeister in 1938. The opera was originally created for the Children’s Orphanage of Prague. The opera, which follows the story of a brother and sister who stand up to a bully in order to afford milk to save their sick mother, was meant to teach the children at the orphanage about how to deal with a bully, and how to remain positive in difficult situations.

The 1941 debut of the opera was secret due to German occupation. European Jews were rounded up for deportation to concentration camps as the war continued. Krása was one of those deported to the concentration camp in Theresienstadt, a town in the former Czechoslovakia. The Nazis renamed the town Terezin.

Krása rewrote the opera for the children in the camp to perform. They rehearsed in secret until the Nazis discovered them. Instead of being punished, the Nazis saw Krása’s opera as a way to show the world that they were treating their prisoners fairly, allowing them to practice the arts.

The antagonist, an organ grinder who sang loudly on the street in order to make money and drown out all the townspeople’s voices, was symbolic of Adolf Hitler’s tyrannical reign. The Nazis failed to make this connection, and so the resistance opera continued to be performed under their noses. “Brundibar” was performed 55 times in the camp for inspectors from organizations such as the Red Cross on humanitarian missions.

Many of the opera’s performers were deported from Terezin to Auschwitz- Buchenwald. Most performers died there. When performers were deported, they were replaced by other prisoners at Terezin. Only 20 of the 400 performers of “Brundibar” survived to see liberation.

“They were making art up until the very end,” Comerford said.

At the end of “Brundibar,” the chorus sings the following: “We’ve won a victory over the tyrant mean. Sound trumpets, beat your drum, and show us your esteem. We’ve won a victory because we were not fearful, because we were not tearful. Because we marched along singing our happy song, bright joyful and cheerful.”

Theresienstadt was a hub of Jewish art during the Holocaust, whether it was performed for an insidious purpose, or practiced in secret. One of the boys’ barracks curated a literary magazine in secret, called, “The Lead.” The boys met in secret once a week to put together their poems and art work. Pavel Friedman, a young boy interned there, wrote a poem, that is now famous today, called “The Butterfly.” Rebecca Comerford, professional singer and actor, performs, “Wiegenleid,” by Gideon Klein, a composer who died in the Holocaust July 6. (Sarah Beth Campisi photo)

“Brundibar” was not performed outside of Theresienstadt until 1986, when Radio Prague debuted it internationally. In 2005, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City performed a production.

“The board of directors and I were sitting around trying to decide what we were going to program for the 2017 season. The conversation came up about the current political climate, and the rise of fascism across the globe, and the pervasive rise of intolerance, not just nationally, but on a macro level, too. I told the board the story of this opera,” Comerford said of how Ojai Youth Opera chose “Brundibar” as part of the 2017 season.

Comerford said there was an element of education to the show too. She said the company had to decide what they were going to teach their performers about how to promote tolerance and inclusion, and about how to deal with bullies and negativity.

“We decided that this would be really timely and relevant in terms of our mission, and said let’s do this outreach component, too. We’ll really discuss the messages. How do we deal with a bully? What does that mean to our children? And why do they need to know this story, so history doesn’t repeat itself again?” Comerford said.

Comerford sang for the Etz Chaim’s audience, performing an operatic arrangement of, “The Butterfly,” and a lullaby by Gideon Klein, called, “Wiegenleid.” Comerford also performed pieces from “Brundibar” itself. During his time at Terezin, Klein was active in the camp’s underground cultural life. Klein wrote the lullaby shortly before he was killed in the Holocaust at Auschwitz- Buchenwald concentration camp.

“It’s our obligation as a human family to share the story,” Comerford said.

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