As a child caught in a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia during World War II, Ela Stein and other Jewish youngsters performed in the opera “Brundibar.”
Ela played a key role, a cat, in 55 performances in a little over a year, from 1943 to 1944. There was an older boy, named Honza Treichlinger, who played the lead, an evil organ grinder. His talent inspired Ela. Getting to perform gave the children momentary escapes. During the performances, the captors let them take off the star each had to wear because they were marked people. Hers said “Jude” — Jew. She began having to wear it in 1940. She recently brought it with her to Wichita, where she was speaking Thursday.
One by one, and in groups, so many other children she knew at the Terezin camp got sent off to the gas chambers, to places like Auschwitz. Honza, the talented little actor, was one of them.
And there was a gifted art teacher, Friedl Dicker Brandeis, who nurtured Ela and the other children at the camp. All these years later, Ela’s eyes twinkle as she talks about how this one teacher, in the midst of such misery, got scared children to be creative by urging them to think beyond their immediate surroundings, of the blue skies above them, of the sunlight past the mountains surrounding them.
The teacher hid her pupils’ artwork — thousands of children’s paintings — from the Nazis so it could be found later.
The teacher perished in Auschwitz. But her students’ art still lives because of her.
The boy and the teacher are some of the names and faces of Holocaust victims that Ela — now 82 and known as Ela Stein Weissberger and living in New York state — wants the world to know.
On Thursday, she spoke to hundreds of Kapaun Mount Carmel High School students as part of an effort to remember the Nazis’ systematic killing of Jews. She spoke to Newman University students Thursday evening and was to talk to Robinson Middle School students Friday morning.
On Thursday, the small woman stood by herself in Kapaun’s cavernous gym, with respectful students in bleachers before her. Over the years, she has spoken to hundreds of groups.
It was hushed as she spoke Thursday.
Beginning in 1942, when she was 11, Weissberger spent three years of her childhood in the concentration camp. Of 15,000 children who came through there, only 100 survived, she said.
“We were marked. I survived.” She dedicated her life to telling what happened.
Those who lost the chance to go on, she said, “were wonderful children. Very smart, very talented.”
There is a picture of her and the other child cast members. Honza, wearing a big theatrical moustache, stands beside Ela.
None of the children is smiling. Most didn’t survive.
She was liberated from the camp in 1945.
As she stood before the Wichita teens 68 years later, she told them, “Here I am.”
It has been 70 years since her first bittersweet opera performance.
The world can still be cruel. The Connecticut school shootings and the Boston Marathon bombings are reminders, she said, that children are still “losing their lives for nothing.”
She told the young people before her “don’t be discouraged” and do “whatever is your dream.”
At the end of her talk, they gave her a standing ovation. Then, one by one, some came up and hugged her.