Reports had begun circulating in allied capitals that the Nazis were exterminating Jews. The Nazis wanted to refute those reports, so they took this one camp and turned it, if ever so briefly, into a model town. They shot a movie there to prove how good they treated the Jews and invited the Red Cross to inspect it.
Central to the deception was the performance of a children's opera called "Brundibar." The opera survived the war and so did a few members of its cast. They are in their mid-70s now and a few months ago, they invited 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon to spend some time with them.
Every summer, a remarkable reunion takes place in the Czech Republic. A group of friends come together from all over the world, who all have one thing in common: they grew up in the shadow of death in a concentration camp in the lush mountains outside of Prague. They grew up quickly.
Helga Kinsky couldn't speak about the horror for a full 40 years. "Because actually whatever you did, you didn't have the right to live. You were sentenced to death. And it is something you can't get over," she explains.
The survivors' friendship began in Theresienstadt, a transit camp. From here, a garrison town before the war, Jews were sent off to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Nearly 140,000 Jews from all over central Europe passed through the camp, including many of Europe's most prominent artists who left a record of what it was like. Much of the art has survived, some of it by children. They portrayed how cold and crowded they were, sleeping 30 to a room, how typhus epidemics swept through the camp. The dead were brought to catacombs before being incinerated. Bodies were carried on the same wagons used for bread. Jews weren't gassed at Theresienstadt but more than 30,000 died of disease and hunger.
Music flourished in the camp—it was like a Julliard for Jews. There were classes and concerts in cellars and attics. The hottest ticket in town was Brundibar, written by a Czech Jew and smuggled into the camp.
"It wasn't easy to get tickets," remembers Dita Krause, who was in the choir in Brundibar. She says tickets were printed for every performance and were maybe the most difficult to get.
The opera was performed 55 times by children in Theresienstadt. It's a fairy tale of sorts, the story of a young brother and sister who with the help of a cat, a dog, a bird and the children of the village defeat an evil organ grinder named Brundibar. The opera ends with a victory song.
Back in the camp, the Nazis filmed the performance in 1944. The lead role, the part of Brundibar, was played by a boy named Honza Treichlinger, who wore a fake mustache.
"Everybody loved him. And everybody adored him," remembers Ella Weissberger, who played the cat.
"I wore my sisters ski pants and my mothers sweater. Black sweater, this was my costume," she recalls.
Wearing a costume was a relief from what Ella and the other kids had to wear all the time in the camp. "This was the only time that they said we don't have to put on the Jewish star. A couple of minutes of freedom," she explains.
A couple of minutes of freedom for Ella the cat.