Brundibar: How The Nazis Conned The World

Used A Children's Opera To Deceive International Observers

"All I can hear and see is Ella, never stopping to sing the cat. So we all sang the cat in the end," remembers Eva Gross, who was 20 at the time. She taught the children.

"It was lovely this was very nice, very liberating. Very—and of course the whole—not only the whole room, the whole house, the whole town sang the victory song afterwards," Gross remembers.

The whole town was mesmerized by the opera, the story of an evil man with a mustache. An evil man with a moustache? Did the kids have any idea what the opera was really about?

"Oh, yes, they knew exactly the symbolic meaning. I'm sure they did. The whole thing was of course symbolic, you know? Brundibar was Hitler. So, oh yes, they knew," says Gross.

"It was our way to fight the evil. The Germans, maybe," says Handa Drori, who was a member of the chorus. Once, she got a chance to play the dog.

Brundibar is a story of defiance.

Asked if the Germans didn't realize that or whether they worried about it, Drori tells Simon, "Yeah that what we wondered all the time. If they don't understand that what we are singing is against them. If they don't understand it. Or if they just don't care, because they knew what we didn't know. That we are meant all to go to the gas chambers and to die, not to survive. Maybe they thought, 'Ah let the Jews play a little bit before they go to be, to be killed.'"

But by 1944 reports were circulating in allied capitals that Jews were being deported and exterminated.

The Nazis wanted to refute those reports and decided on an audacious deception: to make Theresienstadt look like a model Jewish town and to invite in the International Red Cross for an inspection and to make a propaganda film showing what a nice place it was.

A beautification plan was implemented immediately. They painted buildings, planted flowers, opened stores, and put up a bandstand in the town square.

They built a kindergarten in a small park, near our children's home. They opened a coffee shop. And those chose the people who sit there. And listen to music, and drink their coffee. Usually young, pretty women. They made Terezin into a beautiful, little place," remembers Helga Kinsky, who watched it all unfold.

And they made it a lot less crowded. Just before the Red Cross delegation arrived, the Nazis shipped 7,500 people off to Auschwitz, creating more open spaces. The stage was now set. On June 23rd, 1944, the Red Cross delegates came for their one day visit and the show began. The Nazis decided that a performance of Brundibar would be the highlight.

Paul Sandfort was in the orchestra that day and played the trumpet.

Asked what that particular performance was like, Sandfort tells Simon, "It was a little more tense. A little more tense because we had to…this feeling of…I at least has the feeling you must not fail. You must play for your life."

The Red Cross delegates went exactly where the Nazis took them. They didn't question a single prisoner. They saw no evil, they heard no evil. In fact, the Swiss head of the delegation took pictures to show how happy the children looked.

The deception worked. The final report of the Red Cross delegation read that Theresienstadt looks like a normal provincial town where and the "elegantly dressed women all had silk stockings scarves and stylish handbags." The delegates also wrote that Theresienstadt is a final destination camp and that people who come here are not sent elsewhere.

In fact by the time of the visit, some 68,000 people had already been shipped from here to the death camps.

Sandfort acknowledges the Nazis did convince the world. "But they only convinced the world because the world wanted to be convinced. It's easier."