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You're hearing the moving lullaby from the children's opera, Brundibar, which was written by Hans Krása in the late 1930s and performed fifty-five times in the Terezín concentration camp in 1943. It was sung by children who would soon perish in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, along with Krása and the adult artists and musicians who had created this remarkable production.
The anniversary of these moving events is remembered in a stunning new picture book by Maurice Sendak, with a text by Tony Kushner, that retells the opera in powerfully visual and verbal ways. It's a tale of two poor children, Pepicek and Aninku, brother and sister, who go to the city to find milk for their ailing mother. The children have no money, and when they try to make music, like the hurdy-gurdy man, Brundibar, in order to earn enough for their mother's milk, the ferocious Brundibar chases them away. It's only through the help of magical animals and a group of other children, that they are able to sing their haunting lullaby which opens people's hearts and their pocket books. Brundibar tries to steal their money, but together with the children and the animals, the townspeople catch him and make him return the money to Aninku and Pepicek, so that they can buy the fresh milk to restore their mother's health.
Kushner's text is as fresh as a spring morning in Bohemia -- it's both everyday and poetic, innocent and, at the same time, utterly aware. Having defeated the bully Brundibar, the children assume that he is gone for good, but as adults know, bullies always try to come back, and so we must be vigillant. Kushner's warning is true to the original spirit of Krasa's opera, which was sung in Czech, so that the German guards at the camp wouldn't understand the message of the children's struggle. Sendak's extraordinary illustrations show us just how powerful this struggle, and this message are. His pictures are bursting with vivid life and energy, and with tragic poignance. The night scene of the children's lullaby, as they fly away from their weeping mothers on the backs of blackbirds is one of the most heart-breaking scenes in all of children's books. As they take to the sky, the children sing:
Now you are very old.
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Copyright 2003 © John Cech
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