Monday, March 15, 2021

Young singers work with Holocaust Center for Humanity

Youth Opera Online participants learn about the first performances of Brundibar in the Terezin concentration camp.

By Gabrielle Nomura Gainor

Amid a global pandemic and social unrest, Brundibár—a youth opera closely associated with the Holocaust—could easily hit an unsettling note. But Sara Litchfield was surprised to discover that this 1938 Czech work is a beacon of hope; a work of art for right now.

Litchfield, Youth & Family Programs Manager for Seattle Opera, is currently leading participants ages 7-18 in an 11-week online program. The final product, a streaming Brundibár performance, will be viewed by participants and families in April. In addition to working with Seattle Opera staff, the young artists had the chance to learn from individuals with the Holocaust Center for Humanity, which provided guest speakers, a virtual tour of its museum, and more to deepen participants’ understanding of the context and significance of the opera.

A partial view of the center's "Finding Light in the Darkness" exhibit. Credit: Natalie Singer-Velush

Because Brundibár is meant to be performed by youth, it offers an entry point for young children today to learn about the Holocaust. Written prior to World War II, the opera was performed more than 55 times in Terezín, where many Jewish artists were sent. This camp-ghetto supported a cultural community, as well as secret art-making, amidst Hitler’s atrocities.

“At the height of human hatred people held on to their humanity. It’s a really incredible example of strength,” said Julia Thompson, Holocaust Center for Humanity’s Education Program Manager.

Youth participants with Seattle Opera had the chance to meet with two adult children of Terezín survivors over Zoom. One of the speakers shared about how her father even attended a Brundibár performance.

Youth Opera Online participants met with Hana Kern to hear about her father, Tom Kern's, experience as a child in Terezin.

Because the program included such a sweeping age range, Seattle Opera’s youth participants were divided up at times—with younger children receiving less nuanced information about the wartime genocide. But everyone was given space to process their emotions, including grief, anger, and sadness. They also had the chance to think deeply about their own values of fairness and justice.

“I really liked how the Holocaust Center included kids in the discussion,” Litchfield said. “They would ask, ‘If you see people being treated unfairly because of their race or ethnicity today, what can you do?’ The kids offered ideas like, ‘You can go to a protest. You can treat that person with love. You can tell an adult.’"
A drawing and poem created by Josie Sanders, an Advanced Ensemble participant. 

At one point during the program, a teaching artist had participants draw a picture based on their feelings surrounding the Holocaust. Then, the group had a conversation about hope, resilience, and connection. The youth surrounded their original images of despair and heartbreak with uplifting images of butterflies, for example.

“The beauty of youth opera is that there is less of a set idea on what it has to be,” Litchfield said. “Partnering with other cultural or historical groups such as the Holocaust Center provides such a meaningful experience for our young people. Both in moments of profound joy and in moments of deepest anguish, the arts allow us to process our feelings and experiences. Music and storytelling can bring us back to our humanity.”

How to start talking to young children about the Holocaust:

- There is no “perfect age” for your child to learn, though the Holocaust Center for Humanity targets its programming for grades 5-12. The youngest group in Seattle Opera’s program was 7-9, and Thompson said learning in this age group can take place with great care, ideally with information coming from the parent first.

- Remain open to young children’s questions and curiosity; demonstrate that you are a safe space for them to ask questions—even if their question is scary or hard to talk about.

- Help children understand that they are not helpless—they have power and agency. Both during the Holocaust, and throughout history, individuals have chosen to be brave to do what is right, rather than simply choosing to do what is easy. For example, some people helped to hide Jews from the Nazis.

A few books/movies about the Holocaust for elementary-aged children:

o "Anne Frank's Chestnut Tree" ("We have one of these trees in Seattle so it's a great connection," Thompson says.)

o "The Whispering Town" ("This is a story about a town that helped to save Jewish people during the Holocaust. It's based on a true story.")

o "The Number on my Great-Grandpa's Arm" ("A wonderful film about a kid asking his great-grandpa questions. It's available on Amazon prime and HBO and probably elsewhere.")

o "I Never Saw Another Butterfly." ("Art and poems by children in Terezín.")

o "Hana's Suitcase" by Karen Levine ("A great book for upper-elementary or middle school, also focused on Terezín.")

o "Terrible Things" by Eve Bunting ("An allegorical picture book best for grades 4 and above.")

For more resources, including information on how to visit the Holocaust Center for Humanity (now open 10-4 with pre-registration required on Sundays) go to

For more information on upcoming Seattle Opera programming for youth, such as opera camps, check back at in the coming weeks.

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