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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 13, 2007

Jewish star sheds light on long-ago opera

By Tyler Schuling

GUILDERLAND — Ela Stein Weissberger has stories to tell. She speaks with urgency, pausing after making her points. She quickly starts again, giving the impression that she has not yet told the whole story and that she hasn’t said everything that needs to be said.

Over 60 years ago, when she was 11 years old, she arrived at the Terezin concentration camp, better known by the German name Theresienstadt, in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and saw young dead men hanging in the town square.

During her three-and-a-half years at the camp, Ela Stein found art.

She played the cat in all 55 performances of the children’s opera Brundibar, an allegory in which a group of kids, with a sparrow, cat and dog, chase away an evil organ-grinder. While at the camp, she was taught by artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who hid artwork made by her students in a suitcase. The paintings were found years later, and are now in a museum in Prague.

At 12, Weissberger was in a Nazi propaganda film, Hitler Gives the Jews a City.

Now, she travels around the world, telling others about her life and her experiences during the Holocaust in order to keep the memory alive of children who didn’t survive. Weissberger, with Susan Goldman Rubin, wrote The Cat with the Yellow Star, a memoir about her experiences at the Terezin camp.

American children, she said, are very close to her heart, and she feels they are a bridge between her and a new generation. "This is my goal now before I go," Weissberger said.

She will speak here next week.

Years ago

Weissberger’s path to a starring role in Brundibar began in 1938, when her family was expelled from its home in Czechoslovakia. There was a big demonstration against Jews, she said.

Her father was taken by the Gestapo and the family never saw him again, she said.

She knew something was happening, but she really didn’t know exactly what it meant to be Jewish because all Jews were assimilated in Czechoslovakia, she said.

While both of Weissberger’s parents were Jewish, she said, many children were from mixed marriages.

The Nazis began registering the Jews in Prague and the children were expelled from school, she said; she had only been in school for two years before she was expelled in 1940.

In Theresienstadt, the composer of Brundibar, Hans Krasa, reconstructed the full score of the opera from memory, and the set designer, who had also been sent to the camp, recreated the set. Weissberger was cast as the cat.

She wore her sister’s ski pants and her mother’s sweater, she said. She wasn’t allowed to wear her wooden shoes, she said, and a man from Prague had a little box with left-over shoe polish, so he made her whiskers and put a little polish on her feet so they wouldn’t be completely white.

The opera tells the story of a fatherless sister and brother whose mother is very sick. A doctor tells them she needs milk to get better, but they have no money to buy it. They go to sing in the marketplace to raise money but the evil organ-grinder, Brundibar, chases them away. With the help of three gifted animals and the town’s children, they chase Brundibar away and sing in the market square.

"Brundibar, in our eyes, was Hitler as we will overcome this evil man," Weissberger said.

The finale, which she sang in the Czech language, was always very powerful and Brundibar was very popular.

"It was really the most popular opera," she said, "and tickets for it were really hard to get."

But real life at Terezin was not as uplifting as the opera.

Weissberger’s best friend was taken to Auschwitz in October, 1944 and returned around March of 1945, she said. When her friend came back to the camp in Theresienstadt, Weissberger was the first to recognize her, she said, though she was almost unrecognizable.

"Her head was shaven so she didn’t have no hair. It was snow on the ground and she came with torn stockings. She didn’t have even the wooden shoes anymore," said Weissberger.

Now, they are best friends again and sometimes meet twice a year, she said.

After the war

After the war, the first question Weissberger asked her aunt was: Can I go to school"

Her aunt replied, "No, you can’t go like this to school. We have to make you a nice dress...Look, you are so skinny."

"That’s what really happened," she said, "and we were so undernourished after the camps."

When she speaks to kids, Weissberger said, she shows them her body, and says, "You see what she did to me" Now I have to go on diet."

When she was 15 years old, Weissberger went to school for one year; her teacher was a young man who survived the war and had smuggled the pianos into the camp that were used for Brundibar.

After the war, the Communists took over and she didn’t want to join the Communist Party, she said, so she immigrated to Israel with her mother and sister.

She became a soldier in the Israeli Army for two years and worked for the secret service, drawing maps.

One day, she picked up a hitchhiker. He became her husband.

In March of 1958, her husband asked her if she would go to America with him.

She did.


Weissberger has lived in her home in Tappan for 42 years. Each year, she said, she travels to the Czech Republic, and, on her next trip, she will bring copies of her book, The Cat with the Yellow Star, to the museum in Theresienstadt, the camp where she spent her childhood.

Her daughter, who is 54 years old and speaks Spanish, wants to join her for a trip to see Brundibar in Madrid, Spain.

Her children, Weissberger said, understand what she is doing.

"They’re not living with me any longer," she said. "I don’t see them too often, but we are in touch all the time."

Weissberger said she came to America in June of 1958.

"It will be 50 years now, and my accent is still so bad and I’m telling the kids I’m almost 50 years in America so it may be possibility that I will lose my accent. I speak other languages, but, I don’t know, only probably in English, they feel my accent. But that’s OK. They understand.

"I don’t have such a big vocabulary," Weissberger said, "but what I always think is I don’t have written anything down for me to speak, and I’m saying, if I don’t speak from my heart, I wouldn’t speak, and my friends are in my heart till I die."


Ela Stein Weissberger will speak at the Guilderland Public Library at 2288 Western Avenue on Dec. 19 at 7 p.m. Tickets are free and available. To order tickets, call the library’s public library adult reference department at 456-2400 ext. 7. A private reception will be held at 6 p.m. To purchase tickets for the reception or for more information, call 456-2400 ext. 12.

Brundibar and Amahl and the Night Visitors will be performed at Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady from Dec. 20 to Dec. 23. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evening performances are at 7:30 p.m., and matinees will be on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.

Tickets may be purchased on-line or by calling the box office.

Griggs-Janower pairs Brundibar with Amahl

By Tyler Schuling

David Griggs-Janower has launched an experiment, pairing two unlikely operas — a sentimental Christmas favorite and a lesser-known Jewish opera from a concentration camp.

Next Thursday marks the opening night for the double-bill performances of Brundibar and Amahl and the Night Visitors at the new GE Theater at Proctor’s in Schenectady.

This week, Griggs-Janower, the music director, was anticipating the public’s reaction.

"This is kind of an experiment," he said. "And we have in the back of our minds the thought that maybe this could become kind of an annual thing. So we’re interested to see if the public out there is interested or not once they hear it — if they like it, if it works — so we’re all curious about that."

Amahl and the Night Visitors is an opera that was written for television in 1951 about a boy and his widowed mother. Amahl, a young boy, is visited by three kings who are on their way to Bethlehem.

Griggs-Janower called Amahl a Christmas Eve opera and "a very heart-warming story" filled with humor.

"People, certainly all over America, but, I think all over the world now, have considered it a timeless Christmas classic," he said.

While Amahl has a small cast, Brundibar’s is much larger. It was written by Jews for Jews, said Griggs-Janower. Brundibar was recently made into a children’s book by Tony Kushner and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Ela Stein Weissberger, one of few survivors of the original cast, will speak before the opening performance. In recent years, she has been invited to performances in both the United States and abroad.

When Griggs-Janower learned about Brundibar, he thought it would be a really wonderful opera to put on, he said, and he had no idea that people had picked it up over the last 10 years.

"And then, the Kushner-Sendak book has really made a difference...so it’s had kind of a revival in the last decade," he said. It’s easily available, in books stores, and that often makes a difference whether people take it on or not, he said.

"And I think it has a life now. So here I thought I was doing something unusual but everybody in the world is doing it now. But of course nobody’s ever done it in the Capital Region ever," he said.

Griggs-Janower said the interesting thing about the two operas is their juxtaposition, one being a Christmas Eve opera and the other a Jewish opera from a concentration camp.

He said he hopes people find this juxtaposition wonderful and fascinating and not completely odd and crazy.

Griggs-Janower, the artistic director and conductor for Albany Pro Musica, which he founded 26 years ago, is also a professor at the University at Albany.

Earlier this year, Albany Pro Musica, an auditioned community chorus, performed three concerts as part of a 12-day multi-media festival to raise awareness about holocausts from World War II to Darfur.

The double-bill production next week of Amahl and the Night Visitors and Brundibar marks Proctor’s first self-made production.

Griggs-Janower said, "When I had this idea to do these pieces, I called the CEO, Phillip Morris, who is just an amazing man, and I said, ‘What do you think about doing this at Proctor’s"’ and he said, ‘We have a new theater. Let’s do it.’"

Over 25 middle-school students make up the operas’ casts. The Farnsworth students in Brundibar, which includes the entire chorus, are: Alex Benninger, Renee Benninger, Zoe Bousbouras, Albert Cartagenes, Alessandro Cerio, Francesca Cerio, Laura Chevalier, Sierra Christensen, Rosamaria Cirelli, Leah Devlin, Enaw Elonge, Charlotte Hayden, Samina Hydery, Clare Ladd, Jordan Lloyd, Christian Meola, Casey Morris, Anthony Pitkin, Lexi Rabadi, Geoffrey Snow, Erin Stack, and Catherine Walser.

The entire Brundibar cast is children except the organ grinder, allegorically Adolph Hitler, whom Griggs-Janower called "a mean old man." He said working with children actors is a completely new experience.

"Although I’ve worked with children singers...I’ve never worked with children actors before, and it’s kind of a different dynamic," he said.

"It’s an extremely different dynamic, in fact. And I’ve just enjoyed it tremendously. It creates different challenges," he said. "They are so energetic and rambunctious and exciting to be with that sometimes it’s a little hard to get them to focus, but their energy is incredible," Griggs-Janower said. "I just have such a great time with them."

Zoning hearing continues

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALTAMONT — Village Hall was packed again on Tuesday as residents expressed their views on a zoning plan and the public hearing, first held in October, is now entering its fourth month.

"We feel it’s important to inform the public," Mayor James Gaughan said yesterday of why he proposed extending the hearing for another month, until the village board’s Jan. 8 meeting.

After hearing from about a dozen residents on proposed village-wide zoning regulations, first introduced earlier this fall, the board committed to removing the contentious R20M designation on Bozenkill Road but maintaining the R10M designation within the village, though it took no formal action.

The M stands for multi-family, which would allow for apartment or condominium style housing on the property. Both designations are residential.

Most speakers at Tuesday night’s meeting were opposed to the M designation, and many were opposed to any development at all.

"Why can’t we leave things the way they are"" Joseph Dover asked the board. Like many of the other speakers, he received applause from residents for his comment.

"I want to develop my land," Carl Schilling told the board. "It’s what I do for a living."

Schilling owns the roughly five-and-a-half-acre parcel slated to be zoned R10M in the village. He brought to the meeting a sketch of his plan for the land, which showed the buildings clustered in one area and surrounded by green space.

Local developer Troy Miller, who used to co-own the land along Bozenkill Road, addressed the board after Schilling, and pointed out that the M designation helps to facilitate the green space that most of the residents had been asking for. Allowing for only one- and two-family homes encourages development that is spread out over all the acreage to be built on, whereas multi-family units can be clustered, leaving much of the land empty.

"When you take away the M, you can be sure that your yard will butt up to someone else’s," he said.

After the board had heard from residents, board members shared their thoughts, starting with Trustee Kerry Dineen, who said that she had never supported the M designation and was opposed to it; trustee William Aylward agreed with her.

Trustee Christine Marshall, who serves on the committee that developed that proposed zoning regulations, said that she would like to see Schilling’s property in the village be zoned R10M, but she’d like the property along the Bozenkill to be zoned without the M designation.

Trustee Dean Whalen, an architect, who chairs the committee that wrote the proposal, said that the M designation was part of an effort to address a need expressed by residents during the comprehensive planning process for a diversity of housing types to accommodate all income levels in the village. The comprehensive plan, adopted by the village board earlier this year, recommended an overhaul of the village’s zoning regulations. Whalen, too, said that he could see the Bozenkill land without the M designation, but thinks it is necessary for the land within the village.

Finally, Mayor Gaughan echoed Whalen and Marshall, and the board agreed to those changes, though it put off the vote until the January village board meeting.

Other business

In other business, the board:

— Voted unanimously to approve an internship with the Altamont Police Department for Jillian Agnew, a student at the State University of New York at Canton;

— Voted unanimously to appoint Taylor Brandt as an apprentice firefighter in the Altamont Fire Department;

— Voted unanimously to pay $10,500 to Bruce Cadman, of General Code Regional Sales Team, to put village documents and laws into an electronic format. There will also be an annual maintenance fee of $550; and

— Voted unanimously to offer a Medicare-supplement health plan to village employees and retirees who are at least 65 years old.

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALTAMONT — Counterfeit bills have been making their way down Western Avenue, and, at the end of November, a fake $10 bill showed up in Altamont, according to village police.

Three counterfeit bills were used at Price Chopper stores along Route 20, said Altamont’s public safety commissioner, Anthony Salerno. On Nov. 19, the culprit, who has yet to be identified, used a counterfeit $10 bill at the Altamont Sunoco, according to an Altamont Police report. A clerk at the store was counting the cash that had come in for the day when he noticed that one bill looked and felt different from the rest, the report says.

Counterfeiters often use small denomination bills since they draw less attention to the user, Salerno said. He also said that this is the first time he’s encountered this type of crime in Altamont.

Not unheard of in this village with two gas stations, however, are drive-offs. There have been two recently, Salerno said.

Brian Antoine, 23, of 34 Moyston Ave., Schenectady, drove off without paying for his gas four times in Princetown and twice from the Stewart’s in Altamont, said Salerno. Clerks at the Altamont Stewart’s were able to get the man’s license plate number Salerno arrested him at the Altamont Police Station for petit larceny, a misdemeanor, on Dec. 12, before turning him over to State Troopers. Antoine stole a total of $116 worth of gas from the Altamont Stewart’s, the arrest report says.

Grimm calls for applicants

By Saranac Hale Spencer

GUILDERLAND — The two Republicans elected to the five-member town board want to change the way the all-Democrat board make appointments.

In a letter to The Enterprise editor this week, Councilman-elect Mark Grimm called for applications from anyone interested in serving on one of the town’s many boards. "In keeping with our campaign pledge to open up government," he writes, "we wish to publicly solicit applications for those positions."

David Bosworth, a lame duck board member and chair of the town’s Democratic party, said that he was voted in on a similar campaign pledge in 2000, a pledge that he says the current board has lived up to. "I think there’s an open process," he said.

A person who is interested in serving on a board will typically submit a résumé to the town supervisor, Ken Runion, who then distributes information to the board members, Bosworth said. Runion could not be reached for this story.

The board, then, votes to appoint people based largely on their experience, he said. "We look for people who can work together and contribute," said Bosworth.

"I said we need a change and the voters agreed," Grimm said on Monday. "I think we could improve all the committees."

"It’s not a new issue," Bosworth said of keeping a political balance on the boards. "It’s something we’ve been concerned with since we came here in 2000." Previously, for more than a century, the town had been run by Republicans.

Grimm doesn’t know what to expect, but hopes to be able to offer some applicants to the board, he said.

"I don’t envision anything other than an advisory role," Bosworth said when asked what his role might be in the appointments on Jan. 3. "I have no official role. It’s different when you’re not a voting member."

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALTAMONT - A month after the departure of the village's attorney, the board has found new counsel.

Michael Moore, a partner at Young, Sommer, Ward, Ritzenberg, Baker, and Moore, was accepted as the new village attorney in a unanimous vote following an executive session at Tuesday night's village board meeting. He will be paid an annual salary of $11,100, according to the village's clerk, Jean La Crosse.

"We call ourselves a boutique," said Moore of his Albany firm, which specializes in environmental, zoning, and land-use planning law. "We do an awful lot of municipal work," he said.

For those reasons, the village asked him to take the post, said Mayor James Gaughan yesterday. Moore was recommended to the village by Barton and Loguidice, an engineering firm that has worked with both Altamont and Moore's law firm.

Moore, himself, has worked with several local municipalities and has acted as a town attorney, he said.

"His expertise in municipal government," is important, Gaughan said. And "his long-term skill with environment and land use," he added, is important, considering the village's current work with a comprehensive plan.

Moore is looking forward to his work with the village, he said. "It's really democracy at the grassroots level."

Construction manager sues Thomas for non-payment

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALTAMONT - Work started on Brandle Meadows over the summer and a suit brought against the project this fall won't slow it down, says developer Jeff Thomas.

Rapp Construction Management, the company first hired by Thomas to manage his senior housing project, located just outside the village on Brandle Road, has filed court papers claiming that Thomas hasn't paid for its services.

A lien was docketed on Oct. 2 in the Albany County Clerk's office, the papers say, for a total amount of $91,495.26, a sum that includes $76,246.05 for goods and services not paid for, plus interest.

An invoice included in the court papers lists what the charges are that make up the roughly $76,000 tab. On the list are things like "field office supplies" for $1,042 and "copies of plans and project documents" for $874.52. The largest component, "principle's time - Joseph Rapp" for $38,900, covered 389 hours of work at a rate of $100 per hour.

The hours accumulated over the course of about two-and-a-half months; a contract between Brandle Meadows and Rapp Construction Management was signed on May 18 and Thomas terminated the agreement in a letter dated July 25.

In the letter, Thomas cites a section of the contract that states: "This Agreement may be terminated by the Owner for convenience after seven (7) days written notice to the CM." In that case, a later paragraph says, the construction manager is entitled to an additional 20 percent "of the total compensation earned."

Joseph Rapp would not speak about the suit because it is in litigation, he said. "We didn't get paid," he said. "So we liened the property."

"We believe we paid him everything and then some," Thomas said yesterday. He changed the construction manager, to Bette and Cring, last summer, he said, because the project hadn't been moving fast enough. It should be an 18-month project, he said, and phase one should be completed this spring.

Nine buildings will makeup the 72-unit project that will sit on land once owned by the Altamont Fair. The project had been held up due to municipal water problems, but is now underway.

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