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The Emperor of Atlantis in Terezin
By Jacobo Kaufmann

Jacobo Kaufmann, stage-director, writer, translator, lecturer and researcher, was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He lives in Israel since 1972. An actor since age 9, and a theatre director since age 18, he graduated with honors from the “Instituto Superior de Arte del Teatro Colón” in the fields of stage-direction of operas, set and costume design, and theatre administration. Jacobo Kaufmann successfully stages operas, musical and straight theatre, multimedia, radio and TV programs throughout the world, with internationally well-known artists. He has received important prizes, frequently participates in congresses, and is often asked to join the juries of prestigious international competitions. Parallel to these activities, and since a very early age, he works as a lecturer and a journalist. Among his plays, mostly written in Spanish, three deal with Jewish matters: “Carvajal.El testamento de Joseph Lumbroso” (Carvajal. The testament of Joseph Lumbroso), a drama about Jews under the Mexican Inquisition, “Se acabó la joda” (The fun is over), a dramatic collage on the history and life of the Jews in Argentina, and “Historia de pájaros” (Fowl Play), inspired on a story by Bernard Malamud. Other plays worth mentioning are “El viaje de Lucifer” (Lucipher´s Journey), “Banquete Feroz” (Ferocious Banquet) and “Fábula de un hombre y la gente” (Fable of a man and other people). Jacobo Kaufmann has written two books on composer Jacques Offenbach: “Isaak Offenbach und sein Sohn Jacques” (Isaac Offenbach and his son Jacques), in German, and “Jacques Offenbach en España, Italia y Portugal” (Jacques Offenbach in Spain, Italy and Portugal), in Spanish. He has also published “Synagogue Melodies” by Isaac and Jacques Offenbach. He has translated into Spanish all of the plays by Antonio José da Silva (O Judeu), the most important Portuguese 18th. Century playwright murdered by the Inquisition, and “The Dybbuk” by Shlomo An-Ski, as well as numerous plays and operas into several other languages, including Hebrew.
Website: www.jacobokaufmann.com  Email Address: vn18548@netvision.net.il  

The Terezin (Theresienstadt) ghetto was established by the Nazis in October 1941 at the garnison-city and fortress of the same name, about 60 Kms. north of Prague, which the Austrian emperor Joseph II had built towards the end of the 18th. century on Czech territory, in honour of his mother, the empress Maria Theresa.

On November 24, 1941 the first group of Jewish deportees from Prague and neighbouring towns arrived in Terezin. The following Summer came thousands of German Jews, mainly prominent personalities and numerous former soldiers highly decorated by the Germans for their courage and heroic actions during World War I, among them an uncle of this writer. Later came Jews from other countries such as Holland and Denmark.

Between 1941 and 1945 some 140.000 Jews were deported to Theresienstadt. 33.000 died there from all kind of diseases and starvation. 88.000 were sent to death camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka. By May 9, 1945, the date of the ghetto’s liberation by the Russian Army, 19.000 had survived or been transferred to neutral countries. From those sent to Auschwitz 3.000 returned. 12.000 had remained in Terezin.

This fortress, originally built for Austrian army personnel and their families, some 7.000 people altogether, would during the Nazi regime years house an average of 60.000 persons at one time under conditions of severe congestion, hunger, epidemics and constant abuse, harassment and humiliation.

The ghetto or concentration camp of Terezin was for the Germans only one step on the road to the “final solution”, meaning the annihilation of all Jews. Their goal was to crush their subjugated and defenseless inmates physically and break them mentally. As we shall see, this attempt proved to be unsuccessful. The Jewish prisoners, comprising a great number of intellectuals and artists of the highest level, managed to overcome their humiliations by creating with their imagination a reality of their own and the possibility of an ideal future.

On the verge of an abyss, daily confronting threats of deportation and a following violent death, they found the way of creating a sophisticated secret schooling network and organizing learning and research groups on subjects such as ethnography, psychology, politics, religion, or even Zionism.

Between 1942 and 1944, some 2.430 lectures on the most diverse themes were held in Terezin. During those years the ghetto registered the presence of many distinguished scholars in all fields of knowledge, university professors, medical doctors, physicians, chemists, researchers, jurists, historians, philologists, rabbis, etc. 520 among these personalities delivered their usually clandestinely dissertations in the most unthinkable places, inside the precarious barracks used as the inmates’ living quarters, in attics and other unbelievable sites, to audiences eager to learn, ask, converse, debate and formulate.

During that same period concerts of classical music and jazz, theatrical and operatic performances, and cabaret shows were offered, together with religious services, all of which became the spiritual and cultural nourishment as well as a source of entertainment for the afflicted ghetto population.

The presence in Theresienstadt of leading writers, poets, musicians, artists and scientists also left imprints in literary works, musical scores, designs and paintings reflecting the prisoners’ daily lives and their cravings for freedom and a better future.

Many of these works disappeared together with their authors. Others survived the disaster. After the liberation, when they were found, they became invaluable documents of the enormous strength, creative capacity and courage of their creators.

Also discovered was a huge amount of graphic material, testifying to the rich spiritual life in Terezin during those terrible years. Programs and posters announcing theatrical performances, musical concerts, opera productions, lectures, exhibitions, café-concerts and special artistic activities for children, among them the staging of the opera Brundibar by Hans Krasa (1895-1944).

At first the Nazi authorities had forbidden all those undertakings. Later on they not only allowed them. They even encouraged them in order to use them for their own goals, meaning disinformation and propaganda. Thus they managed to create the fictitious image of a well to do Jewish city, with a rich cultural life. They even ordered the making of a propaganda film about the “idyllic” life led by its inhabitants, called The Führer donates the Jews a city. To this end they summoned the well known actor and film maker Kurt Gerron, born in 1897, deported to Terezin in 1943. As soon as his work was finished he was sent to Auschwitz together with thousands of his “actors”.

In 1943 it took the Nazis seven months to prepare for the visit of a Red Cross Delegation, lending the fortress a clean and pleasant look, building decorations simulating fronts of coffee-houses, theatres, banks and hospitals, as well as instructing the inmates on the kind of replies and information they were required to provide for the illustrious visitors.In his play Himmelweg, the celebrated Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga vividly describes the arrangements for this visit.
Many books have been written about this ghetto, the daily life and cultural endeavours of its prisoners. Numerous testimonies and abundant documentation can be found in archives and museums in Theresienstadt, Israel, the United States, Great Britain and other countries.

It should be stated here that no European capital city has ever, and certainly not between the years 1942 and 1944, been able to boast with such an intense and manifold cultural life. It is a broad subject deserving considerable and detailed attention. Here we will address some of its main aspects and refer to its chief protagonists. In advance we ask for forgiveness if in the heat of this report we fail to mention some of the names. It will certainly not be a voluntary oversight on our part, because all of them deserve to be remembered.

The painters

The activities of Terezin’s graphic design workshop began already in 1941, when the Nazis established the Aufbau Kommando, whose task was to prepare the ghetto for the reception of Jewish prisoners. Its functions were to draw posters, stickers and placards.

The painter Bedrich Fritta (Taussig) (1906-1944), who more than anyone else has described the atrocious existence of its inmates with his poignant designs, arrived at Theresienstadt with the first group of deportees. Not much later came the young and talented painter and poet Peter Kien, whom we will mention again. Fritta immediately recruited him for his working team.

In following waves arrived Leo Haas (1901-1983), Otto Unger (1901-1945), Ferdinand Bloch (1898-1944), Malva Schaleck (1882-1944), Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944). They were soon joined by painters Leo Strauss (1897-1944), Karel Fleischmann (1897-1944) and many other plastic artists and architects. The only reason for not mentioning them all is lack of space.

Secretely and risking their lives, they all found the way to testify with their designs to the prisoners’ bitter daily lives. Some of these works were smuggled out of the ghetto. Others were discovered by the Nazis, which led to the torture and murder of four of them in the dungeon of Terezin’s Small Fortress.
Last but not least we should mention here the hundreds of gruesome designs left by children, which survived their ill-fated authors. Many can be found at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Other have been published in books.

The performing arts

The Terezin confinement of skillful and some already famous playwrights, cinema artists, theatre actors and directors, contributed to the creation in the ghetto of several theatre ensembles playing in the two main languages spoken by the inmates, German and Czech, and one in Yiddish. Thus in the course of barely three years it became possible to produce some of the most representative plays by Shakespeare, Molière, Rostand, Schiller, Lessing, Gogol, Tchechov and Scholem Aleichem, but also by authors who at the time were contemporaries, such as George Bernard Shaw and Jean Cocteau, without forgetting the Czech playwrights Egon Redlich (1916-1944), Zdenek Jelinek (1923- ?), Jiri Wolker (1900-1924), Karel Capek (1890-1938) and Frantisek Langer (1888-1965).

Among the most prominent actors were Vlasta Schönova (who survived, moved to Israel and became a member of Habimah under the name of Nava Schan), Gustav Schorch (1918-1945) and Karel Svenk (1907-1945), who had been active in avant garde theatre and composed the Terezin Anthem, an optimistic march intended to raise the inmates morale.

Terezin also featured reviews, cabaret shows of a barely veiled political character, puppet theatre and theatre for children. There was no lack of music theatre, opera and operetta. Within this framework productions were staged of The Bartered Bride and The Kiss by Smetana, La Serva Padrona by Pergolesi, Bastien and Bastienne, The Abduction from the Seraglio, The Marriage of Figaro and Die Zauberflöte by Mozart, as well as Carmen, Rigoletto, Aida, Tosca, La Bohème, The Tales of Hoffmann and Die Fledermaus, not forgetting of course Czech works such as the mentioned Brundibar by Hans Krasa, Viktor Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis, The Glass Mountain by Franz Eugen Klein (1912-1944), and At the Well by Vilém Blodek (1834-1874).

One event remarkable for its connotations of survival, redemption and active political opposition, was the performance of the Purimspiel Esther, based on a series of popular productions and a script by Emil Frantisek Burian (1904-1959), in which collaborated the writer and theatre director Norbert Fried (1913-1976) ,who was sent to Auschwitz and Dachau from where he managed to escape in 1945, composer and orchestra director Karl Reiner (1910-1979), and set and costume designer Frantisek Zelenka (1904-1944).

Interestingly enough, in Terezin it was allowed to perform plays banned in all countries occupied by the Reich, and for Jewish artists expelled from Nazi controlled theatres to participate in its productions. Theoretically speaking, in Theresienstadt it would have been possible to revive and restore everything that had been forcefully censored and eliminated from the repertoires. All plays by Jewish authors and those dealing with Jewish subjects were tolerated, and the Terezin Jews were able to express many things for which elsewhere they would have been exposed to vicious punishment.

This was certainly no outburst of sudden goodness on the part of the SS, but a result of their cynical and clear notion that all Terezin prisoners were doomed anyway. Little did they care what they said before confronting their inexorable fate.


Startling and beyond most people’s imagination is the number of musicians interned in Theresienstadt. The most outstanding imprisoned composers were Pavel Haas (1899-1944), Gideon Klein (1919-1945), Hans Krasa (1899-1944) and Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944), but they were not alone. Also active in the ghetto were Frantisek Domazlicky (1913-1997), Viktor Kohn (1910-1944), Egon Ledec (1889-1944), Zikmund Schul (1916-1944), Carlo S. Taube (1897-1944), Ilse Weber (1903-1944) and Robert Dauber (1922-1945). Other composers – the list is very long deserving at least one detailed essay – were also pianists, violinists, singers, conductors and teachers.

Their “free time” activities, meaning their occupations after returning exhausted and smelling badly from their work as garbage collectors, latrine and sewage cleaners, dead bodies carriers and other jobs of the kind, deserve the greatest respect, because they found the way not only to overcome these humiliations, but also to organize and offer against all odds countless recitals, symphonic concerts, chamber music programs (with some works of their own, some of them as world premieres), operas and oratorios, among them Haydn’s Creation and Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Many conductors were active in the ghetto, the most famous being Karel Ancerl (1908-1973), Robert Brock (1905-1979) and Leo Pappenheim (1896-1982).

One very special event was the often repeated performance of Verdi’s Requiem with some 150 choristers, many of which had to be replaced on a regular basis because of the transports to Auschwitz. Under the unfaltering defiant initiative and leadership of Rafel Schächter (1905-1944), the outstanding soloists were sopranos Gertrude Borger and Marion Podolier, mezzosoprano Hilde Aronson-Lindt, tenor David Grünfeld, and basso Karel Berman, all of whom shall be mentioned again.

Special attention should be given to those musicians who took upon themselves the task of simply distracting and entertaining their listeners with less demanding compositions, among them two jazz ensembles, the Ghetto Swingers directed by pianist Martin Roman (1913-1996) and the Jazz-Quintet-Weiss, lead by acclaimed clarinetist and saxophone player Fritz Weiss (1919-1944). It should by the way be remembered that as soon as the Nazis had risen to power in Germany, they had explicitly forbidden the performance of jazz music, which they considered infective and degenerate.

Surely the most prominent musician imprisoned in Theresienstadt was Viktor Ullmann. His musical output before being deported and also during his confinement in the ghetto is abundant. Most of it has survived and is still appreciated nowadays, particularly by scholars. Undoubtedly his best known composition is the opera The Emperor of Atlantis, which has become his philosophical and musical testament.

The Emperor of Atlantis

Der Kaiser von Atlantis, oder der Tod dankt ab (The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death resigns), the opera by Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) and Peter Kien (1919-1944), was written in Terezin in 1943.

It was rehearsed there under precarious and dangerous conditions, with the participation of some of the most outstanding European artists of the time, imprisoned as well as the authors simply because they were Jews. Although the production was practically ready to go on stage, the opera was never performed in Terezin, On October 16, 1944 the authors and most of the cast were sent to Auschwitz.

For many years the score and the libretto had been considered lost. But before his last journey the composer handed over his works to his friend Dr. Emil Utitz (1883-1956), founder and director of the Terezin library and archive, with precise instructions for the safekeeping and transfer of his scores to different persons, depending on the circumstances. Upon the liberation of the ghetto, Utitz confided these works to Ullmanns friend Dr. Hans G. Adler (1910-1988), as soon as he returned to Theresienstadt after having survived several concentration camps. In 1947, when Adler emigrated to England, he was able to take the scores with him. In London, some thirty years later, conductor Kerry Woodward revised and put together the musical material. Under his direction the opera was finally premiered in Amsterdam in 1975. One only wonders why it took H.G. Adler almost thirty years before he made it available to the public.

From then on The Emperor of Atlantis has travelled the world. In 1978 it was given in Israel for the first time. After that several commercial CD recordings and documentary films were made in different countries. Recently it was produced at Teatro Colón, in Buenos Aires. It has been translated into English from its German original, as well as into Spanish by the author of this article.

The librettist

Franz Peter Kien was born in Varnsdorf, Czechoslovakia, in 1919, and died in Auschwitz in 1944. One of the most promising plastic artists and literary figures of his time, he was since a very early age not only an accomplished graphic artist, painter, designer and caricaturist, but also an outstanding musician and poet. Deported from Prague in 1941, he immediately began working at Theresienstadt’s graphic design workshop, drawing official signs and posters, as well as the bogus money bills going around in the ghetto during the visit of the Red Cross.

Apparently this was his only occupation. Instead, and at considerable personal risk, he managed to secretly record the daily life in Terezin on thousands of drawings and paintings, which in our time have become an indispensable testimony. At the same time he participated in the secret educational programs for children, teaching design and painting courses, as well as cooperating with several artistic projects.

The graphics workshop and his living quarters were situated in a building called Magdeburg, where the offices of the so called Autonomous Jewish Government functioned under the strict vigilance of the SS. These were the offices where among other things it was decided what persons would be included in the different transport lists. For that reason Kien was able to obtain information concealed from the common inmates. Thus on more than one occasion he succeeded in saving the lives of persons who were dear to him. Because of his unfaltering efforts in this respect he often fell short of total exhaustion.

Little is still known about his literary work. Even though he was one of the most brilliant twentieth century poets in the German language, not one volume has been published to this date containing his poems, those he wrote in Terezin and others he wrote before that time. One can only hope for this blunder to be amended soon. Even less is known about his theatre plays. Medea, Bad Dream and At the Border were never performed, but the texts have been saved. The script of Puppets, staged in Theresienstadt by Gustav Schorch is considered missing.

Since his adolescence Kien wrote poetry without interruption. In Terezin his output was multiplied. The tone in most of his poems is pessimistic and many revolve around the theme of death, at first forebodingly, and later as an unavoidable fate. Both in Prague and in his ghetto poems the moon and the theme of sleepwalking appear again and again.

The composer

Viktor Ullmann was born in 1898, in Teschen, Czechoslovakia, then a part of the Austro Hungarian Empire. In 1918 he moved to Vienna to study form-theory, counterpoint and orchestration under Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951). During the following year Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942) entrusted him with the musical direction of Prague’s New German Theatre, today the city’s State Opera. He remained in this position until 1927.

Endowed with a solid musical knowledge he began to compose at a very early age. Within only a few years he wrote song cycles, string quartets, sonatas and concertos for violin and piano, cantatas, pieces for wind instruments, symphonic poems and two operas, The Broken Jug and The Fall of the Antichrist.
In 1942, already famous, he was deported to Terezin, where he rapidly became one of its most dynamic musicians, composing, performing as a pianist, organizing concerts, directing the “New Music Studio”, and writing essays and critiques on the various musical and theatrical events.

In 1943 he composed The Emperor of Atlantis, and soon after began a period of intermittent rehearsals, often interrupted or postponed at the time when the Nazis decided to produce the above mentioned propaganda film with the compulsory participation of some 30.000 persons. On October 18, 1944 he was assassinated in Auschwitz.

The opera

Overall, the absolute emperor of an imaginary Atlantis and many other kingdoms, has decided to start a universal war of all against all. He commands his Drummer to read out the pertinent proclamations. The emperor summons his former associate, Death, but he, weary and fed up, refuses to collaborate with him. He presents his resignation. Now nobody can die anymore, neither the soldiers nor the civilian victims. In vane the Emperor tries to give orders from his office. The Loudspeaker informs him that his plan has failed, and that the situation has become uncontrollable.

A Soldier and a Girl from opposed camps confront each other in a trench. Instead of shooting at each other they decide to throw away their weapons. Its is the victory of love and hope for a better future. At the same time and without directly becoming a part of these events, Pierrot expresses his grief and disappointments.
In his office Overall has taken off a cloth hanging over his mirror. Instead of his own reflection, appears Death. The Emperor implores him to resume his functions, but Death only agrees under the condition that the Emperor become his first victim. Unwillingly Overall accepts, and Death takes him away under his long cloak.
At once the Drummer, the Loudspeaker, the Soldier and the Girl come forward as a chorus to teach everybody the lesson: “Come, Death and stay in our hearts. Teach us to respect and honor the pain and afflictions of our brethren. The holiest commandment is not to pronounce the name of Death in vane.”
As we see the opera has been conceived as a parable, featuring at least one distancing or alienating character, as in Brecht, situated in un undefined time, notwithstanding clear hints at present day occurrences.

In the opera’s libretto Peter Kien has incorporated at least two of his former poems. Both are spoken by an aged Pierrot. We all know that the original Pierrot was moonstruck and a sleepwalker. The first poem describes a cold and pitiless moon. The second is a lullaby whose text is a paraphrase of another more ferocious one already sung during the Thirty Years War, well known to all inmates. For this text Ullmann uses the catchy original melody composed by Johann Friedrich Reichardt in 1781.

Death, personified by an old man wearing the uniform of a World War I soldier, remembering ancient military confrontations, at a time when he was still respected, expresses himself in a sober and elegant prose. Now, much alike Pierrot he is tired and has decided to submit his resignation. It is possible that in this character, and even more so in Pierrot, Peter Kien has slipped some autobiographical elements.

The character of Overall is surely inspired in Francis I of Austria, the last all powerful monarch of the Holy Roman Empire, “by the grace of God” emperor of Austria, king of Jerusalem, Hungary, Bohemia, Dalmatia and Galitzia, grand duke of Cracow, prince of Transylvania, margrave of Moravia, duke of Sandomir and ruler in many other lands. Kien also bestows on Overall the titles of duke of Ophir, cardinal of Ravenna and cook of Astarte. Ullmann introduces him with a melody that Haydn dedicated to the mentioned emperor in 1797. Ever since, and influenced by fluctuating political constellations, its text has suffered countless changes, until becoming the notorious German national anthem beginning with the words: “Deutschland über alles” (Germany above all). Clearly the Emperor’s name has been taken from this text.

All along the opera Kien has put into Overall’s mouth the harsh and despotic language of a present day dictator. The musical themes given to him by Viktor Ullmann have moments of a relative nobility and magnificence. Obviously on one side the composer has wanted to express a certain nostalgia for the life he had been able to live before World War I, and on the other a profound disdain for everything associated with Hitler.

In this opera Ullmann has used frequent quotations from other compositions, and it shows the clear influences of others. But this should not be considered as plagiarism nor should it be dismissed as excessively eclectic. His action is militant and premeditated. His audience is an educated one. It perceives each and every one of his innuendos.

Rightfully so the musicologists will tell us that in this opera we can hear material borrowed from Dvorak’s Requiem, the Asrael Symphony by Josef Suk (1874-1935), the Song of the Earth by Gustav Mahler, and Bach’s Cantata number eighty. But more familiar than those and nearer in time to the ears of his audience are references to Kurt Weill, Stravinsky’s Renard, the Vienna forests as portrayed in a waltz by Johann Strauss the elder, and above all the Ping, Pang, Pong scenes from Puccini’s opera Turandot.

The Emperor of Atlantis is a work of rebellion, a challenge. Far from feeling sorry for the tragic elements depicted in its plot, and even less for their personal troubles, Kien and Ullmann, capable as were their ancestors to laugh in the face of the most horrible situations, have conceived a cruel farce. Mockery and ridicule are still the sharpest weapons to fight tyrants, because on top of all their many shortcomings they also have no sense of humour. This is how this opera should be staged.

Viktor Ullmann and Peter Kien had decided to take risks. Not so the authorities of the “autonomous Jewish government”, nor the stage director and some of the singers, fearing retaliations on the part of the SS. Helga Wolfenstein, Kien’s lover and ear, who passed away just a few years ago, recalled the librettist’s disgust and anger resulting from the frequent cuts and changes to which they subjected his text. The opera as it had been written and what had remained of it were completely different things. In our days, despite the serious blunders performed by some of those who claim to have “rescued” the score, it has become possible to perform the opera in its true format. The original material exists.

The performers

Finally it is our duty to mention all those who took part in the creation of The Emperor of Atlantis. Together with its authors, on October 16, 1944 the musical director Rafael Schächter, the set designer Frantisek Zelenka, the tenor David Grünfeld (Pierrot and Soldier), the basso Karel Berman (Death) and the baritone Walter Windholz (Emperor) were all sent to Auschwitz.

In Theresienstadt were liberated the stage director Carl Meinhard, who emigrated to Argentina in 1946 and died there in 1949 of a lung disease contracted in the ghetto, soprano Marion Podolier (Girl) who died in London, mezzo soprano Hilde Aronson-Lindt (Drummer) who passed away in the USA, in 1982, and the bass baritone Bedrich Borges (Loudpseaker), deceased in 1992, in Prague, where he had resumed his work as an engineer.
From Auschwitz and other concentration camps returned David Grünfeld and Karel Berman. Grünfeld emigrated to the USA, where he participated in opera productions and performed as a synagogue cantor under the name of David Garen. He died in 1963, in Long Island. Berman returned to Prague, and for half a century he sang and directed at the National Opera. He passed away in 1995.


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  • The imprisoned violin by Bedrich Fritta, 1943.

    The costume Frantisek Zelenka designed for Achashverosh for the production of Esther

    Frantisek Zelenka’s set design for the Terezin production of The Emperor of Atlantis

    Viktor Ullmann, a drawing by Peter Kien.

    Peter Kien.

    A room used as a synagogue and performance hall, designed by Bedrich Fritta

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