Wednesday, 23 January 2019

A missionary from Prague
who had links with Dublin
and a controversial role

The Spanish Synagogue in Prague at night … but where in Prague was Adolph Paul Weinberger born? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

One of the most curious connections between Prague and Ireland that I have come across in recent days is provided by the story of the Revd Adolph Paul Weinberger (1859-1937), who is buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin.

Weinberger was born 160 years ago on 29 June 1859 in Dejevikow, which is said to be near Prague, although I have yet to find out where that place is. At the time, there was a thriving Jewish population in this city, which was one of the principal cities in the Austro-Hungarian empire, alongside Vienna and Budapest.

Weinberger is said to have been born into a pious Orthodox Jewish family, and may even have studied to be a rabbi. He moved to England, and probably converted to Christianity through his contacts with the London Jews’ Society, also known as the Jews’ Society, a proselytising mission agency set up evangelical Anglicans in London in 1809.

CMJ, which remains one of the recognised mission agencies in the Church of England, began to work began among poor Jewish immigrants in the East End of London and Weinberger was involved in similar work in Hamburg and Liverpool before moving to Dublin to prepare for ordination in the Church of Ireland.

Weinberger graduated BA from Trinity College Dublin in 1896, and was ordained deacon in 1897 and priest in 1898 by Joseph Peacocke, Archbishop of Dublin. He served briefly as curate in Saint Matthias, Dublin (1897-1899), before returning to London as a curate in Whitechapel (1899-1900).

From London he moved to Constantinople in 1900, and he remained there as the only missionary London Jews Society in the Ottoman capital until 1914.

Weinberger married Alice Paterson, a daughter of Colonel Daniel Paterson Barry, a medical doctor who was a surgeon-major in the army and who had taken part in the Punjab Campaign (1848-1849), the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny.

The couple had three sons as well as two daughters who married two brothers: Eva Barry Weinberger married Captain William Bolton Battersby, son of Revd Francis Hoffman Battersby, curate of Booterstown (1885-1892), and Hope Barry Weinberger married Jason Hassard Battersby.

The Weinbergers returned to live in Dublin, where she died on 30 June 1930, and he died on 1 April 1937 at 17 Oakley Road, Ranelagh. They are buried in Mount Jerome cemetery in Harold’s Cross.

In response to changing attitudes towards proselytising work by Christians among the Jewish people, the society has changed its name several times over the years, first to the Church Missions to Jews, then the Church's Mission to the Jews, followed by the Church’s Ministry Among the Jews, and finally to the current name of the Church’s Ministry Among Jewish People, which was adopted in 1995.

The missionary focus of CMJ attracts criticism from the Jewish community, which sees these activities as highly detrimental to Jewish-Christian relations, and many rabbis and Jewish organisations have called for CMJ to be disbanded.

In 1992, George Carey became the first Archbishop of Canterbury in 150 years to decline to be the Patron of CMJ, a decision that was praised by Jewish leaders and reported as front-page news in the Jewish Chronicle.

Why Rebecca Comerford
is telling the story of a
death camp outside Prague

Rebecca Comerford is telling the story of Terezín, a concentration camp north of Prague (Photo by Mariana Schulze)

Patrick Comerford

Terezín or Theresienstadt, north of Prague, was both a concentration camp and a ghetto in the German-occupied Czech lands during World War II. It was established in 1941 as both a waystation to the extermination camps, and a ‘retirement settlement’ for elderly and prominent Jews to mislead their communities about the Holocaust.

Terezín is about 70 km north of Prague, which I am visiting this week, and I was interested to read that Rebecca Comerford, a professional singer and actor, has been involved in bringing the story of Terezín to American audiences, including synagogues, in a deliberate decision taken in the light of the present political climate.

Rebecca Comerford is a mezzo soprano and the founder of Ojai Youth Opera Company. She has sung both nationally and internationally as an opera soloist with some of the world’s finest houses, under the baton of Metropolitan Opera conductor Steven Crawford in Rigoletto at Carneigie Hall, the New York City Opera VOX series, the National Chorale at Lincoln Center, Spleto Opera in Italy, Neue Oper Wien in Vienna, and the Granada Festival for Spanish Song in Spain.

Her notable roles include Carmen (Carmen), Siebel (Faust), Tisbe (La Cenerentola), Meg (Little Women), Lucretia (The Rape of Lucretia) and Lucy Brown in the Off Broadway Revival of The Threepenny Opera. She holds a master’s degree in music from Manhattan School of Music in New York and a bachelor’s degree in voice from Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.

Recently, Rebecca and the Ojai Youth Opera Company were involved in reviving Brundibár, a resistance opera written and performed by Jews in the Nazi concentration camp at Terezín, and she has taken the story of Brundibár to Etz Chaim synagogue in Biddeford, Maine.

Brundibár was written by the composers Hans Krása and Adolf Hoffmeister in 1938. It was originally composed by Krása for the Children’s Orphanage of Prague, using Hoffmeister’s libreto.

The opera tells the story of a brother and sister who stand up to a bully in order to afford milk to save their sick mother. It was meant to teach the children at the orphanage about how to deal with a bully, and how to remain positive in difficult situations.

The 1941 debut took place secret because to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. When European Jews were rounded up for deportation, Hans Krása was deported to the concentration camp in Theresienstadt, which the Nazis renamed Terezín.

Krása rewrote the opera for the children in the camp. They rehearsed in secret until the Nazis discovered them. Instead of being punished, the Nazis saw Krása’s opera as a way to show the world that they were treating their prisoners fairly, allowing them to practice the arts.

The antagonist, an organ grinder who sang loudly on the street in order to make money and drown out all the townspeople’s voices, was symbolic of Hitler’s tyrannical reign. The Nazis failed to make this connection, and so the resistance opera continued to be performed under their noses.

Brundibár was performed 55 times in the camp for inspectors from organisations including the Red Cross. Many of the opera’s performers were deported from Terezín to Auschwitz-Buchenwald, where most of the performers died. When performers were deported, they were replaced by other prisoners at Terezín.

Only 20 of the 400 performers of Brundibár survived to see liberation. ‘They were making art up until the very end,’ says Rebecca Comerford.

Hoffmeister’s final verse was: ‘Who likes mummy and daddy and our native home is our friend and can play with us.’ For the performance in Terezín, Erik A Saudek changed this ending to: ‘Who likes the law, stands by it and is not afraid of anything …’ This final verse became something of an anthem in Terezín. Actors and viewers alike knew very well the meaning of these words in combination with the innocent children’s fight with evil Brundibár.

At the end of Brundibár, the chorus sings: ‘We’ve won a victory over the tyrant mean. Sound trumpets, beat your drum, and show us your esteem. We’ve won a victory because we were not fearful, because we were not tearful. Because we marched along singing our happy song, bright joyful and cheerful.’

Brundibár was not performed outside Theresienstadt until 1986, when Radio Prague recorded its international debut. The Lyric Opera of Kansas City performed a production in 2005.

Rebecca spoke recently in Etz Chaim synagogue in Biddeford, Maine, about her company’s revival of Brundibár for American audiences. She recalled how she and the board of directors of the Ojai Youth Opera chose Brundibár as part of their programme for the 2017 season because of ‘the current political climate, and the rise of fascism across the globe, and the pervasive rise of intolerance, not just nationally, but on a macro level, too.’

She says there is an element of education to the show too. She recalls how the company had to decide what they were going to teach their performers about how to promote tolerance and inclusion, and about how to deal with bullies and negativity.

‘We decided that this would be really timely and relevant in terms of our mission, and said let’s do this outreach component, too. We’ll really discuss the messages. How do we deal with a bully? What does that mean to our children? And why do they need to know this story, so history doesn’t repeat itself again?’ Rebecca Comerford said.

Rebecca Comerford also performed Wiegenleid by Gideon Klein, a Czech composer who was active in the camp’s underground cultural life in Terezín. Klein wrote the lullaby shortly before he was deported to Auschwitz-Buchenwald, where he was murdered.

‘It’s our obligation as a human family to share the story,’ Rebecca told her audience in Etz Chaim.