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The Day Tommy had His Third Birthday – a Play

Astrid de Keijzer, The Netherlands

Astrid de Keijzer

Astrid de Keijzer, teaching Religion/Philosophy and Peace Education at the Department of Education at Leiden University, the Netherlands, participated in a Seminar at Yad Vashem for Dutch Educators in July 2010. One of Astrid’s research interests is peace-education, and following her studies at Yad Vashem she has been looking for ways to connect this topic with Holocaust-education.

Upon her return to Leiden University after the seminar at Yad Vashem, Astrid phoned Martine Zeeman who teaches Theatre & Education at her institution. Astrid had read that Martine was working on ‘The day Tommy had his third birthday’ and thought it would be a good idea if her pre-service teachers could participate in the production of the play during the organized theme-week called ‘Freedom you create with one another’, in April 2011. Martine agreed and their collaboration began.

This project turned out to be the starting point for a closer cooperation and deeper interest for Ledien University faculty and students. In addition, Astrid and Martine later met with Daniel Rozenga from Yad Vashem in order to talk about possibilities for future cooperation.

“The Day Tommy Had His Third Birthday - A Story from Terezin”

Many people were involved in creating and editing the musical ‘Tommy’ at Leiden University. It was supposed to be a musical for all ages, since the story of Tommy is about people’s courage and imagination in extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances. The book ‘Tommy’ published by Yad Vashem, and the music composed in the Terezin ghetto by Ilse Weber, were taken as the basic texts for the play.

Bedrich Fritta's drawingBedrich Fritta's drawing

Content development for the play took time. Bedrich Fritta, his wife Hansi and their child, Tommy, had to be expressed in character, motivation and emotions. In this family, caught within four walls, love was an island where lonely moments and inevitable confrontations had to find their way out.

Nazi Germany sent entire families to Terezin, forcing some Jewish artists to create art, music and theatre for propaganda purposes. Later on these Jewish men and women were deported from Terezin to be murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The most powerful material was the artwork that survived, depicting life in Terezin in all its misery, but also in all its complexity, including, sometimes, joy. In particular, Bedrich Fritta's drawings to his son Tommy for his third birthday, were extraordinarily moving.

Fritta hid the original manuscript behind a wall in Terezin. It was recovered after the war. There are many such stories about artwork in Terezin. In some cases, the art was recovered decades later. The secreting of drawings and their post-war recovery also plays a crucial role in our musical.

Bedrich Fritta's drawingBedrich Fritta's drawing

Bedrich Fritta perished in Auschwitz on November 5, 1944. His wife, Johanna, died while in Terezin. Tommy, only four years old, spent months in the Little Fortress, the horrible prison the Nazis kept outside Terezin. Miraculously, he survived.
Leo Haas, a friend of Bedrich Fritta, made it through the war, and returned to Terezin to find the artwork he had hidden in the attic of the Magdebourg Barracks. With the assistance of an engineer, Jiri Vogel, he was also able to assist in the recovery of the hidden paintings made by Fritta and their other colleagues from the Technical Department: Otto Unger, Petr Kien, and Ferdinand Bloch, who had all since perished. Upon hearing that Tommy Fritta was left orphaned, Haas and his wife, Erna, adopted the young boy and moved back with him to Prague.

The play: Struggle between the inner- and outer world

The play

In a stream of energy, the text and music ought to complement and reinforce each other. On top of that, there had to be room for silence as an echo of the moment. What moves me in this story is how, despite everything, the self-deprecating humor finds its way out in special drawings that are appealing to young and old. It’s also very touching to see how the story continues, even after the war – because hope gives energy and life.

The show starts with a short, soundless clip that leads us into the Theresienstadt/Terezin ghetto. Large, bright paintings and a wall of glued paper surrounding the stage show us what it must feel like to be imprisoned. There is a diorama, with a small band playing behind it as a visual witness. On one side there’s the spaciousness of the room and the constant threat of the outside world, on the other side we see the smallness and depravity of mankind with its enormous resilience and flexibility and his ability to escape via imagination. There’s laughter and there are tears. The drawings of a better world, that Bedrich Fritta secretly made, are projected on screen for Tommy. The book is hidden between the walls of the house.

The show ends with the facsimile in the hands of Bedrich Fritta. At the same time, the curtain in the back falls down, making the musicians visible. Tommy’s drawings and the metal sculptures are made lighter, and move like they are dancing to the sounds. When the silence falls over, the first part of the audience goes on stage to the drawings. We can hear party music…

The play based on the life of Tommy Fritta has also been staged by the Leidse Hogeschool, Camp Westerbork and the Story-Boat in Zwolle.

According to Kees van der Zwaard, the scriptwriter, ”This is a musical for children ages 10 and up who have to know what happened, and for adults, who should never forget what happened.”

According to the actress Herma van Piekeren, who played Tommy Fritta’s mother in the production, “People can take everything away from you, but they can never take away your thoughts, fantasy and music.”

According to Martine Zeeman, director of this production who cooperated with Astrid de Keizer, “From the letters of Tommy and his foster father Leo Haas we can see how hard and lonely it was after the war… To feel like a prisoner in a free world is a very bitter contrast. Our task is to keep this history alive, so that we can work on a world that doesn’t only look better, but really is.”

An eleven year old boy who viewed this production noted, “The music was very beautiful and also the drawings. But it was very emotional and painful. They did not have anything in Terzezin. A pity.”

A seventy year old woman who watched the production stated,“I hope that this play will contribute to the consciousness that we live in freedom. This rotten war is still very present in the daily memory of many people. Realizing that only in Terezin tens of thousnds of people died, then it is good that evenings like this one helps us not to forget what happened. Yes, I was very emotional. A very impressive story.”