Music and Musicians Persecuted during the Holocaust

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Music and Musicians Persecuted during the Holocaust

On November 15, 1936, three years after Adolf Hitler came to power, the New York Times reported that the statue of Felix Mendelssohn in Leipzig had been destroyed. This violent action clearly signaled that music by composers of the Jewish faith or tradition would no longer be performed in opera houses and concert halls. The great compositions of Salomon Sulzer, Jaques Offenbach, Erich Korngold, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schönberg, Mendelssohn, and many others were also silenced throughout the Third Reich and Nazi-occupied Europe.

Prior to the destruction of the Mendelssohn statue, Jewish musicians were systematically expelled from concert halls and opera houses throughout German-controlled Europe. In early March 1933, Bruno Walter, one of Germany's most beloved and renowned conductors, had just returned to Berlin after a successful concert tour in the United States. Walter was informed of "certain difficulties" should he decide to follow through with a previously scheduled guest appearance in Leipzig. The management of the concert hall, however, decided to go ahead with Walter's appearance. A few hours before the doors opened, however, the performance was banned. A week later, Walter was to conduct a concert in Berlin's Philharmonic Hall. Again, he was advised to cancel the performance in order to avoid "unpleasant occurrences." What the Nazis meant by that became clear on April 1, 1933, when Nazis boycotted Jewish stores, defaced the storefronts of Jewish-owned businesses, and publicly blackmailed those who continued to shop in stores owned by Germans of the Jewish faith.

From that point on, every week brought further governmental decrees that robbed Jews of their livelihood and their right to German citizenship. Between 1933 and 1939, more than 2,000 conductors, soloists, concert masters, singers, members of orchestras, and musicologists were banned or expelled from stages and teaching positions throughout Germany, Austria, and Poland because they were Jewish.

Many musicians left Europe for the United States. The ramifications of this forced migration were enormous. Europe lost thousands of its best artistic and intellectual minds. For the United States, however, the arrival of European artists meant tremendous enrichment. The distinguished cultural elite made a decisive mark on American institutions of higher learning, and redefined these schools in terms of research, teaching, and performance styles.

Although this process was of decisive benefit to the United States as a whole, the individual émigré, being outside Europe, often endured a marked decline in social status and a loss of identity. The difficulties émigré musicians faced in finding employment is poignantly expressed in a letter by Arnold Schönberg, the most prominent composer of modern tonality. On February 26, 1940, he wrote from his new home in Los Angeles to Adolf Rebner, who was himself trying to eke out a living in Cincinnati: "Dear friend, . . . I am happy that you could escape hell. . . . But it has become rather difficult to procure positions. There are so many gifted people here, though few of your reputation and ability." Even Schönberg's work was considered too obscure in the United States, and he lacked the appropriate contacts to help his former students and associates.

Nazi Germany not only expelled its Jewish artists and intellectuals; it also poisoned the intellectual intimacy of people who had once been professional associates. In 1932, the composer Richard Strauss had asked Stefan Zweig, a poet and novelist of Jewish heritage, to write the libretto for his new opera, The Silent Woman. The ensuing relationship between the two men was, according to Zweig, most cordial and harmonious at first. Then Zweig learned that Strauss had assumed the position of president of the official Nazi Reich Music Chamber. Zweig later wrote: "To have the most famous musician of Germany align himself with them at so embarrassing a moment [constituted an] immeasurable gain to Goebbels and Hitler." Zweig reproached Strauss for the self-serving "art-egotism" that permitted him to serve such evil masters.

One of the most exceptional and painful aspects of this dark period is the fact that Jewish musicians were forced to perform in concentration camps and for the German SS. Auschwitz is reported to have had six orchestras. One of the musicians was Alma Maria Rosé, Gustav Mahler's niece. A student of her father, Arnold Rosé, she was a renowned violinist. After the annexation of Austria in 1938, she escaped to France. There she was captured, interned, and eventually she was deported to Auschwitz. The orchestra of young female musicians that she founded in Auschwitz is memorialized in Playing for Time, a book written by her surviving assistant conductor, the singer Fania Fénelon. We also know of the musicians Henry and Poldek Rosner through their mention in the movie Schindler's List. The Rosners were forced to perform for Amon Göth, the commander of the Plaszow concentration camp.

There was also a vibrant cultural life in the camp of Terezin (Theresienstadt). In his book The Terezin Requiem, Josef Bor tells of the performance in camp of Verdi's Requiem, conducted by Rafael Schächter. Schächter was deported to Auschwitz shortly after the performance. Another important event was the performance of the opera for children, Brundibar, by Hans Krasà. Both the Czech composer and the entire cast of children were deported to Auschwitz. Victor Ullmann composed his opera The Emperor of Atlantis while incarcerated in Terezin. Ullmann was a student of Arnold Schönberg and was murdered in Auschwitz. The opera had its premiere in New York in 1977.

Also banned were many of the composers and performers of Klezmer music, a popular musical form that originated in the Jewish stetls and ghettoes of eastern Europe and celebrated traditional aspects of Jewish life. Similarly, the composers and performers of partisan songs and songs of resistance were murdered as well. Mordecai Gebirtig was one of the most popular balladeers in Poland. He was deported to the Krakow ghetto and killed there in 1942. His song "Our Town Is Burning," written in 1938, became one of the most popular anthems in ghettos and concentration camps.

The number of musicians and composers who perished in the Nazi-run camps will never be known with certainty. However, among them are: the baritone and cantor Erhard E. Wechselmann, murdered in Auschwitz; the contralto Magda Spiegel, murdered in Auschwitz; Richard Breitenfeld, a member of the Frankfurt opera ensemble, murdered in Theresienstadt; James Simon, a student of Max Bruch, murdered in Auschwitz; the Czech composers Pavel Haas and Viktor Ullmann, murdered in Auschwitz; the jazz pianist Martin Roman and the cabaret singer and songwriter Kurt Gerron, murdered in Auschwitz as well.

The creative products of those banned as "Jewish" or "degenerate" belong among the early twenty-first century's most cherished expressions of popular and high culture. Their legacy has generated and intensely personal post-Holocaust oeuvre that continues to enhance our understanding of the infamous years of the Nazi era. Among the composers represented in this body of work are: Krzysztof Penderecki, composer of Dies Irae (1967), a memorial to the victims of Auschwitz; Demitri Shostakovich, whose symphony Babi Yar (1962) commemorates the victims of the massacre near the city of Kiev; Arnold Schönberg, who wrote A Survivor from Warsaw (1947); Francis Schwartz, who created the electronic music piece Caligula (1975) with human voices chanting, howling, and groaning; and Charles Davidson, whose I Never Saw Another Butterfly (1968) is based on the collection of poetry written by children of the Terezin camp.

SEE ALSO Art, Banned; Music at Theriesienstadt; Music of the Holocaust


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Viktoria Hertling