Feb 2012 Journal

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Lutz Weltmann: A forgotten voice

Over a period of some 15 years, from 1946 until 1961, readers of the AJR Information were treated to regular articles and reviews, often dazzling in their elegance and erudition, on literary, theatrical and artistic subjects, from the pen of Lutz Weltmann. Weltmann’s name is now sadly unknown, though, as one of the journal’s main cultural commentators, he brought pleasure and enlightenment to thousands of Jewish refugees. Weltmann’s first article appeared in December 1946, and his last in December 1961, some six years before his death in 1967.

The writer, journalist and man of the theatre Lutz Weltmann was born on 15 February 1901 in Elbing, west Prussia. His father, Jacques Weltmann, a merchant, and his wife Emma (née Blumberg) moved to Berlin when Weltmann was very young and he grew up there. He studied literature, art history and drama at the universities of Berlin and Freiburg, where he was awarded his doctorate for a dissertation on the early nineteenth-century dramatist Heinrich von Kleist. Weltmann clearly numbered among those assimilated German Jews who placed the highest value on German culture and who contributed so notably to the German-speaking cultural tradition with which they associated themselves.

Weltmann embarked straightaway on a career in the theatre, including a spell as Dramaturg (dramatic adviser) and director at the Berlin theatres of the renowned theatre manager and director Victor Barnowsky, but his principal activity was as a theatre critic, writing for the Berliner Tageblatt and the Berliner Volkszeitung among other publications. In 1929 he published a book on the actress Käthe Dorsch. After 1933 he continued his activities within the increasingly marginalised Jewish community. Only in 1939 did he emigrate to Britain, with the assistance of the actress Elisabeth Bergner. In Britain, the prospects for a Jewish refugee journalist whose expertise lay in the sphere of German-speaking theatre were bleak. From 1940 to 1943 Weltmann served in the Pioneer Corps. In 1940 he married a British woman, Beryl Elisabeth Hopper; they settled in Ealing, west London, and had one son, Austin Jacques Weltmann. From 1944 Weltmann made his living by teaching modern languages.

Weltmann was important as a cultural intermediary whose activities frequently had a dual Anglo-German dimension. He wrote from London for such renowned West German newspapers as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Welt and the Stuttgarter Zeitung, for Aufbau, the refugee publication which appeared in German in New York, as well as for the English-language AJR Information. He translated into German works by the writer J. B. Priestley and the Anglo-Jewish publisher and campaigner Victor Gollancz and he published a study of the English playwright Christopher Fry in German in 1961. He was the representative in England of the German Shakespeare Society, and he edited the volume The Goethe Year: 1749-1949, published in Britain to mark the bicentenary of Goethe’s birth.

Weltmann’s articles in the AJR Information were often enriched by his personal acquaintance with leading theatrical and literary figures of the Weimar period, enabling him to evoke from living memory the achievements of an era that had vanished in 1933. He had, for example, known the great theatre critics Alfred Kerr and Julius Bab professionally, and was able to recreate their cultural and intellectual world as few others could. He had also been well acquainted with famous writers like Lion Feuchtwanger, to whom he had been introduced at a first night at Berlin’s Volksbühne, and prominent directors and theatre managers like Rudolf Bernauer.

Many of Weltmann’s articles displayed his encyclopedic knowledge of theatre and literature. His first article in the AJR Information, in December 1946, was a review of The Sun’s Bright Child, a novel about the great nineteenth-century British actor Edmund Kean by Julius Berstl, a refugee who had been a major figure in the theatrical world of pre-Hitler Germany. After outlining Berstl’s previous career, Weltmann turned to the device of the ‘imaginary memoir’, the form in which Berstl had cast his novel. This allowed him to display the breadth of his knowledge across the two cultures of Germany and Britain, ranging from Walter Savage Landor’s Imaginary Conversations and Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, both written in the form of ‘imaginary memoirs’, to Byron and Hazlitt, and throwing in a reference to the prologue to Schiller’s Wallensteins Lager for good measure.

When the great German actor Albert Bassermann died aged 83 in 1952, Weltmann dedicated an article to his memory. After 1933 Bassermann, a non-Jew married to a Jewish woman, had resisted the blandishments of the Nazis and gone into exile in America. He was known to British audiences for his cameo role in the Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger film The Red Shoes. Bassermann also provided a link to the younger generation of actors. Reviewing a book about the celebrated actor Ernst Deutsch, Weltmann described an incident when Deutsch, a Jew, was rehearsing the part of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice opposite Bassermann’s Shylock. When the actress playing Portia as the judge asked: ‘Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?’, Deutsch, out of role, replied: ‘You will laugh, Sir, I am the merchant and he is the Jew!’ Deutsch had achieved his breakthrough in the title role of Walter Hasenclever’s pioneering Expressionist play Der Sohn (The Son), first performed in Dresden in 1916. He went on to act in many films, and in the 1950s created the role of Anne Frank’s father on stage.

Weltmann was very familiar with the generation of the Expressionist writers, born in the 1880s and early 1890s, and he was acutely aware of what that generation had gone through, during the First World War and under the Nazis. The Nazis considered Expressionist art and literature ‘decadent’, and persecuted its practitioners, many of whom were both left-wing in their politics and Jewish. Hasenclever, to take but one example, committed suicide in the French internment camp of Les Milles in 1940, to avoid falling into the hands of the advancing Germans. Weltmann understood how the banning and burning of the works of the Expressionists by the Nazis had cut them off from posterity and condemned them to obscurity. In an article entitled ‘The Dead Speak to the Living’, he conveyed his intention to (re)acquaint his readers with writers who had fallen into oblivion after 1933.

Consequently, he warmly welcomed in 1960 the reappearance of Kurt Pinthus’s classic anthology of Expressionist poetry Menschheitsdämmerung (Twilight or Dawn of Humanity), published then as some 40 years earlier by the well-known publisher Ernst Rowohlt. Weltmann reminded his readers that the great director Max Reinhardt had appointed Pinthus literary adviser at his Deutsches Theater, making possible productions of plays by such leading Expressionists as Reinhard Johannes Sorge, Reinhard Goering, Paul Kornfeld and Fritz von Unruh. Of these, only Unruh was still alive by 1945, in exile in America; Sorge fell on the Western front in 1916 and Goering (no relation to Hitler’s crony) committed suicide in 1936.

Kornfeld had been a friend of Weltmann. A Jew, he had returned to his native Prague in 1933 and, to Weltmann’s lasting sorrow, had refused to emigrate until too late; he was deported and died in Lodz in 1941. Another Jew whose legacy Weltmann sought to revive was Arno Nadel, who had translated S. Anski’s classic Yiddish drama The Dybbuk into German. Perhaps because of the sheer range of his artistic activities, Nadel had effectively disappeared from public view, his works apparently consumed by the Holocaust in which he met his death. In his memory, Weltmann published an article entitled ‘Arno Nadel – Lost and Forgotten’ in 1958.

Weltmann was also concerned to familiarise his Continental readers with the British theatre. The playwrights who featured most frequently in Weltmann’s articles were what one might call the classic serious dramatists of the day, especially J. B. Priestley and the now forgotten James Bridie. He was particularly expert on Christopher Fry. He discussed Fry’s The Firstborn, in an article on August 1947 that also examined the portrayal of Moses in Martin Buber’s Moses and Thomas Mann’s Das Gesetz (The Tables of the Law), not forgetting Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism. Other plays by Fry referred to in articles in the AJR Information included A Sleep of Prisoners and The Dark Is Light Enough, though not The Lady’s Not for Burning, the play for whose title Fry is principally remembered today (thanks to Margaret Thatcher’s use of the phrase ‘The lady’s not for turning’ in her 1980 speech to the Conservative Party conference).

Weltmann also revered the classics. In an article of August 1949, on the occasion of the bicentenary of Goethe’s birth, he showed how highly he valued the great writer, presenting an authoritative overview of Goethe’s reception in Britain. Shakespeare, too, was ever present in Weltmann’s view of the theatre, not least on account of the figure of Shylock, which he discussed expertly on more than one occasion. The knowledge that he was living in the country that had given birth to the greatest playwright of all time doubtless helped to reconcile Weltmann to life as a refugee in Britain.

Anthony Grenville

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