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Sep 2013 Journal

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A disputed legacy (review)by Lily E. Hirsch

University of Michigan Press, 2012, 258 pp., paperback, available from
The author, an American musicologist, deals mainly with the music departments of the Jewish League of Culture in Berlin, leaving the theatrical performances and lectures virtually untouched. She discusses in depth several composers whose works were performed by the League’s orchestra: Weill, Schoenberg, Bloch, Schubert, Handel and Verdi.
The League was founded in 1933 on the instigation of Kurt Baumann (1907-83), a former director’s assistant at the Berlin Staatsoper, Volksbühne and Municipal Opera, and Kurt Singer (1885-1944). The latter, having studied medicine and musicology, became a neurologist; his musical accomplishments later earned him the post of Assistant Intendant of the Municipal Opera in Berlin and, in 1930-31, Intendant. The first historian of the League, Herbert Freeden, described him as ‘a man who could lead people, and a born orator who could enthuse an audience’.
Seeking to interest the Nazi authorities in their plan, Singer eventually met Hans Hinkel, who worked in the Prussian Cultural Ministry. They negotiated terms for the creation of the League, including the requirement that all artists in its employ must be Jews; that it must be financed by its all-Jewish audiences; and that its programmes must be submitted to Hinkel for approval before performance. This meant that the composers whose works were to be played had to be Jewish or the composition had to have a Jewish/Old Testament theme.
In May 1933, the terms having been agreed, the League began to operate. The idea was to provide employment for the many Jewish artists dismissed from their jobs in April 1933, when the Law for the Reconstitution of the Civil Service was enacted - members of municipal orchestras and opera houses were considered civil servants - and to provide a means for other Jews to support them (the prohibition on Jews attending non-Jewish places of entertainment came into force only after Kristallnacht). The League’s official opening was a performance of Lessing’s play Nathan the Wise in October 1933 (the last time this play, exemplifying religious tolerance, was performed in Germany during the Third Reich).
Soon other local branches of the League were formed in towns and cities with substantial Jewish populations – by 1935 there were 46 branches, which the Nazi authorities put under the umbrella of the Reich Association of Jewish Culture Leagues. The Berlin League was the most active, with more departments than any other, which was not surprising as approximately one-third of Germany’s Jews were living in Berlin.
Nazi restrictions on programming were progressive: Wagner, Bruckner and Richard Strauss were banned from the start in 1933; Beethoven in 1936; Bach, Brahms and Schumann in 1937 (leaving Handel as the only ‘permitted’ German composer – probably because he had lived in England for much of his life and had based many of his oratorios on Old Testament characters); and the Austrians Mozart and Schubert – along with Handel – after Austria had been annexed, in 1938. Despite this late prohibition of Mozart, the Reich Chamber of Culture forbade the performance of Cosi fan Tutte in 1935 as ‘the work of an Aryan composer must not be performed by Jews’.
The Nazis wanted the League to perform ‘Jewish music’ and the author devotes an entire chapter to the question of how this should be defined - and whether it exists at all. The League’s leaders repeatedly stressed their desire to adhere to ‘German culture’ and avoid ‘ghettoisation’. The German Zionists criticised the League for this very reason and the Nazis agreed with them! However, in 1936 the former changed their minds and exhorted their members to support the League - a Conference of Leagues had decided that more ‘Jewish music’ should be performed. Again the Zionists and Nazis agreed.
In 1935 the League had to change its name from ‘Culture League of German Jews’ to ‘Jewish Culture League’. In Nazi eyes, if you were a Jew you couldn’t be German - the two were mutually exclusive.
Despite his Jewish background, Weill was never performed, possibly because his compositions included jazz, which the Nazis considered ‘polluting’ because of its connections with ‘negroid’ music. But probably a more important reason was his frequent collaboration with the left-wing author Bertolt Brecht – after all, the Gestapo had issued rules for the leaders of the Jewish Culture Leagues, making them ‘responsible for ensuring that the performances are not directed against the National Socialist state and its laws and basic demands’.
Mahler, whom the Nazis of course regarded as ‘Jewish’ due to his background, although he was baptised, was never performed until late in the League’s existence. The first occasion on which one of his symphonies was played was in April 1939. Das Lied von der Erde was never performed, probably because Mahler requires a very large orchestra (which is expensive) and, besides, the League was chronically short of wind players.
The best-known of the orchestra’s conductors was Rudolf Schwarz, who before 1933 had been conducting symphony concerts and operas in Karlsruhe. He did not manage to emigrate from Germany before the war began but survived Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen and Belsen, eventually arriving in the UK, where he became a highly valued orchestral conductor. He died in 1994.
Following Kristallnacht, all provincial Jewish Culture Leagues were closed down by the Nazi authorities in December that year, leaving only the League in Berlin, but this too was dissolved by the Gestapo in September 1941.
Singer himself, in the USA in November 1938, was strongly advised not to return to Germany, as he had intended, and was even offered a university post in the USA. But he felt so strongly about the League and his connection with it that he returned to Europe - ‘to rescue what could be rescued’. In transit in Rotterdam, he agreed it would be futile to continue to Berlin and he remained in Holland until he was deported in 1942-43 to Terezin (Theresienstadt), where he died in February 1944.
In the book’s last chapter the author discusses the legacy of the Jewish Culture League. Many people accused its leaders of ‘co-operation’ with the Nazis, whilst others claimed that its importance in giving employment to Jewish artists and providing cultural entertainment for its audiences (particularly after November 1938, when they were no longer allowed to attend other concerts, operas and theatres) absolved them of that ‘guilt’. The debate continues. I, for my part, well remember how grateful I was that after November 1938 the Jewish Culture League enabled me to continue going to concerts and operas, and even hear my cello teacher Leo Rostal (brother of the well-known violinist and teacher Max Rostal and leader of the orchestra’s cello section) play the Dvorak Cello Concerto.
Probably the book will attract mainly potential readers who are interested in music. For them, it provides details not readily available elsewhere. It also highlights the many contradictions in Nazi policy. It is well written and has an extensive bibliography and index.

Fritz Lustig

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