Extracts from the Sep 2013 Journal
Before 1918, the eastern territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – those that were after 1945 to be situated behind the Iron Curtain – contained some of the largest concentrations of Jews in the world outside the Pale of Settlement in Russia. The Jewish communities of the Dual Monarchy, spread across the present-day states of Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania, were far more diverse than those of the German Empire discussed in last month’s issue of the Journal.
No area of what was once Austria-Hungary is more redolent of Eastern Europe’s vanished Jewish past than Galicia (Austrian Poland). Part of the Austrian half of the Dual Monarchy, Galicia came under Habsburg rule in 1772 and took its nineteenth-century form under the settlement reached at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. It was a crescent-shaped territory stretching from Cracow in the west to the Romanian border in the south-east; the western part, around Cracow, now forms part of Poland, while the eastern part, around Lviv (Lemberg), is in Ukraine. At its western extremity was the small town of Auschwitz (Oświęcim), which became part of Poland in 1918 and was annexed to the Third Reich in 1939. In its far south-east were towns like Tarnopol, Buczacz, Kolomea and Stryj, with a mixed population of Poles, Ukrainians and Jews.
Lemberg, perhaps more than any other Habsburg city, was associated with the rapidly expanding urban communities of eastern Jews, hard-working and aspirational, eager for cultural and educational self-improvement, but also conscious of the values, traditions and religious practices of their birthplaces. The arrival of the German-speaking bureaucracy of the Habsburg state gave the city a German-Austrian character and appearance in its orderliness and in the popularity of its coffee-houses. By 1910, 28 per cent of the city’s population was Jewish. Among its celebrated residents was Martin Buber, born in Vienna in 1878 but raised from the age of three by his grandfather in Lemberg. The second largest city in eastern Galicia was Brody, a major commercial centre that became known as ‘Trieste on the continent’, offering an opening to Russia just as Trieste gave Austria-Hungary an outlet to the Mediterranean. Brody was also known as the ‘Galician Jerusalem’ since Jews formed over 80 per cent of its population and it was an important centre of enlightened culture and of Judaism; for a time the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, had lived there.
The principal city of Polish-dominated western Galicia was Cracow, capital of Poland until the early seventeenth century. Following the foundation of Kazimierz in 1335 by King Casimir the Great as an outlying settlement for Jews, Cracow became a major centre of Jewish life and culture though its Jewish residents also suffered periodic bouts of persecution. Much of the cultural and intellectual elite of other towns in western Galicia, such as Tarnow or Rzeszów, was Jewish. Around Przemyśl the Austrians constructed one of the largest defensive fortresses in Europe but in 1914 it failed to stem the advancing Russian armies. The atrocities of the Holocaust have, perhaps understandably, obscured historical memories of the brutal treatment meted out by the Russian armies to the Jewish communities in the Austrian territories occupied in 1914-15.
The Austrian crown lands of Bohemia and Moravia were under Habsburg rule for considerably longer than Galicia and were correspondingly closer culturally to Austria. This was reflected in the fact that their Jewish population was largely German-speaking. The jewel in the crown of Bohemian Jewry was Prague, whose Jewish community has acquired almost mythical status. Prague was home to Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, creator of the legendary figure of the Golem, to the thirteenth-century Old New Synagogue and to the celebrated Old Jewish Cemetery. Franz Kafka, probably the most influential Jewish writer of modern times, was born in Prague in 1883; the city can be sensed in seminal works like The Trial and Metamorphosis.
Brno (Brünn), the capital of Moravia, also has a long association with the Jews. The city’s most famous sight is the Villa Tugendhat, constructed in 1929-30 for a Jewish couple of that name by the modernist architect Mies van der Rohe. Moravia contributed notably to the high culture of the Habsburg Empire: Sigmund Freud was born in Příbor (Freiberg) and Gustav Mahler was brought up in Jihlava (Iglau) on the border between Moravia and Bohemia. A Torah scroll from Moravská Ostrava (Mährisch-Ostrau) is on permanent loan to Kingston upon Thames synagogue, a memorial to the region’s lost Jewish past.
At the eastern end of the Austrian half of the Dual Monarchy lay Bukovina, where the original Romanian majority was increasingly diluted by Ukrainians, Poles, Hungarians, Germans and Jews. Under Habsburg rule from 1775, Bukovina passed to Romania in 1918. Its northern part, annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 and re-occupied by Romania between 1941 and 1944, now forms part of Ukraine. Though it was the capital of a small, remote province, Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi) occupied a special position in the artistic and intellectual world of the Habsburg Empire, a ‘little Vienna’ on the River Prut where a prodigious appetite for culture led to a remarkable flourishing of German-language literary and intellectual life. The Jews, who came to form one third of the city’s population and spoke a Viennese German spiced with Yiddish and Ukrainian words, dominated the city’s cultural institutions. Czernowitz was the birthplace of the celebrated poets Paul Celan and Rose Ausländer and the novelist Aharon Appelfeld, Holocaust survivors who continued the city’s tradition of Jewish high culture into the post-war era.
The Jews in the Hungarian half of the Dual Monarchy were a case apart, insofar as they tended to speak Hungarian in preference to German. In those parts of the pre-1918 Kingdom of Hungary where Hungarian was spoken, the Jewish population tended to assimilate into Hungarian society, since the Magyars were the ruling ethnic group. Despite a long history of discrimination and persecution, the Jews of Hungary repeatedly displayed their patriotic allegiance to the country in which they lived. In the revolution of 1848-49, Jews joined with the insurgent Hungarian forces fighting for liberation from the Habsburg yoke. The revolutionaries promised equal rights and freedom from discrimination for all; Jews were granted full civic rights by the National Assembly in July 1849. But the revolution was also a national uprising; the upsurge of inflamed nationalism that it provoked led to an outburst of anti-Semitic feeling and to ugly atrocities against Jews. The crushing of the revolution in 1849 (two weeks after the legislation granting citizenship to Jews) halted the democratic movement for a decade, but the reforms of the 1860s culminated in the lasting emancipation of Hungary’s Jews. They proceeded to establish a prominent, sometimes a dominating, position in commerce, the professions and the country’s cultural and intellectual life.
Though Hungary was largely ruled by its landowning elites, Jews were mostly protected, at least until 1918. This allowed the Jews of Budapest, the largest by far of Hungary’s Jewish communities, to flourish. The city was the birthplace of many eminent Jews, including Theodor Herzl, founder of Zionism, and it boasted the monumental Dohány Street Synagogue. Other cities such as Miskolc, Debrecen, Györ and Szombathely also contained sizable Jewish communities. Seven of the ten Nobel Prize winners born in Hungary were Jewish. The Jewish proportion of the capital’s population reached 23 per cent, earning it the back-handed compliment of being renamed ‘Judapest’ by Karl Lueger, the anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna. Before the First World War, Hungary had no anti-Semitic political party to compare with Lueger’s Christian Socials in Austria; only after the defeat of Austria-Hungary in 1918, and Hungary’s loss of some two thirds of its territory under the Treaty of Trianon, did anti-Semitic resentments come to the fore.
The Jewish communities in the other regions of pre-1918 Hungary fared poorly, as minorities amidst ethnic groups that were themselves subject nationalities under Magyar domination. The large Jewish community in Slovakia, Hungarian until 1918, included a cultured, German-speaking middle class in western cities like Bratislava (Pozsony in Hungarian, Pressburg in German), but tended to be poorer, more traditional and Yiddish-speaking in eastern cities like Košice (Kassa, Kaschau), with Nitra and Banská Bystrica in between.
In distant, impoverished Transylvania, which passed to and fro between Hungary and Romania in the period of the World Wars, the presence of a German community, the Siebenbürger Sachsen, complicated the ethnic situation further. Most of the region’s principal centres of population, such as Brasov (Brasso in Hungarian, Kronstadt in German), Cluj (Kolozsvár, Klausenburg), Sibiu (Nagyszeben, Hermannstadt) and Oradea (Nagyvárad, Großwardein), had substantial Jewish communities, which suffered from the ethnic rivalry between Romanians, Hungarians and Germans, as did that in Timişoara (Temesvár) in the neighbouring Banat region. In Ruthenia (also known as Subcarpathia), one of the Empire’s most remote and backward areas, Jews were largely concentrated in the main towns, Mukachevo (Munkács) and Uzhhorod, centres of Hungarian-speaking culture surrounded by a rural population of Ruthenians (Ukrainians). The region became part of Czechoslovakia in 1918 and is now part of Ukraine.
The narrative of Britain selflessly opening its doors to the Jewish refugees is compelling but “It takes more self-confidence to say that British Jews weren’t always so wonderful.” [more...]
University of Michigan Press, 2012, 258 pp., paperback, available from www.eurospanbookstore.com
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.
A white card with black lettering fell out of a book as I took it down from its shelf. It turned out to be an invitation sent in 1963 to members of the Society for Jewish Study and the B’nai B’rith Leo Baeck (London) Lodges to attend a lecture by Dr David Patterson on ‘Conflict and Crisis in Modern Hebrew Literature’.
Immediately, I was taken back to those far-off times when I was still living in London under my parents’ roof and one of my late father’s ‘evening jobs’ was to serve as the secretary of the Society for Jewish Study. From where I’m sitting today, the topic of the lecture sounds fascinating but I’m afraid that at the time I wasn’t particularly interested in those esoteric subjects. I do recollect, though, that my father enjoyed fulfilling his duty of attending those lectures, whereby he managed to broaden his education, which had been curtailed in Nazi Germany. He organised the monthly lectures, booked the hall and had the invitations printed. He even enlisted my sisters, our mother and myself to help him when it came to putting the cards into the envelopes on which he had typed the addresses.
Curiosity led me to turn to the internet to see whether the Society for Jewish Study still existed. To my delight it’s still going strong, with a varied programme of lectures, many of them of quite some relevance to people like myself – British expatriates living in Israel. As its website, http://www.sjslondon.org.uk, proclaims, ‘The Society for Jewish Study brings before the public the results and insights of academic research into Jewish religion, literature, history and the arts.’
Amidst the learned lectures about such subjects as ‘Musical Instruments in the Bible’, ‘Secret Jews and the Inquisition’ and ‘Academic Study of Jewish Law with Reference to the Agunah Problem’, my curiosity was aroused by the subject of Dr Alan Mendoza’s lecture (given in December 2012) entitled ‘Understanding Delegitimisation: The War Against Israel in Contemporary Britain’.
In the summary of his lecture, Dr Mendoza wrote: ‘Israel is a liberal, democratic and economically productive country, with award-winning high-tech and technological innovation the effects of which are seen around the world. Yet in 2012 Britain, calls for its boycott and international isolation have never been stronger, with Israel’s standing under assault in academic, trade union, political, cultural and media circles. This has not occurred by accident – a long-term campaign has been waged against Israel by political activists, with dangerous consequences for both Britain and Israel.’
I couldn’t have put it better myself!
The summary ended with the lecturer’s promise to explain the context of the delegitimisation movement and how it could be turned back. I wish I could have been there and I hope that large numbers of people turned out to attend. It seems to me that the Jewish community in England would do well to invite Dr Mendoza to repeat that lecture at venues throughout England and even abroad.
The version of Israel that is portrayed by the media in England tends to be skewed, probably because of the British predilection for supporting the ‘underdog’, in this case the Palestinians. Irrespective of whatever solution is eventually reached, the situation is not a straightforward black-and-white one, with the good guys on one side and the bad guys on the other, as the over-simplified version that is fed to the British public would seem to suggest.
In view of recent events in the neighbouring countries of the region in which Israel is located, not to mention the history of the Jewish people, I think it advisable that a combination of pragmatic and existential considerations be allowed to be paramount when it comes to formulating and implementing policies. I just wish the British public and media could see it that way.