Jewish Musicians in Nazi Germany

Book CoverI read this incredibly sad, but beautifully written book by Martin Goldsmith called, The Inextinguishable Symphony: A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany.  Martin’s parents were German Jews, both born and raised in Germany. His family lived in Germany for centuries. Martin’s grandfather fought for the kaiser during World War One.  His family, like many Jewish families, helped build Germany’s economy.  But in that hateful regime made up of National Socialists we know as the Nazis, none of that mattered. His family members who stayed in Germany all died in concentration camps. His grandfather, the one who fought for Germany’s kaiser in the first world war, was murdered at Auschwitz. His uncle was murdered at another camp. That grandfather and uncle almost made it to America, which is another story in itself for which Martin Goldsmith has written a second book.

I’ve tried to write my own family’s story in Nazi Germany and post-war Germany so I know how difficult it is to write a cohesive story about it. There were so many stages in the Nazi era and each life in it was always in flux. I admire Martin Goldsmith’s ability to tell his family’s story with all the necessary explanations, yet still be a page-turner. I loved his descriptions and his way with words. I could feel myself walking with his father along the streets of Berlin during Kristalnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) as he absorbed the scene in disbelief and fear for his life. The detail in this book took me into the depths and I felt a fraction of the pain they must have felt.

Four months after the Nazi’s came to power, in April of 1933, they issued a law stating that any “civil servants who are not of Aryan ancestry” were to be immediately dismissed.  A “non-Aryan” was defined as any person who was descended from a Jewish parent or grandparent. This was a law! It sounds so silly and preposterous. How could this have been real? It’s scary how much power a government has over its people. I cannot stop thinking about it and the way the Jewish people have been persecuted throughout history. The worst of it was the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis. It was 1933 and thousands of artists, all Jewish, were now unemployed.

Many Jews responded by leaving Germany, but many didn’t have the money or the connections to leave, or they wouldn’t leave the country of their birth. Martin’s parents were Jewish. They were both learning to be great musicians when the Nazis came to power and were ordered to leave school because they were Jewish.  Meanwhile in Berlin, a Jewish culture band was in the making, which I was surprised to learn about. Not only did it exist, but it was supported and protected by the Nazis.  It was the idea of the former opera director in Berlin named Kurt Singer, who was now unemployed because he was Jewish. Kurt Singer was also a psychiatrist and a conductor of the Berlin Doctors’ Choir. He had the idea to form an “institution that would enable Jewish artists and Jewish audiences to support themselves both monetarily and spirtually….”  He went about the offices of the Gestapo looking for someone who would listen to his idea. Finally he found someone willing to give him the authority. The man happened to be one of Hitler’s earliest Nazi party members, but he saw the benefits of such an organization. One of those “benefits” was that it would appear to the rest of the world that the Jewish people were not being so terribly treated.  It was approved and would have protection by the government, but only Jewish people could be employed there and only Jewish audiences could attend performances. It was called the “Jüdischer Kulturbund” (Culture Association of German Jews). It lasted for eight years. Martin’s parents both wound up working there in the orchestra and it’s where they met one another.

As I read this book, I alternated between anger and sadness at the injustice.  I kept remembering that this Kulturbund existed because the musicians were Jewish and were thus being excluded from German culture, yet they themselves were Germans.  Not only were they dismissed from their regular employment because they were Jewish, but within this new Kulturbund they weren’t allowed to perform music or plays composed by German-born composers, such as Bach or Beethoven.  I wondered if whether it had been mandated by the Nazis if the musicians would have been too proud to perform under such conditions. But the idea came from a highly respected man, who happened to be Jewish. This is actually along the lines of the question in the last chapters of the book: The Kulturbund has been criticized for “allowing the Nazis to use the organization as a propaganda tool” lending an “aura of legitimacy” to that horrible regime. Also, some believe it may have lulled “German Jews into a tragically false sense of security about the future.” Martin Goldsmith says, “As the son of artists and as someone who works with musicians on a daily basis, I believe deeply in the power of art to make people whole. So I think that what the Kulturbund provided its audiences was vitally important, particularly in light of what was going on outside the theater.”

Ultimately there is no right or wrong answer.  Many stayed, either because they wanted to or because they didn’t have any connections or money, but many did leave.  Martin’s parents were fortunate enough to have a connection in America and the funds saved up for tickets to get them there.  Just after they left, the Kulturbund was disbanded by the Nazis because the Final Solution was adopted and the Jews were to be systematically sent East to the death camps.  It was the Summer of 1941; the war didn’t end until May of 1945.  Martin Goldsmith tells this story so well in the book. He has a second book that I am anxious to read as well. My favorite take-away from this book is the phrase “moronic hatred” – that seems to sum up what the Nazis were all about.

Close up photo on book cover

I’ve stared and stared at this photo.

This entry was posted in Books, German history, Music, The Holocaust and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Jewish Musicians in Nazi Germany

  1. Pingback: Book: Alex’s Wake – Berlin Memories

  2. Janine says:

    Thank you for sharing Peter. I know you are not alone. My mother is still very affected by her childhood in Berlin. She was born there in 1940 and so by the time the war was over, she was five years old. Those first years are so important with so much development, mentally, physically and socially. What happened in Germany during that era is unbelievable and unimaginable to someone like me who grew up in safety. I wish there was something I could say to lessen the pain.

  3. berlioz1935 says:

    Dear Peter, I have lived through the destruction of Berlin. I understand your distress. The “funny” thing is, then, I was never ever afraid. But today, thinking back, I have feelings of distress too. My beloved city was systematically turned to rubble because of a mad man. I was just lucky to survive.

    You are right, no child should experience war. But children, if they have not experienced trauma, are resilient. It is “just as the cooky crumbles”. Mankind has not changed a bit and people are still at it. Children will suffer in the future too. That is what makes me sad.

  4. I was born during the II World War in Berlin, Germany. My first memory is the darkness that crept into me like
    poison. I was in my grandparents’ bedroom at the time. Second memory, really a sea of memories, was the rubble. I
    was four by then. It was very spooky and I was constantly frightened of so many things, torn down apartments, smell of death etc. I am fading out now because no human being, especially children, should ever experience anything like that. Sorry, I can’t go on writing. Peter Schoknecht-Handeland.

  5. Janine says:

    Hi! Thank you for writing me. I stumbled on your blog through comments on another blog.

    I havent heard of that author. I’m gathering that I should!

  6. berlioz1935 says:

    The full impact of the Holocaust can only be partly understood by an outsider by getting involved in the life story of its victims. This book you are reviwing here seems to do just that. Do you know the books written by Lily Brett?

    Thank you for following my blog.

  7. Janine says:

    Hi Rebekah! Thank you. I learned so much from this book and it was moving too. If you do read it I would live to hear your thoughts about it. 😊

  8. Janine says:

    Thank you Dawn. It was a fascinating book. I hated for it to end. I think you will like it and learn so many things you didnt know. I sure did. 😊

  9. Rebekah says:

    “moronic hatred” … yeah, that sums it up well. I will read this book.

    There just aren’t any words for this, and it hasn’t been a very long time since this great shame of the human race took place. My brother was born 1945. I became very interested in this at an early stage, and used to ask my mum how she experienced this dark era. Living in Sweden, I don’t think all that much came out of Germany … not until the liberation of the camps the full ugly truth came out.

  10. Compelling and still shocking, after all these years. Thanks for this book review; I’ll have to look for it.

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