Archive for the ‘ Jewish Musicians ’ Category

The Partisan Song

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UncleMishaAs I mentioned in a recent blog post, I will be serving as the featured speaker in a Holocaust Memorial program for the Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson, MS, on Saturday, April 26.

The presentation will combine a discussion of the Violins of Hope with performances by Marta Szlubowska, who is the concertmaster of the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra. Maestra Szlubowska will be performing classical works as well as a few Yiddish songs that were popular in Jewish communities during the Holocaust.

One of the Yiddish songs Maestra Szlubowska will play is Zog Nit Keynmol (Never Say), which is widely recognized as “The Partisan Song.” The melody of Zog Nit Keynmol is derived from a pre-war Soviet march, but its lyrics were composed in 1943 by Hirsh Glick, who had been confined to the Vilna Ghetto. Glick penned the text as a reaction to the news of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when a group of Jewish fighters rebelled against their Nazi captors. Although the Jewish combatants were ultimately too poorly armed to defeat the German forces, their heroic efforts inspired Glick to incite others to continue fighting:

Never say that you have reached the end of the road,
Though leaden skies may blot out the light of day.
The hour that we all long for will indeed come,
When our steps will beat out the message: “We are here!”

Zog Nit Keynmol became something of an anthem for spiritual resistance in ghettos and concentration camps, as well as for Jewish partisans. This may have included Uncle Misha’s Jewish Group, a legendary guerrilla force of Jewish combatants who fought in the dense forests of Poland and Ukraine. From their hideouts in the woods, they launched paramilitary attacks and performed acts of sabotage on the Nazis and their collaborators.

One member of Uncle Misha’s Jewish Group was the thirteen-year-old partisan Mordechai “Motele” Schlein, who had escaped into the woods after his parents and sister were executed by Nazis. In August 1943, Motele infiltrated a German Soldiers Club, where he was hired to provide entertainment during meals. Every night, Motele would hide his violin in the Soldiers Club and take home an empty violin case. He would return the next morning with a few pounds of explosives hidden in that case. When high-ranking SS officers arrived for a visit, Motele blew up the building. Motele’s amazing story is the subject of a chapter in Violins of Hope.

Where Shall I Go?

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???????????????????On April 26, 2014, I will be participating in a Holocaust Memorial presentation for the Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson, Mississippi. I will be serving as the featured speaker for their 2014 Yom HaShoah program.

The presentation will combine a discussion of the Violins of Hope with performances by Marta Szlubowska, who is the concertmaster of the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra. At her suggestion, Maestra Szlubowska will be performing Henri Wieniawski’s Legende, op. 17; Vittorio Monti’s Csárdás; and John Williams’s always emotional Theme from Schindler’s List.

I’ve also asked Maestra Szlubowska to perform a few Yiddish songs that were popular in Jewish communities during the Holocaust. One is Vu Ahin Zol Ikh Geyn? (Where Shall I Go?), which was written before the war by Latvian-Jewish composer Oskar Strock and lyricist Igor S. Korntayer, who died in Auschwitz. Although it pre-dates the Holocaust, Vu Ahin Zol Ikh Geyn? became popular among eastern European Jews who had been forced from their homes with nowhere to go. A translation of the song’s chorus asks,

Where shall I go?
Who can answer me?
Where shall I go,
When every door is locked?
The world is large enough,
But for me it’s small and crowded.
Everything I see is not for me.
Every road is closed.
Where shall I go?

The question “Where shall I go?” was certainly on the minds of the Jewish virtuosos who were dismissed from their positions in leading European orchestras. One was trombonist Heinrich Schiefer, who briefly found refuge in a Jewish orchestra before increasing discrimination convinced him to leave Europe for good. He had offers to join a jazz band in Argentina and a symphony orchestra in Baku (the capital of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic), but ultimately accepted an invitation to join the new Palestine Symphony Orchestra. “Enough with the jazz and communists,” his father convinced him. “Stick with the Jews.” The story of the 75 Jewish musicians who founded the Palestine Symphony Orchestra is detailed in the first chapter of Violins of Hope.

Dohnányi and the Hungarian Holocaust

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DohnanyiIn the late 1930s and early 1940s, Ernst von Dohnányi used his considerable influence in Hungary to protect Jewish musicians from the Holocaust. Tragically, in the years following World War II, he fell victim to false accusations that he was a Nazi war criminal. The smear campaigns were so successful that even today, over fifty years after his death, many musicians still believe that Dohnányi was a Nazi.

The charges of Nazism could not have been further from the truth. On March 17, 2014, I presented a paper on “Ernst von Dohnányi: A Forgotten Hero of the Holocaust Resistance” at an international conference titled The Holocaust in Hungary, 70 Years On: New Perspectives. My paper outlined several occasions on which Dohnányi openly defied the Nazis. This included blocking the creation of a Hungarian Chamber of Music that would have excluded Jews from the music profession, just as the infamous Reichsmusikkammer did in Nazi Germany. Dohnányi also resigned from his position as Director General of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music instead of carrying out orders to fire Jewish instructors. As the conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic, Dohnányi disbanded the ensemble rather than dismiss its Jewish members.

In addition to these public acts of defiance, Dohnányi assisted a number of individual Jewish musicians. These included impresario Andrew Schulhof, whom Dohnányi helped emigrate from Germany to the U.S. in 1939. The pianist Lajos Hernádi was discharged from the labor service when Dohnányi wrote a letter declaring Hernádi and his hands to be irreplaceable national treasures. When the famous violinist Carl Flesch and his wife were in grave danger of being deported to a concentration camp, Dohnányi helped to reinstate their Hungarian nationalities, enabling them to travel through Germany, back to Hungary, and ultimately to Switzerland. Dohnányi also personally saved the pianist György Ferenczy, Ferenczy’s wife, and several other Jewish musicians from the death trains. Zoltán Kodály later reported that Dohnányi had signed dozens of documents that had saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust. In Ernst von Dohnányi: A Song of Life, Dohnányi’s widow placed that number in the hundreds. Jewish violinist, violist, and composer Tibor Serly went so far as to credit Dohnányi’s frequent interventions for the fact that “Not one Jewish musician of any reputation living in Hungary lost his life or perished during the entire period of World War II.”

Dohnányi was investigated and cleared several times by the U.S. Military Government, and was repeatedly defended by prominent Jewish musicians who had worked closely with him in Hungary, including violist Egon Kenton [Kornstein], pianist Edward Kilenyi, musicologist Bence Szabolcsi, and composer Leó Weiner. The latter wrote at least two testimonials pointing out that the majority of Dohnányi’s students had been Jewish and that Dohnányi had consistently programmed Weiner’s own compositions, even during the Nazi regime.

Dohnányi was clearly not a Nazi. Instead, he was a forgotten hero of the Holocaust resistance who became the victim of very successful smear campaigns after the war—ones that continue to unfairly tarnish his reputation.

The Rediscovery of a Passover Cantata

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AjzensztadtMarch 14, 2014, marks the first performance since the Holocaust of Chad Gadya [One Little Goat], a Passover cantata by David Eisenstadt [Dovid Ajzensztadt].

As the music director of liturgy and the founder/conductor of the choir at the Grand Synagogue in Warsaw, Eisenstadt was a major figure in Jewish music in Poland in the 1920s. During the Holocaust, he was confined to the Warsaw Ghetto, where he continued to compose, perform, and teach. He led a choir and helped establish the Jewish Symphony Orchestra in the ghetto.

In 1942, Eisenstadt and his wife were put on a cattle car to the Treblinka extermination camp. They were separated from their twenty-one-year-old daughter Marysia, who desperately tried to join them. They watched helplessly as Marysia was shot dead by an SS officer. Eisenstadt and his wife were gassed soon after arriving in Treblinka.

Very few of Eisenstadt’s compositions are extant. Chad Gadya only survived the Holocaust because in the 1920s he sent its manuscript to cantor Froim Spektor in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, where Eisenstadt had once been a choirmaster. In a handwritten note, Eisenstadt asked Spektor what he thought of the work. “You are the only man whom I truly respect,” he wrote. “I beg of you . . . send me your opinion.”

Spektor left Russia for South Africa in 1928, bringing the manuscript with him. Eighty-five years later, Dr. Stephen Muir, a Senior Lecturer in Musicology and Performance at the University of Leeds, discovered the work in the possession of Spektor’s granddaughter in Cape Town.

“We’ve opened up a window onto a culture that was destroyed, where so many talented lives were cut short and entire artistic legacies were very often destroyed too,” says Dr. Muir in a university press release. “By uncovering this long-lost music, it’s like finding a message in a bottle, washed up on the other side of the world.”

Teaching the Holocaust

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???????????While teaching the course about music during the Holocaust, I developed a new approach to the subject that uses memoirs and biographies to study the daily lives of Jewish musicians during the that horrific period.

As I explained during a presentation about teaching the Holocaust at the national meeting of the American String Teachers Association on March 6, 2014, I taught the course at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in Spring 2012. The goal of the class was to prepare my students to serve as docents when we brought eighteen of the Violins of Hope to Charlotte for an exhibition and a series of performances.

In discussing the Holocaust with my students, I found that they were struggling to wrap their minds around the overwhelming enormity of the estimated eleven million deaths. I noticed that they responded much more emotionally to stories about individual musicians. This, of course, is why readers have gravitated toward the memoirs of individuals such as Anne Frank, Primo Levi, and Elie Wiesel, whose personal accounts can help humanize the otherwise unfathomable tragedy of the Holocaust. I discovered that focusing on various musicians who were impacted by the catastrophe was equally helpful in encouraging my students transcend dispassionate facts and figures and instead concentrate on individual lives. My presentation at ASTA surveyed a number of English-language memoirs and biographies that I found to be particularly helpful in examining the daily lives of Jewish musicians during the Holocaust. You can find a list of those sources here.

I took a similar approach while writing Violins of Hope. The chapter on the Wagner Violin tells the story of the founding of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, but within the larger context the hardships faced by all German Jews during the early days of the Third Reich. The chapter on Erich Weininger is really about the tribulations faced by all Jews who tried to emigrate. And the chapter on the Auschwitz Violin gives an insight into the sufferings of those who were left behind. Similarly, the chapters on Ernst Glaser, Feivel Wininger, and Motele Schlein shed light on the fates of Jews in Norway, Romania, and Ukraine.

My presentation was very well received, and I was pleased that the audience members had some really good questions about my research, as well as some great feedback regarding musicians from the Holocaust who had touched their own lives. One college student approached me at the end and expressed an interest in learning more about Holocaust music. She asked if there was still room in the literature for new research.

My answer? A resounding yes!