Was Composer Richard Wagner Actually Jewish?

Tailor's Forbidden Blue-Blood Love and Poet's Soviet Survival

Jewish?: Speculation abounded that composer Richard Wagner was a Jew.
Pierre Petit/Wikimedia Commons
Jewish?: Speculation abounded that composer Richard Wagner was a Jew.

By Eddy Portnoy

Published January 26, 2013, issue of February 01, 2013.
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Forward Looking Back brings you the stories that were making news in the Forward’s Yiddish paper 100, 75, and 50 years ago. Check back each week for a new set of illluminating, edifying and sometimes wacky clippings from the Jewish past.

100 Years Ago

While it is well known that the great composer Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite, rumors have swirled about for years that in actuality he was also a Jew. If this is true, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise; after all, some of the most treacherous anti-Semites have been apostates. The identity of Wagner’s real father is unknown; the name “Wagner” was taken from his stepfather. One thing that is known is that Wagner’s mother loved the renowned painter, composer and actor Ludwig Geier, who was a Jew. She eventually married Geier, and it is often said that Geier is Wagner’s real father.

75 Years Ago

Morris Idelevitz, a 48-year-old Jewish tailor on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, had been married for 23 years and had five children with his wife. But Morris had a hard time making ends meet as a tailor, so he found a job as a gardener at the Glen Cove, N.Y., estate of millionaire businessman Herbert Pratt. While there, he made the acquaintance of Florence Pratt, the boss’s 21-year-old daughter. She loved Idelevitz’s stories of life in Russia and of the union battles on the East Side.

The two fell in love. But the Pratts had none of it. Herbert Pratt made his daughter get engaged to Francis Powell, a higher-up at Standard Oil, and shipped the pair off to England. But Florence Pratt couldn’t live without her Jewish tailor, so she returned stateside. Furious, Herbert Pratt arranged for Idelevitz to be committed to an insane asylum. After managing to convince his keepers that he was perfectly sane, Idelevitz took the Pratts to court. He ended up coming away with a $15,000 judgment.

50 Years Ago

Famed Russian-Jewish writer Ilia Ehrenburg was attacked in the pages of the Soviet state newspaper Izvestia, in which he was described as having “oversimplified” the situation surrounding Stalin’s purges during the 1930s. He also was accused of being “unethical” for having remained silent in the face of state terror. These matters are now coming to light, thanks to the publication of Ehrenburg’s memoirs in the Soviet journal Novy Mir.

Ehrenburg’s critics question how Ehrenburg managed to survive both the purges of the 1930s and the destruction of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, events during which many of his friends and close colleagues were jailed and/or executed. “I lived in an era,” Ehrenburg responded, “when the fate of man resembled not so much a chess game as a lottery.”

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