This article originally appeared in the Yiddish Forverts.
When Hirsch Lewin was deported from Germany in 1940 after six months of suffering in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, he could not have imagined that seventy-six years later, musicians in Berlin would release an album of the music he had produced.
Even when Lewin founded his record label Semer (Hebrew: Zemer, “song”) in 1932 as part of his Judaica bookstore Hebräische Buchhandlung, he already understood that Jewish music in Germany was gravely threatened. Over the next five and a half years, Semer would release hundreds of recordings in a range of styles and genres: Yiddish and Russian folksongs, cantorial music, popular jazz and cabaret hits in German, show tunes and comedy routines in Yiddish, even Italian arias.
Nazi racism can be partially “credited” for the diversity of musical styles: when Lewin originally planned to record Jewish music, he envisioned himself focusing on typically Jewish genres like cantorial music and Yiddish folksongs. Because the Nazi regime forbade Jewish musicians from performing or recording for Aryan Germans, however, Jewish performers of every imaginable variety of music were forced to record for Semer and other Jewish record labels. Not only were musicians segregated under Nazi racial laws, anything performed by a Jew, whether a Sabbath prayer in Hebrew, a classical violin concerto or a German-language musical number, was deemed a Jewish recording. In this environment, Lewin’s music label recorded both singers of overtly Jewish music like the gifted cantor Israel Bakon and performers of genres much further afield such as the cabaret singer Willy Rosen, who in better times had been one of Germany’s most popular performers.
Lewin’s fears about the future of Jewish music in Germany were confirmed on Kristallnacht when he watched Nazis burn more than 4,500 of his records on a pyre in front of his store as flames rose from nearby synagogues in his largely immigrant-Jewish neighborhood of Scheunenviertel. November 9, 1938 marked not only the end of Lewin’s Semer Records but also the final moments of his unique cosmopolitan Jewish Berlin, famous for its cultural synthesis of Eastern and Western European traditions.
Like many of Scheunenviertel’s Polish Jews, Lewin was imprisoned in a concentration camp shortly after Kristallnacht and subsequently deported. After a short stay in Czechoslovakia, he managed to obtain a berth on a ship bound for British-Mandate Palestine. The ship soon sank off the coast of Italy and Lewin, along with his fellow Jewish-refugee passengers, was arrested by the Italian coastguard. From Italy, Lewin eventually reached Palestine, where he was reunited with his wife Rodla and his children Wolf (today Zeev) and Rifka in July 1944. Together with Zeev, he reestablished Semer Records in Israel and continued to run the business until his death in 1958.
Although Semer was resurrected in the Jewish State, it was far from a full continuation of its Berlin era; all of the master recordings had been destroyed by the Germans and most of the company’s catalogue was impossible to obtain. The label’s artists had largely met the same fate as their music: the cantor Israel Bakon was murdered in Belzec in 1943 alongside his wife and son; Willy Rosen was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944.
For nearly fifty years, it appeared that the voices of the murdered Jewish singers had vanished forever amidst the flames of the Nazi pyres in front of Hirsch Lewin’s store. As it turned out, however, the recordings had been a lot more widely distributed than anyone knew and nearly all of them survived in far-flung and often unexpected places.
From 1992 to 2001, the German musicologist Rainer E. Lotz scoured the globe in an effort to reconstitute Semer’s catalogue. After years of Lotz’s digging through archives and searching record stores, Bear Family Records released a massive collection of 267 recordings that Semer and similar Jewish record labels had released in Germany before WWII.
Selections from the recordings were included in an exhibition on Eastern European Jewish migrants in Berlin at that city’s Jewish Museum in 2012. Fabian Schnedler, a Yiddish-singer who works for the museum’s education department, decided to organize a concert made up of songs that had been released by Semer in the 1930s. Finding musicians capable of performing such a specialized repertoire in a wide variety of musical styles, however, was no easy task. To tackle it, the Jewish Museum commissioned the Indiana-born composer and accordionist Alan Bern to put together an ensemble.
“The first question was: whom do I pick to be in the ensemble?” Bern told the Forward. “So I turned to a circle of people that I’ve worked with for thirty years, like Lorin [Sklamberg, the lead singer of the Klezmatics] as well as other musicians whom I trust in terms of their artistry and their ability to sing in different styles. I chose people whose care for the tradition I trust but who are also not afraid to separate themselves a bit from it and be original.”
Bern explained that the city of Berlin, where he has lived since 1987, was also an important factor in choosing his artists. “Other than Lorin [Sklamberg], all of the musicians already live in Berlin,” Bern said. “Even ten years ago it wouldn’t have been possible to put together such an ensemble. So many people have come to Berlin who are serious about the history of Jewish music and their own creative voice as part of this tradition. It’s kind of a revival of a cultural standard that hasn’t existed here since the 1930s.”
Just like the musicians who originally recorded for Semer in the 1930s, many members of the Semer Ensemble were attracted to Berlin by its cosmopolitan character. Besides Bern, the trumpet player Paul Brody and the Klezmer punk musician Daniel Kahn also hail from the USA. The violinist Mark Kovnatskiy is from Russia and Sasha Lurje, a versatile Yiddish singer of everything from folk music to psychedelic rock, is originally from Latvia. Alongside them perform two Germans: the Yiddish singer Fabian Schnedler who originally conceived of the ensemble, and the bass-player Martin Lillich, who is known for playing a wide range of musical genres including jazz, classical, African, Iberian and Greek music.
“Before the Nazis, Berlin was probably the most progressive and culturally diverse city in terms of politics, gender, immigrants and so forth,” Bern said. “I think that today’s Berlin is reviving that tradition. In a funny way it’s traditional to be transcultural in Berlin.”
All of the members of the Semer Ensemble have previously served as faculty at Yiddish Summer Weimar, an intensive five-week Klezmer and Jewish arts festival that Bern founded in 1999. It was during Yiddish Summer Weimar that the group first publicly performed some of its repertoire in the summer of 2012. Since then, the Semer Ensemble has learned more than thirty songs from the label’s catalogue and performed them at shows in Warsaw, Copenhagen, Lviv and many other European cities. The group performed this past summer at Klezkanada, a Klezmer festival in the Laurentian Mountains, and at the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto.
“We hope to be able to go on a real tour of North America soon,” Bern said.
For those who don’t wish to wait for a North American tour, a portion of the Semer Ensemble’s repertoire can be heard on the group’s album “Rescued Treasure.” Recently released by the German record label Piranha, “Rescued Treasure” was recorded live in November during a series of concerts at Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater. Like the music that Max Lewin recorded in the 1930s, the 12 tracks included on the album represent a wide range of genres and styles.
Willy Rosen’s “Im Gasthof zur Goldenen Schnecke” (At the Golden Snail Inn), which the cabaret star also composed, is beautifully sung by Fabian Schnedler, Sasha Lurje and Lorin Sklamberg. Listening to the upbeat song few would ever guess that Rosen originally recorded it in a synagogue basement in 1935 because as a Jew, the former pop star could no longer use a recording studio. The new version, like Rosen’s original take for Lukraphon Records, another of Berlin’s Nazi-era Jewish record labels, reveals no signs of the situation in which it was recorded, let alone its singer’s tragic fate.
Another song originally recorded by a German pop star is Sasha Lurje’s masterful interpretation of Dora Gerson’s “Die Welt Ist Klein Geworden” (The World Has Become Small). The former film star and cabaret singer originally recorded the song during the same synagogue-basement session in which Willy Rosen sang about the Golden Snail Inn. The cabaret number, with lyrics by the librettist Fred Endrikat, was better suited to the tragic circumstances under which it was recorded than Rosen’s number. “Die Welt Ist Klein Geworden” explores the paradox that people in the 1930s could fly around the world and communicate instantaneously between continents at the same time that humanity was quickly becoming more violent and less understanding. Lurje’s version retains the original’s pathos, grief and defiance towards the era’s political realities. Gerson met the same tragic fate as Rosen: she was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943 alongside her husband and two children.
Among the five Yiddish-language songs on the album is “Scholem Baith” (Yiddish: Sholem-Bayes, roughly “domestic tranquility”), a dark comedic piece presented as a sung dialogue between Daniel Kahn and Sasha Lurje. Originally recorded by the Berlin-based husband and wife cabaret duo of Esther and Jakob Moschkowitz for Semer, the song features a dysfunctional couple that repeatedly argues and makes up. With its absurd threats of suicide, vicious curses and an over-the-top yet unironic sensibility, the routine serves as a charming remnant of a nearly-forgotten Yiddish cabaret tradition.
A very different tone is struck by the heartbreaking Yiddish folksong “Das Kind Liegt in Wigele” (Yiddish: Dos Kind Ligt in Vigele, “The Child Lies in the Cradle”). The unusual arrangement featured in Simon Berkowitz’s 1931 recording for Artiphon Records (later reissued by Semer) is transformed by the Semer Ensemble into the album’s most touching and innovative piece. The song, about the death of a young mother, is performed by all four of the group’s singers, both individually and collectively, to haunting effect. The instrumental accompaniment takes more liberties with its source material than any other track on Rescued Treasure, mixing traditional Jewish styles with rock and an extraordinary dirge-like jazz-infused trumpet solo by Paul Brody.
“It’s a more contemporary way of expressing despair,” Bern said. “Some of the recordings are far from the original, some are very close. It’s a balance. If they all sound the same, it’s not worth making new versions. If they all sound different. then it’s not worth rerecording them. It’s a dialogue between the past and the future with different approaches speaking to one another.”
A different version of this article was in the Yiddish Forward, translated by the author.
Jordan Kutzik is a staff writer at the Forverts.