Singing Despite Tyranny: The German Jewish Culture Association

Readers of the moving family memoir “The Inextinguishable Symphony: A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany” by Martin Goldsmith (Wiley, 2001) will recall how in 1933, a German Jewish Culture Association (Kulturbund Deutscher Juden) was formed with Nazi permission, which two years later was renamed the Jüdischer Kulturbund (Jewish Culture Association), omitting the word “German” to underline the increasing disenfranchisement of Jews.

For eight years until 1941, the Kulturbund offered plays, operas, orchestral and chamber music by Jews and for Jews in Berlin and Frankfurt, as well as Hamburg and Cologne. Now a new study from the University of Michigan Press, “A Jewish Orchestra in Nazi Germany: Musical Politics and the Berlin Jewish Culture League” by Lily Hirsch, further examines the complex cultural and political significance of artistic expression under the yoke of tyranny.

Hirsch, an Assistant Professor of Music at Cleveland State University, discusses how the Kulturbund was a propaganda tool for the Nazis, much like concentration camp orchestras, giving the illusion to some naive foreign observers that life for Jews under the Nazis was a cultural dream. Still, performances allowed Jews the possibility to express internal resistance.

Verdi’s 1844 opera “Nabucco” with its “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” were performed, which still packs a punch as an epic of biblical righteousness, as June 2010 performances of “Nabucco” scheduled at Masada imply. The Kulturbund also performed Handel’s defiant Bibilical oratorio “Judas Maccabeus” (with its chorus “Never, never bow we down.”

The Kulturbund even had its own record label, Lukraphon, of which a few damaged pressings (see YouTube selections below) survive of the Jewish contralto Paula Salomon-Lindberg accompanied at the piano by conductor Rudolf Schwarz, later a survivor of Auschwitz who had a distinguished career in Britain.

Most Kulturbund performers were murdered in deportation after the organization was dissolved in September, 1941, sharing the fate of Salomon-Lindberg’s stepdaughter, the artist Charlotte Salomon who created some striking portraits of the singer herself.

Other Kulturbund singers included the mighty Ukrainian Jewish bass Alexander Kipnis and the diminutive tenor Joseph Schmidt (also here). “A Jewish Orchestra in Nazi Germany” reminds us of what was lost culturally at this time of lethal oppression.

Hear the rich-voiced Paula Salomon-Lindberg sing “Bist du bei mir,” an anthem of faith unto death, once misattributed to JS Bach (the damaged disc settles down after initial skips).

Here Salomon-Lindberg sings Mendelssohn (again, the understandably damaged disc settles down after initial skips.

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