Berlin Wrestles With the Jewish Culture it Banished
Out of the rubble of the First World War emerged a mythic culture in Berlin: modern and erotic, brimming with arts and ideas; a city that attracted writers, actors, painters and musicians to its aura of progress and creativity.
That’s half the picture. The other half is the Depression, National Socialism and antisemitism that hung like a shadow over the Golden Twenties, which came to an abrupt end in 1933, when Hitler seized power.
It is this conflict — between myth and reality, between the triumph and the tragedy — that inspired the 19th Jewish Culture Festival, titled “The Golden Twenties: Today Comes and Tomorrow Stays.” The festival runs in Berlin through December 11. From Yiddish tango to historic tours of the capital; from films, readings, art and photography exhibits to a flashy cabaret performance of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Mahagonny,” the festival has set its sights high: to connect a glorious past to a barely noticeable present.
“It’s about Jewish artists trying to build a bridge between the ’20s and today — to show living Jewish life, not only dead,” said Shelly Kupferberg, a radio and television journalist working as the festival’s arts adviser.
Just 12,000 registered Jews live in Berlin today — 80% of whom come from the former Soviet Union — compared with the 170,000 living here in 1925. At that time, the community boasted 49 theaters, 37 film companies, 20 music salons, three opera houses, 1,000 publishing houses, 2,000 magazines and 40 daily newspapers. Injected into the city’s cultural atmosphere were names like Arnold Schöneberg and Marc Chagall, Joseph Roth and Albert Einstein, Egon Kirsch, Fritz Lang and Vladimir Nabokov. The productivity was stunning; the loss — between the Nazi takeover and the gas chambers of World War II — immeasurable.
In recasting the past to illuminate the present, music can be a persuasive form. The festival’s second night featured a stirring rendition of Yiddish tango songs — from their birth in the 1930s in New York and Buenos Aires to their mournful expression in ghettos and concentration camps, from Vilnius to Bialystok and from Lodz to Auschwitz. Such contemporary bands as Oi Va Voi from London and Kosher Nostra from Frankfurt will make appearances here, with traditional cantorial and klezmer music adapted to the acoustic and club sounds of today.
Directed by the German film and theater actor Dominique Horwitz (whose latest film, “Die Blaue Grenze” [“The Blue Border”] opened two weeks ago in Berlin), the festival takes place in a notable setting: under an elaborate, 1920s-style cabaret tent erected in the courtyard behind the Centrum Judaicum, on Oranienburger Strasse in Mitte, the historic heart of Berlin’s Jewish community.
With emphasis on the other Berlin neighborhoods where Jewish life once flourished — the high culture centered on the Kurfürstendamm and Charlottenburg in the west, and on the poor Eastern European immigrants who settled in Scheunenviertels in the east — the festival brings retrospectives on such writers as Georg Hermann and Sammy Gronemann, actors Paul Graetz, Alexander Granach, Maria Orska and Fritzi Massary, and other renowned figures of that time.
A reflection on the Golden Twenties “is important because antisemitism is growing in the former East Germany,” a non-Jewish German attendant at the festival said, preferring not to be named. “Jewish culture existed as a part of German culture before National Socialism: That’s the message against antisemitism today.”
Michael Levitin is a freelance journalist living in Berlin.