When Watching Unbearable Tragedy Is Far Too Bearable — Especially When Ute Lemper Sings
‘I’m a mother of four children,” Ute Lemper was saying, fingers toying with the handle of her coffee cup, “and singing these songs, telling these terrible destinies and tales of death, is almost impossible.”
Lemper sat across from me at Nice Matin, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The lunchtime conversations surrounding us hummed with an energy that felt unique to this day, one of the first that felt like spring; visible through the windows, trees weighed down with white blossoms lent a delirious beauty to 79th Street. It was, altogether, a somewhat jarring environment in which to be discussing Lemper’s current project: a concert of songs written by Jews in concentration camps during the Holocaust.
Unlike many who claim the title “chanteuse,” Lemper, strawberry blonde and dressed with a chic simplicity, lives up to its silky appeal. She’s won acclaim for playing Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” and spent her career, which has taken her through Berlin, Paris, London and New York, in worship of Kurt Weill. In person she comes across as direct and unpredictable, moving with a pantherlike deliberateness. Beyond the glamour, though, she is a professional who wants to do a good job. As she sipped her second cappuccino, she grew eager to ensure that my phone, which I was using to record our interview, captured our conversation over the buzz. She joked, with genuine concern, that if she spoke louder she might hurt her voice.
It was obvious she wanted to do this right: this interview, partially, and, more importantly, her upcoming concert.
By virtue of its history, the material of that performance — Last Musik’s “Songs for Eternity” at the Center for Jewish History — would be high-pressure for any performer. Lemper finds that her heritage exacerbates that stress; she is German and not Jewish, although her children, from two marriages to Jewish men, are.
“The history of the Holocaust for me is a very complicated issue of being German born,” she said. “This is why I do this work.”
Throughout our conversation she shared details about composers and concentration camps almost compulsively, rattling off dates and histories with a remarkable intensity. Listening to her, I kept thinking of a T-shirt bearing a list of the names of black victims of police violence who became popular after the incidents in Ferguson, Missouri. I saw white acquaintances wearing it with a half-confrontational, half-apologetic air, as if they wanted to pre-empt criticism of complicity by claiming a pre-existing understanding of it. Lemper, reviewing the lives and sufferings of the composers she’d been studying, broadcast a similar attitude.
Her agitation over striking the right tone was prescient. While eventually intended to tour widely, the concert at the Center for Jewish History was a one-night benefit to raise money in support of the effort to locate and record concentration camp music. (According to Last Musik’s website, that effort, led by scholar and musician Francesco Lotoro, .) The evening began with cocktails; I nursed a bourbon, watched the well-dressed patrons mingle, and found myself a bit on edge at the glamour of the whole thing.
Once the performance began, my discomfort transitioned into alienation. Waiting in my seat I paged through the sleek, expensive-looking program, surprised to find it featuring full-page biographies and headshots of the performers. It felt like a silent version of the moment at the start of a professional sports game when the announcers introduce the home team, who preen and pose in the flashing lights. For an evening revisiting the accomplishments of people, many of whose names have been lost, who pursued their art under unbearable conditions, the focus on the name and image of contemporary interpreters was unsettling.
Lemper appeared onstage in a long-sleeved black gown — modest, but not mournful — and introduced the concert in a strange, half-whispered singsong. The music was lovely, but difficult to grasp; linked by Lemper’s dreamlike narration, the songs blurred into one another. After some time, I discreetly checked the program to see how many songs were left, experiencing a flash of frustration when I realized the concert was running behind schedule. It was a moment of unexpected honesty with myself, and, of course, one of guilt. I wasn’t emotionally engaged in the program, even though I wanted to be.
That response — or lack thereof — felt like an insult to the people who had written the music, frequently on toilet paper or scraps of ruined clothing. I was so busy trying to force myself to be more involved, and then berating myself at my failure to do so, that I almost didn’t notice I wasn’t alone. The audience yawned and shuffled, and a surprising number of people left between songs. I’d anticipated tears and troubled hearts, but when the lights came on and we filed out, most of the faces that passed me looked serene.
“Each of [the songs] is like a vast lifeline,” Lemper had told me. “It’s almost impossible to fall into the feeling of these songs, because it’s just so awful.”
For me — and, it seemed, for others in the audience — it had been difficult to fall into the feeling of the songs for another reason: The whole thing was too comfortable. The theater was warm, I was well fed, and I could look forward to returning home to a nice apartment and an untroubled sleep. Walking into the concert, I’d expected to feel what Lemper felt — an incredible, painful, emotional resonance with the music — but it was too difficult to remove myself from my own reality to that of the music.
That dissonance — a desire to experience the music on a deep emotional level, met by a total inability to do so — stayed with me. It brought up some serious questions, among them this: How can modern audiences and institutions sensitively, ethically and effectively give new life to the work of Holocaust victims?
Here’s the conflict: The people who wrote that music surely didn’t do so because they wanted to be remembered as victims; they wrote it because they wanted to continue being themselves, which meant being more than what the concentration camps tried to force them to be. Every person who lived and died in those camps had a life and love and ambition. Those things, rather than the drive to be remembered in martyrdom, are likely behind the instinct that led them to keep creating. It makes sense, then, that those things should come to the forefront when presenting their work, that focusing on their achievements as humans rather than on their posthumous status as victims would be the best way to honor them. The danger attached to doing that, of course, is that the history will take a second seat to the art and, by doing so, lose some significance.
These thoughts returned to me a week after Last Musik, when I attended the press preview for the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust’s exhibit “Stitching History From the Holocaust.” The exhibit, which originated at the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, focuses on a Czech couple, Hedy and Paul Strnad, who attempted to immigrate to America at the start of World War II. They didn’t make it, but letters that Paul Strnad wrote his American cousin Alvin asking for assistance did. The letters, written in a fine hand, included a series of dress designs by Hedy, who was a seamstress in Prague. The Milwaukee museum has spent the past five years filling in the blanks of the Strnad’s story and working in collaboration with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Costume Shop to make, for the first time, the dresses Hedy Strnad imagined.
The exhibit was beautiful, bright and touching. Hedy Strnad’s designs, colorful and flirtatious, have been brought to life with careful detail. They show off the vibrant working life of a woman who happened to die in the Holocaust, neither downplaying the horrific circumstances of her death nor letting them overwhelm the products of her life. The crowd examined the dresses and discussed the sobering story that accompanied them with apparently sincere appreciation.
And yet, as I exited the exhibit I saw a young couple taking a smiling selfie with Strnad’s dresses arranged behind them. In the next room over, those who’d viewed the exhibit with me lined up for wine and cheese, their conversations meandering from Hedy Strnad to synagogue politics to updates on jobs and relationships. It gave me pause. In the exhibit I’d been thrilled to see Strnad treated as a whole person whose value was not dependent on the fact that she was a victim of the Holocaust, but I wondered, sipping my own glass of wine, if the distinctly celebratory tone of the evening was really fitting.
Revisiting my interview with Lemper helped me clarify that discomfort in a surprising way. I’d asked her what motivated her to seek out songs, like those in Last Musik, that offer a troubling reflection on the history of her home country’s culture.
“When I looked around in my generation,” she said, “I didn’t find enough grief and confrontation. Personal confrontation with this heritage that we have.”
The issue I was experiencing, it seemed, was similar. Confronting the heritage wasn’t the problem; figuring out how to view it through the lens of individual artists without devaluing their art, their lives or their deaths, was.
Together, the events for Last Musik and “Stitching History” illustrated the extremely delicate tonal conundrum of reviving art by Holocaust victims. For institutions like the Center for Jewish History and the Museum of Jewish Heritage, figuring out how to respect those victims as people — and how to treat their art as valuable, even when viewing it isn’t viscerally devastating — is hard. It brings up, for instance, the fact that art goes hand in hand with criticism. That’s fine, but it’s practically impossible for audiences — or journalists — to look at a Holocaust victim’s creations with an objective eye. In fact, even the thought of criticizing such a piece feels morally repulsive.
The difficulty is that the alternative — treating art as valuable because a Holocaust victim created it — runs the risk of robbing that art of the chance to be seen as independently meaningful. It’s also a somewhat patronizing attitude that the artists, had they lived, would have been unlikely to welcome. (Few artists want to be recognized more for their deaths than for the quality of their work.) What choice is left to the directors of museums and cultural centers who see the urgent need to expose audiences to the art of Holocaust victims? Is there a middle ground at which audiences can genuinely appreciate, celebrate and criticize the art they see — to react to it intensely, quietly, or not at all, while acknowledging that its importance partially derives from the circumstances under which it was created?
When I left the museum, walking through Battery Park as the advancing dusk drained color from the late daffodils, I found myself thinking, again, of Lemper. I’d asked her if she’d ever visited a concentration camp; she responded that she’d been to Auschwitz.
“I touched one of the barbed wires,” she said, “and I imagined that I had a little electric shock touching the wire. That’s my spiritual imagination. It was an unspeakable experience.”
Her answer reminded me of a visit I made to Prague’s Jewish Museum in the spring of 2013. The museum is spread out over six former synagogues, one of which, Pinkas Synagogue, is almost entirely empty. Its white walls are painted with a tightly packed black-and-red list of the names of every Bohemian and Moravian Jewish victim of the Holocaust. When I walked in and saw the first name, and the walls and walls of uncountable names beyond it, I began to weep without intention or awareness. It was an extraordinary moment of connection to an incomprehensible history, deep enough and true enough to transcend thought.
I’d wanted to feel that same kind of openness watching Lemper sing. I’d wanted to feel it seeing Strnad’s dresses showcased for an eager audience in the country she was never able to reach. It turns out, though, that in some ways it’s easier to understand the Holocaust in its entire scope than it is to understand it in the context of a single human life.
Opening up the art of those single lives for thoughtful, free examination is a complicated task. But, like that synagogue in Prague, our collective history is made up of individual stories. Learning how to present them well — and experience them well — is essential.