Transcending Dystopia. Music, Mobility, and the Jewish Community in Germany, 1945–1989

Frühauf, Tina
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616 S.
£ 41.99
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Celia Applegate, Vanderbilt University

Tina Frühauf is a leading scholar of German-Jewish music culture, its composers and performers, its institutions, instruments, and practices. Her latest monograph, Transcending Dystopia: Music Mobility, and the Jewish Community in Germany, 1945–1989, is a tour-de-force of research and reconstruction. Her archival virtuosity has yielded mountains of detail about the people who reconstituted Jewish musical practices in Germany after the Holocaust. Twenty-five chapters enumerate the steps taken to re-establish Jewish liturgical and secular musical performance. The history she narrates is complicated and detailed. It is replete with divisions and obstacles that threatened to undermine the project of Jews returning to a country that had denied their right even to exist. The most straightforward was the division between German Jews and Jewish Displaced Persons (DPs), these latter mostly Eastern European Jews who ended up in Germany in the immediate postwar years. The tensions between the two groups were cultural and religious. The German Jews, returning from exile or coming out of hiding in Germany itself, had mostly been members of Reform synagogues. They sang hymns in German accompanied by organs and organized concerts of classical music by canonical German and European composers—mostly not Jewish, with the ambiguous exception of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, whose works were frequently performed. The Jewish DPs were Orthodox—no hymns, no instruments, especially not organs, no concerts. Then there was the problem of the Four-Power division of Germany, later the division between West and East Germany, which complicated communication among those who had survived. Finally, and most heartbreaking, was how few Jews had survived and how few synagogues remained standing. In January 1933, there had been 160,000 Jews in Berlin. In September 1945, there were 68,500 displaced Jews, some German Jews, others from the east, most of them in transit to Israel or the United States. By the end of 1946, only 6,000 Jews were there; about a thousand more trickled in over the next year. In 1933, there had been 16 synagogues in Berlin; only a few survived Kristallnacht in 1938 and Allied bombing. In other German cities, the numbers of Jews and remaining synagogues were much smaller.

Frühauf’s book divides into four parts, chronological and political. The first seven chapters concern the immediate postwar years before the creation of the Bundesrepublik and DDR. She describes this period as rebirth of Jewish life “under distorted conditions” (p. 12). It was a time of taking stock, gathering, and literally digging up religious artifacts and instruments that had been buried in Berlin’s Weißensee cemetery during the Third Reich—an astonishing “500 Torah scrolls, 800 books, three harmoniums and two valuable organ-harmoniums” (p. 17). It was also a time of division between the “native Jews”, as Frühauf calls the German ones, and the DPs. They had little in common with the German Jews who went to concerts, sang in choruses, composed hymns, and sought to recover the Jewish renewal and redefinition that had taken place in the Weimar Republic. Little by little during these four years, the eastern European Jews became more influential because of their increasing numbers, writes Frühauf. More Yiddish could be heard, in songs and prayers, more syncretic religious observance developed in a “now diversified community” (p. 64). Music was the “sound of triumph over the Nazis’ attempt at culturecide” (p. 64), music was “consoling” (p. 72), and music “served as a connective tissue in the encounter of Jews and others” (p. 73).

The second part of her book focuses on the Jewish communities in various west German cities—Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, Saarbrücken, Aachen, Munich, and sundry others. The decade of the 1950s saw a modest flood of “remigration”, from the Americas, from eastern Europe, and even from Israel under Ben Gurion, who had “semi-banned” Yiddish culture (p. 114). Chapters 9 and 10 encapsulate the tensions within these diversified communities in West German cities. The disputed desirability of organs for religious services is the subject of Chapter 9, “Rebuilding with or without Organ”. Frühauf’s first book, Orgeln und Orgelmusik in deutsch-jüdischer Kultur (2005; English translation The Organ and its Music in German-Jewish Culture, 2009), portrayed how the embrace of the Bachian heritage of organ practice in 19th century Germany allowed Jewish culture and liturgy to reach heights of artistic excellence. After the Holocaust, there was ambivalence about this history, even though for the German Jews the organ was powerful sign of a “community’s identity”, essential for congregational singing and assimilation into the German musical heritage (p. 123).

Nevertheless, because the “vast majority” of the synagogue organs had been destroyed in Kristallnacht and the German Jews’ desire to include Orthodox Jews in their congregations after the war, there seemed little point to try to recover this musical heritage. Chapter 10, “Cantor on the Move,” is the companion to the previous chapter. When the organ, a sign of assimilation and admiration for this Christian musical instrument, was no longer valued, what took its place was the cantor, the quintessence of Orthodox musical practice. Frühauf emphasizes their scarcity and therefore mobility in these postwar years. By the 1970s, most were coming from Israel and Hungary, where there were training facilities. Scarcity also prompted some communities to turn to recordings, which in turn fostered an industry that “disseminated the musical legacy of Eastern and Western Ashkenazic prayer song” and made “Jewish music mobile” (p. 152, 154).

The third part of her book is the longest, but also the most problematic. It concerns “Jewish (Heritage) Music in East Germany.” This is a strange title, presumably pointing to the difficulty of establishing a link to any Jewish religious musical tradition in the DDR. Frühauf points out that the most prominent Jewish musicians in Germany were, of course, Communists: Hanns Eisler, Paul Dessau, Ernst Hermann Meyer, and so on, none of whom had any intention of composing Jewish liturgical music, reformed or orthodox. The problem with this well-meaning section of Frühauf’s book may be a lack of information about Jewish musical practices and practitioners in the DDR, despite an early effort that the East German government made to restore Jewish communities. After the death of Stalin and various witch hunts in the East Bloc countries for Zionist agents and counterrevolutionaries, Jewish religious life seemed to retreat in the shadows. The first chapter in this section is titled “Dystopia under Communism: Communities in the Crossfire of Politics”, but after that, Frühauf’s solution to a relative dearth of dramatic personae is to focus almost exclusively on one man, Werner Jacob Sander. Sander had been a member of a synagogue choir in Breslau in his youth, studied voice and piano in Berlin right after the First World War, was active in Social Democrat singing organizations, survived the Nazi years, and ended up in 1951 as a choral conductor in Leipzig, specializing in oratorios with texts from the Old Testament—Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn.

But this was just the prelude to the main act of his life, the founding of the Leipziger Synagogalchor in 1965. The organization specialized in the repertoire of Jewish religious song and Yiddish folk song with great success over nearly a quarter-century, singing in numerous concerts in both East and West Germany, travelling around Europe and to the United States, and recording a successful record titled for the US market as Music of the Jewish People: Traditional Music for the Synagogue and Home, with a menorah and the Star of David on its cover. The only problem was that none of Werner’s singers were Jewish. Frühauf is upfront about this, of course, but one does not have to be a fanatical denouncer of cultural appropriation to find this situation more than a little bizarre. Frühauf rightly draws attention to Sander’s heroic efforts to perform and record the heritage of Jewish song with his non-Jewish choir. She acknowledges that “little actual discussion among the singers about the meaning and context of the works or about Judaism in general, and possible implication of performing synagogue music and Yiddish song remained largely unreflected” (p. 217). But she ultimately concludes that the ends—preserving the Jewish musical heritage—justified the means. Nevertheless, the laser focus on Werner Sander and his singers resulted in a narrower and much more tedious account of Jewish music and musicians in East Germany as a whole.

Finally, this is a scholarly book, with 2,664 endnotes and an extensive bibliography containing lists of interviews, newspapers, several dozens of newspapers, likewise archives and manuscript collections, and hundreds of primary and secondary printed sources. Given all this industry, it may seem uncharitable to point out that Frühauf makes almost no effort to place her work explicitly in the extensive historiography of Jewish life after the Holocaust.[1] She contributes to the key issues that scholars of postwar Germany have addressed—Jewish identity, memory, reconstruction. It would help readers of this book to understand how her research has revised and/or extended our understanding of these extraordinary decades for a traumatized people.

A minor mystery is Frühauf’s intermittent use of the words utopia and dystopia. Dystopia, of course, features prominently in the title, but in the text of the book neither of these words are given serious attention. Early in the book, she refers to a “post-war dystopia,” as well as a “complex and uneven conjunction of utopia and dystopia” (p. 23). Thereafter, they just pop up now and again, almost arbitrarily, describing a bad situation or a good situation. For a book so diligent, so assiduous in tracking down and including even tiny and insignificant details about her large cast of characters, this indifference is regrettable. These are keywords, in Raymond Williams’s sense, words that resonate in multiple ways.[2] Thinking more analytically about them and exploring their meanings would have gone a long way to developing more robust arguments for this informative and factual account of the return of Jews to Germany in the post-Holocaust era.

[1] Consider, e.g. Matthias Pasdzierny, Wiederaufnahme? Rückkehr aus dem Exil und das westdeutsche Musikleben nach 1945, München 2014; Atina Grossmann, Jews, Germans, and Allies: Close Encounters in Occupied Germany, Princeton 2007; Wulf Kansteiner, In Pursuit of German Memory: History, Televisions, and Politics after Auschwitz, Athens, Ohio 2006; Joy Calico, Jüdische Chronik: The Third Space of Commemoration between East and West Germany, in: Musical Quarterly 88 (2005), 1, pp. 95–122.
[2] Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, New York 1976.