A Jewish Orchestra in Nazi Germany: Musical Politics and the Berlin Jewish Culture League.  Lily E. Hirsch. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.  ISBN 978-0-4721-1710-9

Reviewed for Musica Judaica Online Reviews by Barbara Milewski

During the last two decades a formidable number of excellent studies have appeared in English and German that have given us an ever fuller picture of the compromised, politicized reality of Germany’s musical culture during the National Socialist period. Lily Hirsch’s book, A Jewish Orchestra in Nazi Germany: Musical Politics and the Berlin Jewish Culture League, is a valuable contribution to this body of knowledge.

Hirsch draws on previous scholarship published in Germany—notably Henryk Broder and Eike Geisel’s Premiere und Pogrom: der Jüdische Kulturbund 1933-1941, and Geschlossene Vorstellung: Der Jüdische Kulturbund in Deutschland 1933-1941 published in conjunction with a 1992 exhibit at Berlin’s Akademie der Künste, which houses the Kulturbund archives—and significantly expands on this material through interviews with League members and subsequent archival investigations. In so doing, she makes available to Anglophone readers for the first time a comprehensive and nuanced telling of the origins and activities of the Jüdischer Kulturbund, or Jewish Culture League, the self-imagined, Nazi sanctioned, Jewish cultural organization that staged musical and theatrical performances for Jewish audiences in Nazi Germany between 1933 and its disbanding in 1941. As Hirsch’s study makes clear, the League’s history remains one of the more poignant examples of the complex, ever-narrowing field of choices Germany’s Jews were forced to navigate after the Nazis assumed power and enacted anti-Jewish exclusionary legislation (intended to protect the purity of Aryan culture) that restricted all aspects of their public and private lives.

Although the Jewish Culture League was active in many cities throughout the Reich, Hirsch focuses on the original, largest, and by-far busiest branch of the League in Berlin, the center of Jewish cultural activity in Weimar Germany. She also restricts her discussion solely to the musical work of the League. The book, arranged in six chapters with an Introduction and Epilogue, is modest in scope, and therein lies its greatest strength. Such focus allows Hirsch to delve deeply into the disturbing paradoxes inherent in the organization’s operations, and to consider thoughtfully and impartially individuals’ responses to this rigidly circumscribed cultural universe. As Hirsch tell us: “the League cannot be described as wholly positive or negative but rather a combination of the two—a grey zone” (15).

Chapter one traces the League’s unlikely beginnings and details the uncomfortable but essential cooperation between the Nazi regime and Germany’s Jews that, for a time at least, provided mutual benefits to both. In chapter two Hirsch sensitively explores the debates that ensued among leading voices in the League as they struggled to define a performance repertoire that would not only comply with the regime’s shifting notions of racial appropriateness, but also resonate as “Jewish music” among Germany’s diverse Jewish population. It is ultimately this issue of Nazi-imposed German/Jewish cultural separateness, the need to suddenly articulate a distinctly Jewish musical identity where no such racial-national category existed previously among Germany’s largely assimilated Jews, that lies at the heart of Hirsch’s study. The remaining chapters thus set out to explain how various composers and their music came to be seen both by League and Nazi leaders as either Jewish, or not.

Hirsch manages adroitly the contradictions, compromises and logical absurdities in establishing an “authentic” Jewish musical identity. She is not afraid to make difficult observations; in her discussion of Weill, Schoenberg and Bloch, for example, she explains that the League’s preference for Bloch over Schoenberg was to a certain extent informed by the same aesthetic criteria shared by the Nazis (79). Moreover, German composers who had been marginalized by the Nazis, such as Schubert and Handel, were readily taken up by the League as representative of Jewish loyalties or as spokesmen for their cause—Handel for his Israelite oratorios, Schubert for his perceived struggles and received image as an outsider. In all cases considered, including those of Verdi, Mendelssohn and Mahler, Hirsch demonstrates that because music played vital and varied roles in the League—as a means of group affiliation, integration, and worth, consolation, catharsis and escape—competing, sometimes incongruous, narratives of reception were inevitable, and changed over time. As Hirsch states: “No one was immune to the vicious political and national struggle that music itself had become a part of…Performing music in Nazi Germany was a political act” (130).

To be sure, Hirsch first locates a 20th-century European ideological orientation, tradition, and methodology for creating one’s own musical heritage that informed the efforts of the Jewish Culture league, and explains the various reasons League leaders ultimately turned to pre-existing Jewish music rather than create their own national school (62-67).  Russian Jews, for example, had already addressed the matter of nationalism earlier in the century by forming the Society for Jewish Folk Music. And it was precisely the music of Julius (Joel) Engel, Alexander Krein, and Jacob Weinberg, along with the compositions of local contemporary artists such as Heinrich Schalit, Gerhard Goldschlag, Edvard Moritz, Jakob Schoenberg and Berthold Goldschmidt, that the League programmed on their early concerts. But who were these composers? Though Hirsch provides (on p. 63) a helpful graph and table of the League’s most popular composers (all well-known figures from the European classical tradition), and the number of times their works were performed, relatively lesser-known composers are not accounted for. It would have been useful to learn how canonical repertoire dovetailed with more obscure works—that is, a more comprehensive picture of the League’s concert programming—if only for the opportunity to see just how deep and wide the privileging of standard repertoire was by comparison.

Given German music’s near-sacred status since the 19th century, and the Nazi rise to power that irrevocably damaged that status by persecuting, expelling and extinguishing many of its finest practitioners, it is understandable that scholars would be drawn to explore this dark chapter in European music history. There remains, however, much still to be learned by expanding the frame of inquiry eastward, to the Baltics and the territories of Poland, where Europe’s largest Jewish populations had lived before the outbreak of WWII. There, too, in myriad ways, Europe’s Jews during the interwar period grappled with questions of cultural-national identity in music that may provide interesting points of comparison. One hopes that with Hirsch’s finely written study to serve as a model, students may now address these lacunae with confidence.

Barbara Milewski, Associate Professor of Music, Swarthmore College