Transcending Dystopia: Music, Mobility, and the Jewish Community in Germany, 1945-1989. Tina Frühauf. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2021.

Reviewed by Martha Sprigge

Transcending Dystopia examines how Jewish communities throughout postwar Germany reconstructed their musical identities in the aftermath of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. Author Tina Frühauf focuses on the individuals who helped to restore musical life in different urban locales. This is a welcome expansion of previous scholarship on Jewish music making in post-World War II Europe, which has been focused largely on individual composers, philosophers, and their works.[1] Though the book’s title uses community in the singular, Frühauf draws attention to the heterogeneity of Germany’s postwar Jewish communities by consistently attending to vectors of difference such as class, generation, regional identity, and religious tradition. Transcending Dystopia paints a complex portrait of Jewish musical life in the postwar period, and demonstrates the importance of attending to local dynamics when crafting historical narratives.

The concept of “cultural mobility” serves as a frame for this extensive study, which Frühauf views as “intrinsic to Jewish music in the postwar Germanys” (p. 7). She adapts the term mobility liberally to explore many angles of Jewish culture in Germany after 1945, from the lives of Jewish musicians forcibly displaced by the Nazi genocide, to the itinerant cantors and musicians who traveled throughout German cities to perform services for congregations lacking key personnel, to the mobility of musical objects, such as scores and performances broadcast on the radio. The result is a capacious volume that traverses the immediate aftermath of World War II to the earliest years of German Reunification, and takes the reader to cities across Germany East and West.

Transcending Dystopia builds on Frühauf’s previous work about Jewish music in Germany for both academic and public audiences. This includes books on the organ in German Jewish culture and an award-winning co-edited volume—Dislocated Memories—which explores music after the Holocaust. Frühauf has also written a biography of the cantor Werner Sander (1902–1972) for the Jewish Miniatures series curated by the Centrum Judaicum in Berlin.[2] Transcending Dystopia weaves together themes from each of these previous volumes, and is greatly enriched by Frühauf’s extensive work on Germany’s Jewish communities past and present.

The book is organized into four sections that reflect both chronological and geopolitical concerns. Part 1 focuses on Jewish communities in major cities during the Allied occupation after World War II. There are chapters dedicated to Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, and urban centers in the Soviet and French zones, as well as discussions of Holocaust commemoration in the early postwar period. Parts 2 and 3 focus on the Jewish communities of West and East Germany, respectively. Frühauf tells many stories about Jewish musical life in flux, shaped by changing patterns of migration, attempts to make do with the resources available, and shifts in desires for what postwar Jewish communities should sound like. Part 4 returns to Berlin, charting the interactions between, and separations of, the divided city’s Jewish communities from the 1950s to 1989. Here, Frühauf examines the imbalanced forms of cultural mobility that took place between the Jewish communities on either side of the Berlin wall, where West Germans and other Westerners could increasingly visit and perform in the East, but the reverse was not possible.

One of the strengths of Frühauf’s localized approach is that she prompts new questions about an increasingly well-trodden period of history. A significant body of prior work on Jewish culture in Germany after 1945 has focused on responses to the Holocaust. In Transcending Dystopia, this issue remains crucial, but is positioned within a broader web of concerns facing members of Germany’s Jewish communities in the post-1945 period. In part 2, for example, Frühauf observes how congregations prioritized different musical practices. While prewar traditions were reestablished in some communities, other congregations found these customs undesirable. The use of the organ serves as a case in point (Chapter 9). This was a common instrument in prewar German synagogues, but the Eastern European Orthodox Jews who migrated to West Germany after World War II did not use it, and instead instituted their own preferred musical practices. Other customs—particularly when they required specific personnel or larger congregations—were unfeasible to restore due to the diminished size of the Jewish population after the Holocaust, and the scale of destruction that the Nazis wrought on Jewish spaces. For example, in chapter 10 Frühauf documents how bringing in cantors from abroad was common, and some congregations even used recordings cantors had made before the war for their services, because so many Jews had been murdered. Throughout the West German chapters, but especially in chapter 11—which foregrounds choral music—Frühauf raises an important question for scholars of musical life after the Holocaust in Germany and beyond: what did postwar Jewish communities perceive as (musical) absences? Internal answers to this question sometimes differ from those offered by historians examining postwar Jewish culture. Frühauf deftly demonstrates how not all congregations wished for a restoration of prewar customs, and preferred to establish different practices instead.

While the chapters on West Germany are loosely organized by genre, Frühauf examines Jewish musical life in East Germany (part 3) largely through the lens of the Leipziger Synagogalchor (Leipzig Synagogue Choir). Cantor Werner Sander, who founded the choir in 1962, was essential to ensuring the continued presence of Jewish music in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Frühauf traces the bureaucratic intricacies of the choir and the ways that they became caught up in the GDR’s cultural-political shifts, using the GDR’s changing remembrance rituals for Kristallnacht (November 9–10, 1938) as a lens for examining the choir’s increasingly “musealized” (p. 215) presentation of Jewish music, particularly after Sander’s death in 1972. She reveals a history of a performing institution that increasingly ignored Jewish lives as it curated Jewish music. Her approach to this topic offers important new insights into Jewish music and musicians in postwar Germany, both East and West. The focus on Jewish choral practice draws attention to a genre that is often overlooked in histories of both choral and Jewish music. Moreover, by telling a history of East Germany’s engagement with Jewish music through the lens of a semi-professional performing ensemble, Frühauf expands on existing scholarship on East Germany’s commemorative politics, which has prioritized composers, individual performers, and renowned historical ensembles that were upheld as beacons of the country’s cultural heritage.[5]

Transcending Dystopia is pitched to the initiated—that is, scholars who have more than a passing familiarity with recent debates in the fields of Jewish music, Holocaust memory, German history during and after World War II, and Cold War cultural politics. Frühauf assumes familiarity with the geography of German cities (including the neighborhoods in which synagogues and Jewish communities were located), as well as major genres of Jewish music. The introductions to each section are short, moving quickly into detailed descriptions, sometimes at the expense of situating specific agents and events within the overarching trajectory of the book. While many genres are mentioned in passing, discussions of repertoire and musical features are rare, as Frühauf’s focus is on the choices individuals made about music, rather than the sound worlds that resulted from these decisions. The sheer number of individuals and ensembles documented in Transcending Dystopia, though, will ensure that Frühauf’s text becomes a key resource for scholars of Jewish music and culture. The footnotes could be a volume unto themselves, presenting materials from archives throughout Germany that detail the major concerns of the communities discussed throughout the book. These rich archival findings will appeal to those working on both postwar Germany and Jewish culture, and lay the groundwork for further studies of the individuals and institutions presented in Transcending Dystopia.

Frühauf’s engagement with secondary literature is light and prioritizes German language contributions. There no doubt important reasons for this decision, especially as the field of musicology becomes increasingly dominated by Anglophone scholarship. But a corollary effect is that many potential links to current discussions of musical life in postwar Europe in either language remain unmentioned. Part 1 has rich connections with recent literature on rubble and ruin in German studies and musicology, for example; while parts 2 and 3 could participate in the lively scholarly discourse on music and Cold War politics.[3] There is also no overt engagement with other recent literature about the revival of Jewish musical life in postwar Europe by scholars who are similarly exploring the continuities and ruptures that European Jews faced throughout the twentieth century.[4] Perhaps these missed opportunities for dialogue can happen with the book’s reception instead, as readers make their own connections to the material Frühauf presents.Transcending Dystopia is an important contribution to understanding the dynamics of musical life in postwar Germany. Frühauf introduces readers to a large cast of characters who were central to musical life of postwar Jewish communities in Germany, yet who have not been recognized in previous research. Additionally, Frühauf’s microhistorical approach reminds the reader not to regard communities as monoliths. I can imagine this text becoming part of the conversation about musical life of post-World War II Europe, and offering much to future scholars in these fields.


[1] For example: Joy H. Calico, Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Europe in Postwar Europe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014); Amy Wlodarski, Musical Witness and Holocaust Representation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[2] Tina Frühauf, The Organ and its Music in German-Jewish Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Tina Frühauf and Lily E. Hirsch, eds., Dislocated Memories: Jews, Music, and Postwar German Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Tina Frühauf, Werner Sander “den Frieden endgültig zu festigen”: ein großer Vertreter der jüdischen Musik in der DDR (Berlin: Hentrich & Hentrich, 2013).

[3] For discussions of cultural life in the ruinscapes of postwar Europe, see Abby Anderton Rubble Music: Occupying the Ruins of Postwar Berlin, 1945–1950 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019), as well as parts five and six of Julia Hell’s The Conquest of Ruins: The Third Reich and the Fall of Rome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019). The study of music in Cold War Europe has expanded dramatically over the past two decades. Literature that focuses on the two Germanies that complements Frühauf’s work includes Calico’s volume on Schoenberg’s Survivor from Warsaw (cited above), Elaine Kelly’s Composing the Canon in the German Democratic Republic: Narratives of Nineteenth-Century Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), and Nina Noeske and Matthias Tischer, eds Musikwissenschaft und Kalter Krieg: Das Beispiel DDR (Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 2010).

[4] For example: Philip V. Bohlman, Jewish Music and Modernity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); Ruth HaCohen, The Music Libel Against the Jews (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), and numerous essays by historian David Shneer about the singer Lin Jaldati. [5] Such as composers Paul Dessau (1893–1979) and Hanns Eisler (1898–1962), singers Lin Jaldati (1912–1988) and Ernst Busch (1900–1980), and ensembles like the Dresdner Kreuzchor (established in 1236), the Thomanerchor (established in 1212 and conducted by J.S. Bach from 1727-1750), and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (established in 1781 and directed by Felix Mendelssohn from 1835–1847).

Martha Sprigge, University of California, Santa Barbara