Melodías del destierro. Músicos judíos exiliados en la Argentina durante el nazismo (1933-1945). Silvia Glocer. Buenos Aires: Gourmet Musical Ediciones. 2016.

Reviewed by Vera Wolkowicz

Argentina has the largest Jewish community in South America. The migrations (or, rather, forced exiles) that led to such a status began in the late nineteenth century, and would increase during the rise of the Nazi party in Germany and through the Second World War. Silvia Glocer’s Melodías del destierro [Melodies From the Exile] delves into this history by focusing on the musicians who sought refuge on the other side of the Atlantic between 1933 and 1945. This book, written in Spanish and published in Argentina by Gourmet Musical, is the first to discuss and compile the histories and trajectories of exiled Jewish musicians in Argentina. While a large part of Glocer’s methodology relies on archival work (newspapers, concert programs, official documents, etc.) she combines it with methodologies driven from anthropology and oral history, such as interviews with some of these musicians, their families, friends and/or their students, not only exploring the history of exiled Jewish musicians during World War II, but tracing their legacies up to the present. Even though it is an academic text, its engaging prose and structure invite all kinds of readership (from scholars to the general public) without losing academic rigor, making it an invaluable contribution to the studies of Judaism, music and global history.

The book is divided into five chapters and a biography section. In Chapter 1, the author situates the reader in Europe, more precisely in Germany in 1933. She describes the racist policies of the Nazi regime, and how they pervaded every aspect of life, excluding Jewish people from German society. Glocer mentions how these measures affected the realm of art, particularly music, both by excluding Jewish musicians from State orchestras, and also by banning their music and designating it as part of what the Nazis called “degenerate art.”

Next, the author gives us an idea of immigration policies in Argentina. While during the second part of the nineteenth century, Argentina fostered immigration, by the early twentieth the situation became more convoluted. The arrival of many Italian and Spanish anarchists during the 1900s-1920s led the government to create laws that restricted immigration. The military coup of 1930, combined with the world economic crisis, accelerated the implementation of these laws. In this hostile environment, the local Jewish-German community created an association that would help in bringing other German Jews into the country (Hilfsverein Deutschsprechender Juden). In 1938, the government of Argentina would again toughen immigration restrictions. As Glocer reveals throughout the book, despite these measures, and the increasing antisemitism expressed by the Argentine government and different political sectors, Argentina was still the South American country with the largest Jewish migration during the Third Reich.

In the Argentine music scene, local musicians also opposed the inclusion of foreign musicians, citing different reasons: while some of them expressed xenophobic sentiments, others claimed that, while they weren’t against foreign musicians, they expected equal treatment when touring abroad, as other countries also had protective measures that would not allow the establishment of Argentine musicians. There were also some expressions of support that stressed the defense of any musician as long as they were talented. However, increasing xenophobia and antisemitism would taint the columns of music critics such as Gastón Talamón, who wrote an antisemitic article that was vehemently rejected by León Heller in the pages of Mundo Israelita. Glocer closes this chapter with a full transcription of the debate, allowing the reader to form a better understanding of the political and cultural tensions taking place in Argentina at the start of World War II.

Chapter 2 takes us back to Europe, but now to trace the lives and histories of Jewish musicians before going into exile. While the majority of this group is formed by German Jews, the author also mentions Jewish musicians from other parts of Europe who were mostly working in theaters, but also in the film industry, or in different orchestras in German-speaking cities when they decided to migrate. All of them had different musical training, ranging from private study to studies at conservatories or other musical institutions. Glocer concentrates on the particular case of Guillermo Graetzer (a student of Paul Hindemith), both because of his later importance in the Argentine music milieu, and the amount of sources consulted in his vast personal archive. 

Following the music careers that these Jewish musicians had in Europe before their exodus, in Chapter 3 Glocer narrates their new beginnings in Argentina. Following Daniel Feierstein and Miguel Galante’s work on the role of Argentine diplomacy during the Holocaust, [1] the author lists the exiled musicians, grouping them in three migratory periods: from 1933 with the rise to power of the Nazi party; between 1938 and 1940, when the extermination process started; and from 1941 until the end of the war. She also adds a fourth category consisting of those with unknown dates of arrival.

The biggest arrival of exiled individuals coincides with the first period before the Anschluss, i.e. Germany’s annexation of Austria in March 1938 (58 immigrants). From this period, almost every musician arrived with a work contract. Upon arriving in Argentina, one of these musicians, Dajos Bela, created fake contracts through his orchestra so that he could save more lives. The radio and recording businessman Max Glücksmann also helped to bring persecuted Jews to Argentina. In other cases, it was through relatives already living in Argentina that these musicians could find their way there. The people included in the second migration group (49 immigrants) were desperate to flee from the horrors of the war, but encountered more difficulties in entering the country due to the new restrictive (and antisemitic) policies decreed by the Argentine president Roberto M. Ortiz. The third group is composed of only seven names. Most of them had already fled their home nations via other European countries, such as Portugal or Spain.

Glocer understandably asks why the emigrants chose Argentina if, even though neutral, the country’s government was more closely aligned with the Axis than with the Allies. She suggests that an important reason is that there was already a relatively large Jewish community settled in Argentina before the war, and that many relatives and Jewish community members were able to help them get visas and other documents to get into the country, as well as support them financially once they arrived. The author gives another plausible motive, which is the importance that Buenos Aires gained during the first decades of the twentieth century as a cosmopolitan and culturally active city equal to Paris, Berlin or New York.

 The second part of this chapter explains the assimilation of Jewish musicians into the local community, discussing the social and cultural networks created especially between the German-Jewish community and the German-(non-Jewish)-Argentine community who were opposed to the Third Reich. It also discusses the Jewish immigrants’ insertion into the Argentine music milieu (especially within the local avant-garde), and their roles as performers in different orchestras, mostly as players of classical music, but also in some tango and jazz orchestras. The participation of many musicians at the Colón Theater of Buenos Aires is key in this history. Many of these musicians had performed at the theater before the war, and so they decided to return once the war started. A case in point is that of Erich Kleiber who, although not Jewish, had toured in Buenos Aires in the 1920s and decided to find refuge in the city during the war due to his opposition to the fascist regime. The performance of operettas and the Yiddish theater were also important modes of inclusion for these new immigrants, as were the radio and the cinema. And last but not least, the most common way for these musicians to make a living was through teaching, although the language barrier would result in a slow transition from private lessons to teaching at institutions. 

Chapter 4 is more descriptive, and here Glocer narrates the impact and legacies of this particular immigration. The major impact of these Jewish musicians, especially during the 1940s, was in the revival of operetta sung in Yiddish and other musical genres of the Jewish theater and the creation of new orchestras. Glocer devotes a segment of this chapter to discussing the impact of stage directors, who played a crucial role in modernizing the performances of operas, mostly those staged at the Colón Theater.

The author addresses the impact of the musicians in the music education sector by describing their participation at different institutions, as well as the creation of their own, such as Guillermo Graetzer’s Collegium Musicum, which is still active today. Glocer also mentions the written legacies that these musicians left through their writings in music journals, pedagogical books, and in their written music.

Chapter 5 works as an epilogue in which the author describes the lives of these immigrants after the war, and how most of them, having left the horrors of the war behind, settled down and adopted Argentina as their new home.

The next and final section comprises the biographies of all the immigrants mentioned in the book, which has now grown into a freely accessible online dictionary:áfico-y-bibliográfico-de-músicos-jud%C3%ADos-exiliados-durante-el-nazismo-en-la. This is a most valuable resource to trace the migration of Jewish musicians in Argentina, and to shed light on their lives and works.

The migration of Jewish people to the Americas is well known, and the migration of Jewish musicians to the United States has been well documented. However, until Glocer’s book, there had not been an extensive analysis that explored the nature and importance of Jewish migration to Argentina. Melodías del Destierro is undoubtedly a pioneering work, and one that is essential to completing the history of exiled musicians during one of the world’s most tragic periods. By remembering each of these musicians’ stories, we can build a history of resilience and legacy that should serve as constant reminder of what we want for the present and aim for the future.


[1] Daniel Feierstein and Miguel Galante, “La Cancillería Argentina ante la Shoá. Representaciones y prácticas en torno al amparo diplomático”, Índice. Revista de Ciencias Sociales 35, n. 21 (Buenos Aires: DAIA, Centro de Estudios Sociales, 2004): 209–267.