Discourses in Music: Volume 4 Number 1 (Fall 2002)

Horst J. P. Bergmeier, Dr. Ejal Jakob Eisler, Dr. Rainer E. Lotz
Vorbei... Beyond Recall: Dokumentation jüdischen Musiklebens in Berlin 1933-1938/ A Record of Jewish musical life in Nazi Berlin 1933-1938.
Hambergen: Bear Family Records, 2001. Book, eleven CDs, and one DVD

The story of Jewish music in Nazi Berlin has largely remained untold until now. Relatively little of the extensive body of Holocaust literature has discussed Jewish artistic life, whether because it scarcely existed under wartime conditions or because few people or written accounts survived to document it. Of the project which resulted in Vorbei...Beyond Recall, researcher Henryk M. Broder writes in the Foreword that "[n]o matter how much material we had was evident that even more was missing" (p. 7). Fortunately enough evidence remains to create this compelling narrative, meticulously researched through both documents and survivors' testimonies, of the Kulturbund Deutscher Juden. The organisation, whose main activity was the production of musical and theatrical performances, began in 1933; its stated purpose was "to look after the artistic and scientific interests of the Jewish population and to encourage the creation of employment for Jewish artists and scientists" (Kulturbund statues, cited p. 63). Thus the aims of the Kulturbund itself, as well as those of its historians, intertwine idealism and practicality from the start.

A massive project, Beyond Recall includes a book (bilingual, with German and English on facing pages), eleven CDs, and a DVD. The book's primary focus is the history of the Jewish Kulturbund and the political environment. It also contains smaller sections, including an introduction to the Jewish liturgy, the history of the four main Jewish record labels, and an extensively annotated discography. The CDs represent transfers from extraordinarily rare 78 r.p.m. recordings made during the 1930s. The DVD features the violinist Andreas Weissgerber in the sound film Hebräische Melodie, once believed lost.

This visually dynamic book intersperses the text with colourfully highlighted quotes and extensive graphics, including reproductions of photographs, periodicals, advertisements, and letters. Though occasionally distracting, the layout also finds striking juxtapositions of images and text. On p. 64, for example, Hitler's face imprinted on a picture disc seems to mock a passionate appeal to the Jewish community in a Kulturbund leaflet. Occasionally, the reader knowing only English may be frustrated that even though the graphics' captions are in both German and English, the authors frequently fail to translate any German-language content in photos or documents (as on pp. 73 or 101, for example).

The largest section of the book detailing the history of the Kulturbund, The Jewish Kulturbund and the Political Environment, takes the reader from the early 1930s and the Nazis' rise to power to the banning of the Kulturbund's activities in 1939; it also follows many individuals through the end of the war and beyond. After a thorough discussion of the political climate in Germany, the authors focus on Berlin and its Jewish community. The book then details the escalating crisis among Jewish artists which led to the conception and establishment of the Kulturbund. In addition to the more concrete facts, the authors delve into the community's wide-ranging attitudes toward the project and candidly engage with difficult questions: did the Kulturbund's creators come too close to collaborating with the Nazis? Did the project create a ghetto mentality even before the physical ghettos materialised?

Another sign of the book's all-inclusive approach is its recognition of each person's humanity; throughout, the authors endeavour to create fully three-dimensional characters out of even minor historical figures. Jews and Nazis alike receive miniature biographies, so that the reader can follow, for example, Hans Hinkel's path to Nazism through university studies and journalistic work (p. 55), or Leo Baeck's path from the rabbinate to community leader to a concentration camp to post-war lectureships (p. 65). Even the concert descriptions seem to take on life: rather than just listing programs and venues, they recreate as much as possible the extraordinary atmosphere of these "madly beautiful" performances (p. 13).

The discography provides far more than the basic information of labels, matrix numbers, artists, and recording information. It also gives the known history of the performers and sometimes of the pieces, as well as of the recording itself (i.e. reissues or catalogue errata), and translations or summaries of the texts. These artist biographies and song histories are often impressive in scope, and many are enhanced by photographs and images of concert programs, tickets, sheet music, and catalogue pages.

Understandably, only a small percentage of Jewish recordings survived the war and subsequent decades; and, of course, these 78 r.p.m. recordings, purely commercial products which constituted only a small part of Berlin's musical life at that time, are the only surviving aural record. Yet there are hours worth of listening including liturgical selections sung by choirs or favourite cantors, arias by Puccini, Bizet, and many others, as well as Yiddish songs from the folk repertoire, musical theatre, and cabaret. Because the discs are arranged by record label rather than by genre or performer, selections placed side-by-side can sometimes be jarringly different; however, as both a musical and cultural resource, these CD transfers are invaluable.

It is sadly ironic that the current surge of interest in pre-Holocaust European Jewish culture comes when hardly any survivors remain. Fortunately, this research project began early enough that it could reconstruct the history presented here, for it was the living participants who not only provided testimony but helped lead the researchers to other survivors, to documents, records, and other archival material. Each individual part of the set is notable and engaging on its own; together, this multimedia collection is a new and important source of information on one community's artistic integrity in the face of the Nazi regime.

-Dana Astmann