A Jewish Musical Odyssey

“As Jewish practice, learning and knowledge diminish over time, my concern is that Holocaust memory is emerging as the dominant feature of Jewishness in America.”

So said Charles Krauthammer in a recent article. Six years previously he and his wife Robyn had invited me to perform A Yiddish Winterreise at the Kennedy Center in Washington for Pro Musica Hebraica. Their foundation’s mission is to expose audiences to largely unknown Jewish music of quality in a serious classical music venue.

The programme I was to take part in, setting traditional Yiddish songs within the structure of the nineteenth-century German song-cycle form, was an attempt to come to terms with the horror of “that which happened” as the poet Paul Celan termed it. It was also an opportunity to reconcile the German and Jewish cultures which coexisted in my mother, who had spent much of her childhood in Berlin, a city her family left in 1932. My mother’s uncle and cousin were both murdered by the Nazis, yet she never spoke ill of Germany, and instead extolled the country’s virtues, inspiring us, her children, with its culture. She would often lament the fate which had separated her from Germany and landed her in England, a country whose sang froid left her feeling isolated and never quite at home despite her command of the language, which she spoke with an accent that might have put the Queen to shame.

Following A Yiddish Winterreise’s positive reception in Washington, we began looking into future projects there. One, A Jewish Romance, fell by the wayside after the soprano who I was supposed to be performing with divorced me. Robyn, a fan of low male voices, came up instead with the idea of a concert that would feature “three Jewish basses”. These were Gidon Saks, Mathias Hausmann—whose own recitals in Washington she had admired—and myself. “The idea is for it to stand with those other threesomes,” wrote Robyn. “Let’s knock the Italians and the Irish out of the park with this.”

It was agreed that we three singers, all based in Europe, should meet to discuss the project. Gidon was performing with the Deutsche Opera in Berlin and Mathias was down the road in Leipzig.

If there was any city in Europe I should have visited by then it was Berlin, but my fury at the events of the Holocaust, fuelled by invectives from my father that served as a sort of grace before meals, had left Germany very low down on my list of travel destinations. Even my mother’s obvious affection for the city was tempered by stories of child molesters, some of whom had once tried to entice her into an apartment. My Berlin played out in the black and white of Fritz Lang’s sinister film M, his 1931 study of a child murderer.

I chose to stay in Charlottenburg, the area where my mother had lived. Then 92 and suffering from dementia, she could not remember exactly where. An elegant quarter in the west of the city, the tall, spacious nineteenth-century house in which I stayed was split into the sort of elegant apartments I imagined she had lived in as a child. A reel of Stormtroopers ejecting families just like hers played in my mind. But I could not feel her presence there. My mother, in fact, never returned to Germany although she did take me on a skiing trip to Austria in 1965. While we were in a pharmacy a man walked in and greeted the man behind the counter with, “Heil Hitler!” My mother, whom he hadn’t noticed, replied, “Hitler ist tod.” “Nicht für mich”, came the retort.

Berlin has not failed to mark the memory of its former Jewish community. Monuments such as the vast Holocaust Memorial, which juxtaposes its innumerable, rectangular blocks without regard for charm or beauty, or the odd, zig-zagging Jewish Museum, both empty (apparently deliberately), and unmoving (perhaps unintentionally), come to mind here. But the sense is more one of penance than regret.

Fourteenth- and fifteenth-century images of the Crucifxion in the glorious Gemäldergalerie, with their Der Stürmer-style representations of Jews as vicious, monster-nosed demons, painted in angry brushstrokes abrim with antisemitic loathing, reinforce a feeling that here was a people who had always detested the Christ-killers. Then I saw her, Die Schreiende Frau (The Screaming Woman), a fifteenth-century sculpture carved in reddish stone, the lower part of her right arm lost but the left raised and bent so that her hand is held over her left eye. Her head is thrown back, her right eye closed and mouth wide open. So vivid and realistic is the execution, one thinks of figures caught in their death agony at Pompeii after the eruption of Vesuvius. I cannot recall seeing a more powerful depiction of human grief.

Here was a true symbol for the Shoah. Everywoman. Yet no one knows her. All over the city the Holocaust is commemorated in cold, anodyne, abstract, meaningless symbols, comprehensible perhaps only in terms of the way they create a vacuum at the heart of a place where something once flourished whose scream is suppressed. If I could not scream, at least I could sing its memory.

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