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The Jewish Kulturbund Theatre Company in Nazi Berlin by Rebbeca Rovit (review)

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Issue 6, Number 2, July 2013
pp. 109-111 | 10.1353/jji.2013.0013

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In her book, The Jewish Kulturbund Theatre Company in Nazi Berlin, theatre historian Rebecca Rovit provides the most comprehensive overview of Jewish theatrical production in National Socialist Germany to date. The Kulturbund was the lone state-sanctioned Jewish cultural organization in Nazi Germany. Jewish community and cultural leaders in Berlin, such as well-known neurologist and musician Kurt Singer and the young stage director Kurt Baumann, first proposed the idea of a Jewish cultural organization in the late spring and summer of 1933 in reaction to the expulsion of Jewish artists working as civil servants in April 1933 following passage of the Law For the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service by the National Socialist Regime. Negotiations over future terms of operation occurred throughout the summer between the Kulturbund's proponents in Berlin and the Reich Ministry of Propaganda. By July 1933, it was determined that the Kulturbund could hold "completely closed performances" of politically acceptable (and censored) themes for Jewish audiences by Jewish artists. (25) Staatskommissar Hans Hinkel, an "Old Fighter" and member of Josef Goebbels' staff, was placed in charge of Nazi oversight over the new Jewish Kulturbund. According to its founders, the Kulturbund was to secure the livelihood of recently unemployed Jewish artists and to act "as a social institution to provide a cohesive cultural community for disenfranchised Jews." (26) Throughout its eight-year tenure in the Reich's capital (1933-1941), the Kulturbund organized an extensive array of cultural activities for Jews, by Jews: theatrical programs, musical programs, visual art exhibits, adult educational courses, a lecture series, and eventually a film series.

Rovit proceeds chronologically to address the main question behind her work: How did the Kulturbund Theatre Company balance the cultural desires of a diverse Jewish community while operating within the frameworks established by National Socialist cultural policy and censorship? She divides the book into three phases: 1933 to1935; 1936 to1938; 1938 to1941. Within each phase is an analysis of the annual playing seasons, and the ways in which the Kulturbund theatre repertoire in Berlin responded to the increasingly hostile social conditions of Jewish life in Nazi Germany. Rovit successfully showcases the progression of an initially nebulous Nazi cultural policy that struggled to define "Jewish" theatre during the early years of the regime (1933-1935) to the increasing restrictions on Jewish theatrical performance after 1936. Following the pogrom in November 1938, all regional Kulturbund activities were shut down. The Berlin Kulturbund continued its activities, although hampered by censorship, finances, and emigration, until the beginning of deportations in 1941.

Yet, as Rovit notes, there remained room for internal debate regarding the function of the Kulturbund despite the legislative restrictions. Rovit places particular emphasis upon non-Zionist and Zionist interpretations of what constituted "Jewish" theatre. According to Rovit, the largely non-Zionist leadership sought to maintain a Western European theatre tradition; the Kulturbund Theatre Company debuted in the autumn of 1933 with Lessing's great humanist drama "Nathan the Wise," followed by Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro." On the other hand, Zionists urged the Kulturbund to consider a more "Jewish" repertoire. By the middle of the decade such internal debates were largely moot. Between 1936 and 1938, as Nazi involvement in Kulturbund affairs grew more restrictive, known Zionists (such as dramaturge Herbert Freeden) were placed in key leadership positions. These appointments were meant to facilitate the Kulturbund's shift to specifically "Jewish" plays. From 1936 to 1941, the Kulturbund Theatre Company performed mostly Yiddish or Hebrew dramas (or heavily censored Western European light comedies, such as Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.) Although Rovit provides the basic information needed to understand the divide between the Zionist and non-Zionist interpretations of the Berlin Kulturbund's cultural mission, the topic might be better illuminated by a more nuanced analysis of the groups' historical rooting in pre-1933 Germany and their political aims in pre-war Nazi Germany.

Additionally, it is at times difficult to determine whether Rovit is providing an analysis of Kulturbund as a whole (including the programs of the over eighty German cities and towns outside Berlin that supported a local Kulturbund), or whether she is only referring to Berlin's theatrical department. For...

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