Jewish composers in Berlin during the Nazi era are the subject of the new book written by the pianist and musicologist Jascha Nemtsov, who as an interpreter is particularly interested in enriching the concert repertoire through works of unjustly forgotten composers. The title he has chosen indicates his historical perspective: “German-Jewish identity and the struggle for survival in Berlin.” Nemtsov outlines the life and works of five musicians as case studies: he picks out Arno Nadel, Oskar Guttmann (along with his son Alfred Goodman), Jakob Schoenberg (who was not acquainted with his famous relative Arnold Schoenberg), Erwin Selig-Bass (named Warner S. Bass after his emigration to the United States) and Karl Wiener. These persons are not well-known composers. Partly due to a lack of sources, the chapters dedicated to each of them differ largely in length; they vary between twenty and ninety pages. Nemtsov succeeded in gathering material; his book is sensible and thrilling to read. Each chapter closes with so far unpublished or nearly unavailable documents: extracts of a diary, short articles written at the time, or letters from the post-war period with remembrances. In addition, Nemtsov lets us hear how the music of these composers sounds; a CD is included.
In the first decades of the last century, Berlin was a center of Jewish culture. A vivid Jewish community existed, and while a “Jewish Renaissance” took place, many Jews saw themselves, on the other hand, as “German citizens of Jewish faith” and contributed to the mainstream of a highly advanced urban cultural life, especially in the field of theatre and music. The composers Nemtsov deals with had careers and earned their living as conductors, critics, teachers, and interpreters of music. After the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, they tried to find a way to live through and, finally, to escape from persecution and extermination. The conditions they faced became more difficult from year to year—actually, they got worse to an unexpected and inconceivable degree. Not all of them were able to get away. Arno Nadel was deported to Auschwitz [End Page 190] in 1943, at the age of 64. Karl Wiener, a one-armed pianist, died under un-revealed circumstances. Being married to a Catholic, he was quite safe for a while, but in the spring of 1942, he was arrested and put in a police prison. Then he was taken to the concentration camp in Sachsenhausen near Berlin; a few weeks later, he was dead.
Although Nemtsov brings into focus the years under Nazi rule, he also illuminates the lives of his protagonists as a whole. It is revealing to compare the different characters and fates to each other while reading the book. Arno Nadel, for instance, was born in Wilna and came to Berlin before World War I. He was engaged in the movement of Cultural Zionism. As a multi-talented artist, he arranged Jewish folk songs he had collected and wrote his own compositions, poems, and articles. He turned out to be a gifted painter too. His home looked like a museum: he was the owner of a great number of antiquities, books, and paintings; he was forced by the Nazis to leave his extraordinary residence. Nadel wrote in an emotional style. Nemtsov begins his book by quoting from Nadel’s diaries; at the first glimpse, his words seem strange: “may God protect Holy Germany. It is the wisest nation of Europe, truthfully the nation of poets and philosophers, but because it is so authentic and deep, misled by a heroism of butchery.”
As Nadel put his thoughts into these astonishing and irritating sentences in 1942, he already had been imprisoned in a concentration camp; he definitely knew what was behind the Nazis. Nemtsov takes Nadel’s statement as his starting point. All Jewish composers he discusses grapple with the problem of being both Jewish and German. The struggle for survival in its many facets comprises, as Nemtsov points out, the fight to preserve their identity as...