- The Jewish Kulturbund Theatre Company in Nazi Berlin by Rebecca Rovit
Rebecca Rovit’s The Jewish Kulturbund Theatre Company in Nazi Berlin establishes in both its title and cover image (a production still taken from Ferenc Molnár’s The Play’s the Thing in August 1935) the perplexing fact that an all-Jewish theatre existed at all during the Third Reich. Founded by Dr. Kurt Singer in August 1933, the company was permitted by the Nazis in order to employ Jewish artists who had been ousted from state theatres. It operated under the auspices of the Kulturbund Deutscher Juden (Cultural Association of German Jews), which emerged as an organizational response to the measures taken against German Jewish artists after the Nazis took power. Goebbels approved the endeavor on the condition that the theatre would be a closed, subscription-based enterprise, with the involvement or attendance of non-Jews forbidden. SS-Kommandant Hans Hinkel was the Ministry of Propaganda official appointed to act as the theatre’s direct overseer and production censor, working closely with Singer to scrutinize content and enforce Nazi directives. For the artists, the theatre initially represented a much-needed opportunity to continue their livelihoods after Germany’s 1933 racial laws effectively removed them from public life; for performers and spectators alike, it provided a space where, as German Jews, they could temporarily escape increasingly hostile daily conditions. For the Nazis, on the other hand, the theatre served the strategic purpose of partitioning two hitherto connected spheres of German and German Jewish cultural life and was used to promote a notion of Jewish culture as foreign and non-Aryan. This agenda forbade the staging of most classical German dramas and necessitated the importation of Yiddish- and Hebrew-language plays, which were indeed foreign to the majority of assimilated Kulturbund members.
Rovit has previously written an article for a museum catalog on “Theatrical Performance at Auschwitz-Birkenau,” as well as coedited a collection of essays on Theatrical Performance during the Holocaust, but The Jewish Kulturbund Theatre Company in Nazi Berlin is her first monograph and makes a significant contribution to our understanding of theatre under dictatorship. As Rovit demonstrates, the paradoxical partnership that emerged between the Kulturbund theatre and the Nazis is emblematic of the complexities and concessions that mark the broader phenomenon of “art-making under duress” (3). The Nazis “protected” the organization and [End Page 615] simultaneously enforced the cultural ghettoization of German Jews. At the same time, a “Jewish theatre” repertoire was suddenly thrust into existence in Germany, often featuring ominous themes of exile and persecution.
Rovit accounts for the historical forces and ever-changing Nazi directives that informed the Kulturbund theatre’s selection of plays and dramaturgical decisions, and demonstrates how they produced competing conceptions of “Jewishness” (for example, Zionist, conservative, or assimilated) that existed within a highly diverse German Jewish community. As she shows, these identities were taken up by the three Jewish newspapers permitted to operate under the Third Reich (up until 1939) to influence the reception of productions, with each newspaper showing preference for productions that idealized a specific Jewish milieu (namely, Yiddish shtetls, Zionist Palestine, or bourgeois Germany).
Before emigrating to Holland in 1938, Singer proved a formidable force in navigating Nazi strictures about content, as well as intra-Jewish debates about the theatre’s purpose, such as whether, under the circumstances, it ought to promote a distinct Jewish culture or provide entertaining plays of high artistic caliber and intellectual substance. Although keen to promote Jewish cultural identity, Singer was most strongly committed to a humanist, idealist ethos—one that had determined his own cultural formation as an assimilated German Jew during the Weimar Republic. For Singer, the main challenge was negotiating the Nazi directives that prohibited the staging of German bourgeois literary classics. The “pure Jewish culture” that the Nazis expected from the theatre simply did not exist (40). Furthermore, the Nazis prevented not only productions they deemed too “assimilatory” to German culture, but also those they regarded...