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Reviewed by:
  • The Jewish Kulturbund Theatre Company in Nazi Berlin by Rebecca Rovit
  • Peter Jelavich
The Jewish Kulturbund Theatre Company in Nazi Berlin, Rebecca Rovit (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012), xii + 304 pp., illus., paperback $41.00.

Rebecca Rovit has added an important volume to the slowly growing scholarly literature about the Kulturbund, established by the Nazis in 1933 to exclude and segregate German Jews into an increasingly constrained cultural sphere. In its time as well as today, the organization was controversial—accused, at worst, of collaboration with the Nazis—and Rovit does not shy away from laying out the accusations; at the same time, however, she shows great sympathy for the dilemmas confronting the people involved. Since hers is the first extended study of the theater and performance division of the Kulturbund, it brings to light a wealth of new information.

Rovit concentrates on two dynamics: first, the “careful two-step dance” (p. 73) between Kurt Singer, director of the Kulturbund Theatre from 1933 to 1938, and Hans Hinkel, the Nazi official in charge of the Kulturbund; and second, the tense relationship between Berlin’s assimiliationist and Zionist factions, whose cultural and political outlooks differed markedly. Hinkel seems to have been one of those rare Nazi functionaries who—at some level—savored contacts with cultured Jews; he enjoyed attending Kulturbund performances. At the same time, he never swerved from Nazi policies. Yet Hinkel’s dictates regarding what the Kulturbund could and could not perform were erratic, forcing Singer to play a constant guessing-game regarding repertory. In principle, the Kulturbund was allowed to perform only “Jewish works,” but what did this mean: Jewish-themed? Jewish authors and composers? In practice, the Kulturbund might stage works by non-Jewish foreign authors (e.g., Shakespeare, Molière), and even works by long-dead German Gentiles dealing sympathetically with Jewish characters (Lessing’s Nathan the Wise and Hebbel’s Judith, works then banned from “Aryan” theaters). The authorities encouraged the Kulturbund to perform plays by Jewish authors on Jewish themes, yet such works inevitably faced particular scrutiny, resulting in many cuts and outright proscriptions: prohibited themes included persecutions of Jews (e.g., by Cossacks), open Jewish resistance, and Jewish spiritual strength or communal resilience.

Tensions within the Jewish community meant that groups with opposing values had to work together. Rovit argues that Singer represented the tastes and aspirations of those members of Berlin’s assimilationist Jewish bourgeoisie who considered themselves connoisseurs of a cosmopolitan culture not specifically Jewish. By contrast, the Zionists advocated a specifically Jewish culture, promoting the translation into German of Hebrew and Yiddish works (none of which the Bildungsbürger accepted as cosmopolitan high culture). Singer summarized the question succinctly: “Are we a Jewish league for culture or a league for Jewish culture?” (p. 97).

Zionist advocacy of “Jewish cultural separatism,” according to Rovit, “mirrored the basic ideas on art proposed by such Nazis as Hinkel” (p. 21). Although Rovit [End Page 116] makes the obvious point that the Zionists perceived the “Jewish quality” of Kulturbund performances differently from Hinkel (p. 34), her book would have benefitted from a more detailed and careful delineation of the differences between the two, given the understandably fraught nature of ongoing debates over occasional tactical convergences of Zionist and Nazi aspirations (for instance, regarding emigration to Palestine). Be that as it may, it seems that the years of the Kulturbund’s existence witnessed a tendency to perform more translations of Hebrew- and Yiddish-language works dealing with Jewish life. What remains unclear, however, is whether this was due to the growing prominence of the Zionist faction, or (what seems to me more likely) the fact that Hinkel forbade the Kulturbund an increasingly broad “non-Jewish” repertory.

Rovit sticks close to the sources, which allows her to showcase a great deal of detail, but at the same time prevents her from addressing significant questions. She apparently is not as well versed in German classical and modern theatrical and musical culture as the Jewish audiences she studies. At least this is suggested by elementary bloopers: Wedekind’s given name was not Franz (p. 24); Goethe wrote a very famous Iphigenia, but it did...


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