• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

The New Zealanders keeping Jewish music banned by the Nazis alive

Richard Fuchs. Photo/Supplied

Actor and film-maker Danny Mulheron tells Diana Wichtel that the revival of Jewish compositions silenced by the Nazis is a reminder of the truth of those times.

“Inconceivable, really, that someone should care that much about classical music that they should forbid its being played … a weird kind of flattery, being banned by the Nazis.” That’s a line from the 2009 documentary made by New Zealand actor and film-maker Danny Mulheron about his German Jewish grandfather. The Third Richard tells the story of Richard Fuchs, the talented musician, architect, artist and composer from Karlsruhe, Germany, who was sent to Dachau after Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass – the night in November 1938 of violence against Jews throughout the German Reich choreographed by the Nazis and carried out by them and by willing civilians and neighbours.

Fuchs managed to get a visa to New Zealand and emigrate with his wife and two daughters in 1939. Survival. It wasn’t the end of the story. Fuchs was fleeing almost certain death back home for being too Jewish. In New Zealand, he was too German, an enemy alien. The Wellington music scene at that time wasn’t impressed. “They wanted a New Zealand composer,” wrote Fuchs’ daughter, Eva, “not a Jew from Germany.” As Mulheron puts it in the film, “He fled to the last bus stop in the world, the booming monotone of New Zealand in the 1940s, no longer persecuted, just ignored.”

He is ignored no longer thanks to his grandson, who looks uncannily like Fuchs, and to a steady revival of the music suppressed by the Third Reich. Mulheron, in Queenstown directing TVNZ drama One Lane Bridge when we speak, can report that there are two new concerts involving his grandfather’s music early this year in Germany. “There’s one in Dortmund, which is a commemoration of Richard’s brother Gottfried, who was the soccer player. They’re playing some of Richard’s music there.” On January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Fuchs’ Vom Jüdischen Schicksal (The Jewish Fate), will be played at the Badisches Staats-theater in his home town of Karlsruhe. It’s a large oratorio on which he worked with poet Karl Wolfskehl, who would also escape to New Zealand.

A synogogue after Kristallnacht. Photo/Getty Images

The documentary underscores the absurdity of the situation that Fuchs, as a Jewish artist, found himself in. His work was in the tradition of 19th-century German romanticism. He and his brothers were named after Wagner and his heroes. “Gottfried, Sigmund … his horse was, I think, called Wotan,” says Mulheron. “The bizarre thing about Richard’s music is it was not banned because it was too Jewish. It was banned because it was too German, and a Jew shouldn’t be composing it.”

Vom Jüdischen Schicksal wasn’t performed again until Wolfskehl visited Fuchs in Karori years later. “They’d never met, says Mulheron. “He played the piece on the piano to Karl.” Now it is being played in Germany. “One thing Richard would like is that the following day, there’s a general concert. Like, a normal concert. It’s not a memorial or anything and he’s being played alongside Mendelssohn, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. I’m happy and proud for Richard that he is being included in a concert. His defiance, if you could call it that, was sticking to a music that was very German.” He wouldn’t have his identity as a German taken from him.

Mulheron, his wife, Sara Stretton, and other descendants will attend the concerts. “The family,” he says, “is represented.”

Danny Mulheron. Photo/Getty Images

Other music banned by the Nazis is also being heard again. Tango in Auschwitz; The Westerbork Serenade: as song titles with concentration camp references go, these might sound like a jarring joke or the soundtrack for a Taika Waititi movie. Music put to singularly twisted use was always part of the Third Reich’s game plan. To Italian chemist, writer and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, the songs the prison orchestra were forced to play to accompany the camp’s everyday atrocities were the “voice of the Lager … the perceptible expression of its geometric madness”.

But music, art, humour could also mean survival and defiance, even in the darkest situations. Tango in Auschwitz and The Westerbork Serenade were history written by prisoners, acts of resistance. For the Kristallnacht Commemorative Concert in Wellington on November 10 last year, a joint project of the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand and Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music, those two songs fitted the bill. Tango in Auschwitz was written by 12-year-old Irka Janowski and set to a dance tune: Our hearts wanted to fall in love and enjoy the life/Now we write music about the life behind barbed wire/Our slave tango under the stick of the whipper/Our slave tango in the Auschwitz camp/Steel spears behind those beast guards … . She writes, “Oh freedom, come.” She died at Auschwitz.

The Westerbork Serenade came from a prisoner cabaret at the Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands. When Anne Frank and the others hiding in the secret annex in Amsterdam were arrested on August 4, 1944, Westerbork was where they were taken. The Franks were sent to Auschwitz on the last transport from the camp. While still in hiding, Frank wrote in her diary of friends being rounded up: “The Gestapo are treating them very roughly and transporting them in cattle cars to Westerbork … where they’re sending all the Jews … If it’s this bad in Holland, what must it be like in those faraway and uncivilised places where the Germans are sending them? We assume that most of them are being murdered. The English radio says they’re being gassed. Perhaps that’s the quickest way to die.”

Westerbork Serenade writers Johnny & Jones.

The Westerbork Serenade was written by prisoners, the popular Dutch singing duo Johnny & Jones. It was a hit with the Nazis. Nol van Wesel (Johnny) and Max Kannewasser (Jones) managed to get out of the camp to record it and other songs they had written or performed in Westerbork. They might have escaped but their wives were held hostage. They went back. They died of exhaustion in the last days of the war.

The HCNZ Kristallnacht concerts have been an annual event since 2008. Last year’s was for the first time held at Wellington’s Beth El Synagogue. A double layer of security to get in – my bag was checked twice – was a reminder of how dangerous it was to be a Jew in another time and place and of the resurgence of anti-Semitism in many parts of the world.

For 2019, the concert’s theme, unity, looked to humankind’s better angels. March 15’s Christchurch mosque attacks were very much in mind. Somali-born refugee advocate Adam Awad spoke of “our synagogue” and said, “We are together.”

Performers at last year’s Kristallnacht commemorative concert in Wellington. Photo/Supplied

Along with jazz and cabaret music from the camps, the concert’s stunning programme included music by Erwin Schulhoff, a Czech Jew who died in Wülzburg concentration camp, and Polish composer and friend of Shostakovich Mieczysław Weinberg, who fled to Russia in 1943. There was an aria by Erich Korngold, born in Moravia, who went to the US in 1938 and became a successful Hollywood composer. All Jewish music, or just music by Jews, was suppressed and banned by the Nazis.

Israeli-born Inbal Megiddo, an internationally renowned cellist, played in the concert and is its artistic director. She’s also a senior lecturer at Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music, where she teaches a course with an emphasis on composers who were persecuted during World War II and the Holocaust. When we speak after the concert, she has a story about young Dutch composer Dick Kattenburg. “He was in hiding and trying to still continue his studies. The Dutch Resistance sent his manuscripts to professors, also in hiding, so he could get some feedback on his writing. One of the pieces he wrote should have been titled Hebrew Melody but he ended up calling it Romanian Melody, hoping that they wouldn’t realise it was a Jewish theme.”

Music was survival. “The pieces he wrote were actually really funny and basically a contrast to everything that he was living at the time. He wrote a piece for tap dance and percussion. We played that at a concert in 2018.”

Cellist Inbal Megiddo. Photo/Supplied

That concert had the theme of hope. In May 1944, Kattenburg was arrested in a raid, sent to Westerbork and then to his death at Auschwitz. He was 24. Until 2004, it was thought only one of his works survived. Then, in 2004, his niece found a box in the attic.

In 1942, Silesia-born Austrian composer Viktor Ullmann created an opera, The Emperor of Atlantis, in Theresienstadt, a “model” camp designed to deceive the world about the Nazis’ genocidal intentions. The opera, forbidden outside, was in rehearsal to be played in the camp until the guards twigged that it was a satire about Hitler. “They ended up transporting everyone to Auschwitz so it was never performed,” says Megiddo. “It did finally get a premiere and we had a conference a few years ago on forbidden voices and part was performed then.”

The work of Czech pianist and composer Gideon Klein has featured in previous Kristallnacht concerts. He died aged 26. “He certainly would have been a household name had he survived. He knew he was going to be on a transport to Auschwitz so he hid the manuscripts, which were later retrieved by his sister.

Dick Kattenburg. Photo/Supplied

Boxes in attics discovered years later; buried manuscripts unearthed by survivors. As the number of those who lived through the Holocaust first hand declines, music created in extremis is another way for the truth to continue to be told.

Music could also be a torment. For those in the women’s orchestra at Auschwitz, music meant life. “As long as they played, they would live,” says Megiddo. “A lot of the time it was entertaining the guards, Nazis. Other times it was playing while inmates were being sent out to work or sent to their deaths. Many of them after the war … well, it really complicates your relationship with music. For some it meant that they could never play again.”

For many, exile meant a creative life interrupted. This year’s Kristallnacht concert may look at film music. “One of the reasons Hollywood music was so incredible in the 40s and 50s, music in the US in general, was because of all these composers who were exiled to the US, who escaped. It included Paul Hindemith, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco … big names. The whole trajectory of classical music completely changed. There was a big vacuum in Europe. A lot of promising musicians ended up perishing, not continuing to write or having to write under very different circumstances. If not for World War II, the whole cannon of Western music might have looked completely different.”

Paul Hindemith. Photo/Getty Images

Now, music can be a bridge between cultures, a way to try to put themes like hope and unity into practice. Megiddo was involved for several years with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded by Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim and the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said, to promote understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. “I ended up touring also for several years with Saleem Abboud Ashkar, a fantastic pianist, a Palestinian Israeli based in Berlin. His younger brother and he now run a school mostly for Arab children but also for Jewish children to learn together in the northern part of Israel.”

In December, she went to Israel to raise money for a school there. “It’s for Jewish and Arab children to play music together. At the moment they don’t have any funds for instruments.”

And there’s this year’s Kristallnacht concert to plan. “We have international artists and artists from all over New Zealand and they all do it for free. They volunteer their time, coming together like this as a stand against hate. It’s one of the powers that music and art have and why the Nazis viewed it as so powerful it had to be silenced.”

Mulheron says, of his voyage around his grandfather, “It wasn’t like I chose to do it. This box of music turned up.” Fuchs died, aged 60, in 1947. Steven Sedley, a founder of the Holocaust Centre and a survivor from the Budapest Ghetto, whose passion for classical music sparked the Kristallnacht concerts, wrote a biography of him. “I saw the story of Richard Fuchs as quintessentially about the dislocated European intellectual, driven out of his home and cultural heritage, but out of place in his new environment,” Sedley has written.
Richard Fuchs’ daughter Soni. Photo/Supplied

Gradually, what was banned, lost, unwanted has begun to resurface. In 2007, there was a concert in Karlsruhe. In The Third Richard, Mulheron records the event. “It was the first time I would hear his music, the first time my mother would hear it and the first time the Fuchs family would be welcomed back to the city that destroyed them.” The documentary captures other revelations on that trip to Germany. Mulheron takes his mother, Fuchs’ daughter Soni, back to her old school. She recalls her last day there. “I was stood up in front in the class and the kids said, ‘Be careful about the Jews, the Jews are subhumans.’ I got so scared I wet myself. In fact, I did more than wet myself, I shit myself. And I was terribly humiliated. I ran out the door and ran home.” Her favourite teacher warned her family not to send their little girl to the school any more. Until the trip, Mulheron hadn’t heard that story. “Being a cynical film-maker,” he says now, “rather than being horrified and sad, I was delighted that we’d got her on camera.”

He’s gone some way to redeeming what was lost to his grandfather, I say. “It’s probably been the most weirdly satisfying thing,” he allows. But in the end, he’s a storyteller, and it was a good yarn. “If my grandfather had been an amateur or not very good composer, if there wasn’t a good story, I don’t know if I would have done it.”

Fair enough. But the past has a way of refusing to stay put. Its stories, its buried music, clamour to be heard. “It wasn’t like I chose to do it,” says Mulheron. “This box just turned up.”

This article was first published in the January 25, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

For more on the political, cultural and literary life of the country, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or sign up to our weekly newsletter.