In Germany, Israeli Orchestra Pays Homage To Wagner, Hitler's Musical Hero

Israelis have traditionally considered Richard Wagner the "composer of the Holocaust soundtrack." This week, the Jewish state’s top Chamber Orchestra faced the taboo head on, performing a Wagner piece for the first time in his native Ger

Composer Richard Wagner remains a persona non grata in Israel
Composer Richard Wagner remains a persona non grata in Israel
Olaf Przybilla

BAYREUTH -- Dan Erdmann was in the audience during a guest appearance in Israel by the Berlin State Choir. As the concert ended, conductor Daniel Barenboim announced that he wanted to do an encore. He wanted to play some music by Richard Wagner.

Wagner in Israel.

There are photographs of the moment: Barenboim is turned towards the audience, addressing its protests. Barenboim tried to explain that people were free to leave the concert hall if they could not find it within themselves to accept this encore. Dan Erdmann was 17 years old at the time. He stayed. Hearing Wagner music played in concert was something he'd never been able to do before. "It was a wonderful experience," he says.

That was July 2001. Practically to the day, 10 years later, Erdmann is in Bayreuth. The members of the Israel Chamber Orchestra are rehearsing a piece of music they never practiced in Israel out of respect for those who consider it scandalous to play Wagner's music in the Jewish state.

Dan Erdmann is the orchestra's solo clarinetist. A year ago, Roberto Paternostro sounded him out about going to Bayreuth to play Wagner. Paternostro, an Austrian of Jewish heritage, is the conductor of the Tel Aviv-based orchestra. His proposal was something of a dare, although he says he never imagined it would cause such an uproar. One member of the Israeli parliament even wanted to go so far as to review whether the orchestra should continue to receive state subsidies if it went to Germany – and not just Germany, but Bayreuth – and played music by Wagner. The orchestra was breaking two taboos in a single concert.

In Israel, Richard Wagner has traditionally been considered the man who composed the soundtrack for the Holocaust. His music is sometimes played on the radio, but there have only been a few attempts to include it on concert hall programs. One conductor who tried it was Zubin Mehta. He was fiercely criticized. Twenty years later, in 2001 when Barenboim tried it, he was accused of "cultural rape."

Did Paternostro ever consider cancelling the Bayreuth appearance? The Israeli conductor gives the question a moment's thought and then replies: "Never." He goes on to say that he respects criticism and can understand that people "who still have a concentration camp tattoo don't want to have anything to do with an anti-Semite like Wagner." However, he grew up with Wagner's music; at the age of 10 he heard the Götterdämmerung for the first time in Vienna and was "bitten by the bug."

Paternostro asked all orchestra members if they wanted to go; only one stayed home. On Tuesday, July 26, at the concert at Bayreuth City Hall, Erdmann sat there taking it all in as if he couldn't quite believe it. The concert did not take place within the actual Festspiele program – a Wagner opera program, with performances between July 25 and Aug. 28 -- but within the framework of the annual festival that takes place for the 100th time this year.

Katharina Wagner, the composer's great-grand-daughter and a director of the festival, was sitting in the first row at the concert. She played an on-again, off-again role in the lead-up to it: when Paternostro approached her with the idea she seemed to embrace it, but then did not attend the press conference Bayreuth's mayor held for the orchestra's arrival on Sunday. At the concert, she appeared stirred by the music, but did not join the orchestra up on stage at the end of the show.

The chamber orchestra played music by Israeli composer Tzvi Avni, Mahler, Mendelssohn and Liszt. The last piece on the program was the Siegfried Idyll by Richard Wagner, a very tender, private composition. The piece could have been played with more precision. But as already mentioned, the orchestra hadvery little time to practice it. Still, it would have been hard to find a more moving Idyll. When the orchestra stopped playing, the audience rose from their seats and the applause only began to ebb when the first violinist gave orchestra members the sign that they could start leaving the stage.

When Hitler was in power, the town of Bayreuth was celebrated as a power center of National Socialism. The Festspiele played out almost like some kind of ersatz religious ceremony, and the Wagner clan was all too glad to go along with the madness. Dan Erdmann, the young clarinetist, knows all about the background history. "But our generation has to build bridges," he says.

Read the original article in German

Photo - Boston Public Library

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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