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The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College Presents “Music in the Holocaust, Jewish Identity and Cosmopolitanism”

Concerts and Film Screening Profile the Music of European Jewish Prisoners and Refugees During World War II

Eleanor Davis
ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y.— The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College is presenting a special concert series titled, “Music in the Holocaust, Jewish Identity and Cosmopolitanism,” featuring music composed and performed by Jewish prisoners in Nazi territories during World War II. Three concerts will feature a brief introduction by a noted scholar in the field placing the music within the context of the larger social, historical and political background out of which it developed. The series also includes a screening of the Academy Award-Nominated documentary “Orchestra of Exiles,” a film about Bronislaw Huberman, the Polish violinist who founded the Israel Philharmonic on Wednesday, March 20 at 7:30  p.m. in the Weis Cinema of the Bertelsmann Campus Center. The concert dates are Saturday, February 23; Saturday, April 20; and Saturday, April 27; all three concerts will be held at 7 p.m. at Olin Hall on the Bard Campus. Admission is free and open to the public and no reservations are necessary. For more information contact go to, send an e-mail to, or call 845-758-7878.

The first concert in the series “Coercion, Collusion, and Creativity: Music of the Terezin Ghetto and the Central European Experience” takes place on Saturday, February 23, and will focus on music composed and performed in the Theresienstadt (Terezin) Ghetto, a ghetto/concentration transit camp that served as a showplace in which leading European-Jewish composers and performers were interned. Theresienstadt was part of a vast Nazi propaganda ploy for international investigative bodies, such as the Red Cross, which provided the appearance of autonomy and privileged treatment of Jewish prisoners in the “model settlement.” The performance component of the evening will feature selections from the work of Victor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, and Ilse Weber, performed by mezzo-soprano Malena Dayen, with Renana Gutman, piano, and Liam Wood, guitar. Erwin Schulhoff’s violin sonata will be performed by Helena Baillie and Michael Bukhman. The lecture will discuss the unique nature of the Theresienstadt Ghetto, the developments that led to the creation of a Jewish musical and cultural elite in interwar Central Europe, and the legacy of the music composed and produced in this ghetto.

On Wednesday, March 20th at 7:30, there will be a screening of the Academy-Award-Nominated documentary “Orchestra of Exiles.” Featuring Itzhak Perlman, Zubin Mehta, Pinchas Zukerman, Joshua Bell and others, “Orchestra of Exiles” is the suspenseful chronicle of how one man helped save Europe’s premiere Jewish musicians from obliteration by the Nazis during WWII. Overcoming extraordinary obstacles, violinist Bronislaw Huberman moved these great musicians to Palestine and formed a symphony that would become the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. The film will be screened in the Weis Cinema of the Bertelsmann Campus Center and will be followed by a panel discussion.

The second concert in the series, “Nationalism, Continuity, and Creativity: Music of Warsaw, Lodz and other Eastern Ghettoes,” will be performed on Saturday, April 20, and will include Robert Cuckson’s 2003 song cycle, “Der Gayst funem Shturem,” (The Spirit of the Storm) with text taken from the poems of ghetto survivor Binem Heller. It will be performed in Yiddish by mezzo-soprano Malena Dayen, with piano accompaniment by David Rosenmeyer, the couple for whom Cuckson composed this cycle. The Warsaw Ghetto song cycle is informed by the rift within Jewry itself between Western and Eastern European models of Jewish accommodation and Jewish being in the modern world, a recurrent theme in Arendt’s Jewish writings. The musical performances are all, each in their own way, an expression of this internal struggle within the larger Jewish community during the Holocaust. There will be a panel discussion with Cuckson and others immediately following the performance.

The third concert on Saturday, April 27, “Kurt Weill and the Modernist Migration: Music of Weill and Other Emigres” will focus on the work of Weill and his contribution to the American Songbook, as well as the reverberations of the Weimar cultural legacy in the United States. Weill was a resident of the Hudson Valley during his last decade and was an important figure in the German-Jewish exile community that took root in New York and Hollywood. The evening will feature songs from several of Weill’s American musicals including “Knickerbocker Holiday” (set in the colonial Dutch Hudson Valley) and the 1941 musical “Lady in the Dark,” as well as several of Weill’s works from his collaboration with Brecht. The lecture will touch upon the legacy of the Weimar Republic, the setting in which Weill’s collaboration with Bertolt Brecht took place, and its role in creating a culture that diverged from both the universalizing humanist and romantic nationalist strains of German cultural identity.

These concerts are part of the effort by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College to meaningfully broaden dialogue around German-Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt’s deep and lifelong engagement with questions of Jewish being in the modern world. These evenings will take music from the world from which Hannah Arendt came to the world in which, along with her fellow German-Jewish exiles, she found refuge. This series is co-sponsored by the Bard Jewish Student Organization, Jewish Studies Program, Bard College Music Program, Bard College Historical Studies Program, and the Hannah Arendt Center and is made possible through the generosity of a grant from the Bertha Effron Fund of the Community Foundation of the Hudson Valley.  For more information about the Center go to, or call 845-758-7878, or send an e-mail to

About “Orchestra of Exiles”

In the early 1930s Hitler began forcing Jewish musicians out of orchestras across central Europe; never before had so many experienced players been jobless simultaneously. The Nazis unwittingly presented a unique opportunity and with the short window of time still available, Polish violinst Bronislaw Huberman dedicated himself to fulfilling a dream. The struggle to create the Palestine Symphony is a densely layered story with a range of key characters that could hardly be more diverse. Among them: a high Nazi official, Goebbels; renowned conductors, Furtwangler and Toscanini; a future head of state, Chaim Weizmann; and the families of victimized Jewish musicians who made up the ranks of orchestras across central Europe. Even the most famous Jew in the world played a role; a man who, among other pursuits, was an amateur violinist who liked to read music with Huberman— Albert Einstein. Huberman knew that his orchestra would serve a broader purpose as well; a top flight orchestra of Jewish immigrants would be a powerful tool to fight the savage anti-Semitism spreading out from Germany, and it would build the prestige of Jews. Huberman foresaw that by arranging for these families to emigrate, hundreds of Jews would be saved whose fate would otherwise have been the gas chamber. In all Huberman saved close to a thousand people. To learn more about the movie and filmmaker Josh Aronson go here:

About the Composers:

Gideon Klein (1919-1945) was a pianist and composer who became a figure of tremendous influence in the Terezin Ghetto, where he was not only one of the principal figures in the cultural life of the ghetto but became a major figure in the education of children and adolescents. Strongly influenced by his roots in the Moravian countryside, he began composing at an early age. He moved to Prague to further his piano studies at the age of ten and entered the conservatory not long before the start of the war. Invited to London to represent Czechoslovakia in the international Dvorak competition (a move that would most probably have spared his life), he opted instead to remain with his family. Restrictions on Jewish performers and composers meant that his works had to be performed under a pseudomym. In December of 1941, he was sent to Terezin, where he managed to remain for three years. His many compositions there include not just a continuation of forms he was exploring prior to deportation, but also quarter-tone compositions and Hebrew folk melodies—the latter as a way of exploring new areas of Jewish cultural identity that were taking place, in various guises, in the ghetto as deportation out of the ghetto to the fate that awaited Klein and his fellow prisoners in the east loomed ever larger. He was killed in the Fürstengrube concentration camp shortly before its liberation.

Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) was a composer whose musical output ran the gamut of styles and schools. A pupil, in his childhood, of Antonín Dvořák, he became deeply involved with 12-tone jazz, socialist realism, and the Berlin Dadaists. A German-Jew working in the Czech milieu, Schulhoff was torn between the German and Czech music communities that existed in Prague. As a member of the musical avant-garde, he belonged with the Czechs, but as a German educated and German-identified Jew, he belonged in the German music community. An active and dedicated communist Schulhoff was doubly at risk after the Nazi takeover of the Czech lands, and when he was arrested, it was for his communist affiliation rather than his Jewish lineage. Schulhoff was arrested for being a Soviet citizen (he had applied and been granted Soviet citizenship early in 1941 but was unable to emigrate due to the Nazi invasion of Russia), rather than for his Jew lineage, and he was not taken to Terezin. Schulhoff was deported to a concentration camp in Wülzburg, Bavaria, where he died of tuberculosis in August of 1942.

Composer Viktor Ullmann (1898–1944) was born on 1 January 1898 in the garrison town of Teschen in Silesia, in what belonged to the Austro–Hungarian Empire and is now a part of the Czech Republic. The son of a Jewish father who had converted to Catholicism and a non-Jewish mother, Ullmann was educated in Vienna. He was decorated for bravery in World War I and held the title of Baron von Tanfells. Identified as a German in outlook, education and identification, he nonetheless made important contributions to both Czech and German cultural life as a composer, conductor, pianist and music critic. It was in these multiple roles that he made his impact on the overall musical and cultural milieu of the Terezin Ghetto, where he was a prominent figure in the Freizeitgestaltung (Leisure Time Activities Organ). His best-known work is an opera he composed prior to his deportation to Terezin——“The Kaiser of Atlantis.” This opera was never publicly staged in Terezin due to the obvious correlation of the “Kaiser” of the title and Adolf Hitler. Shaped by his engagement in Vienna in the 1920s with Schoenberg's musical philosophy, German aesthetics, as well the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner, Ullmann understood the role of art as central to human spiritual and ethical development. He was transported to his death in Auschwitz in 1944.

Composer Ilse Weber (1907-1944) was a poet, children’s book author and a producer of radio programs in Prague. Transported to Terezin in 1942, she was put in charge of the children’s infirmary. She created a substantial body of work in Terezin, setting her poems to her original compositions, and would accompany herself on the guitar. When her husband, also a prisoner in Terezin, was to be deported, she and her son volunteered to accompany him to Auschwitz, where they perished. This was a decision made by many families in the ghetto, who wanted, at all costs, to maintain their family units.

Kurt Weill (1900-1950) began his career in the early 1920’s, after a musical childhood and several years of study in Berlin. By the time his first opera, The Protagonist (Georg Kaiser), was performed in April 1926, he was an established young German composer. But he had already decided to devote himself to the musical theater, and his works with Bertolt Brecht soon made him famous all over Europe. He fled the new Nazi leadership in March 1933 and continued his indefatigable efforts, first in Paris (1933-35), then in the U.S. until his death. Certain common threads tie together his career: a concern for social justice, an aggressive pursuit of highly-regarded playwrights and lyricists as collaborators, and the ability to adapt to audience tastes no matter where he found himself. His most important works: the Violin Concerto (1925), The Threepenny Opera (Bertolt Brecht, 1928), Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Brecht, 1930), The Pledge (Caspar Neher, 1932), The Seven Deadly Sins (Brecht, 1933), Lady in the Dark (Moss Hart and Ira Gershwin, 1941), Street Scene (Elmer Rice and Langston Hughes, 1947), Lost in the Stars (Maxwell Anderson, 1949). He died of heart failure in 1950, shortly after he and Anderson began work on a musical adaptation of Huckleberry Finn, leaving behind a large catalogue of works and a reputation that continues to grow as more of his music is performed. Weill was raised in a religious Jewish family in Dessau, Germany. Although he was not observant, he composed a number of “Jewish” works, from a vast score to The Eternal Road (1937, Franz Werfel) to a setting of the Kiddush. He married actress Lotte Lenya in 1926; they maintained a close relationship throughout his life despite their divorce in 1933 (they remarried in 1937).

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February 11, 2013

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This event was last updated on 02-12-2013