Tag Archives: hitler

Should Jews Play Wagner?

by Theodore Samets

Richard Wagner, the lauded 19th-century German composer of operas such asTristan und Isolde and Parsifal, had an anti-Semitic streak.

It was more than just a streak. He discussed Jews throughout his writings, most notably in an essay, “Judaism in Music,” which derided Felix Mendelssohn and other Jewish composers, as well as the Jewish people in general, for corrupting German culture.

“Judaism and Music” is troubling to read, with its claims that “Jewish music is bereft of all expression, characterized by coldness and indifference, triviality and nonsense,” and at the “harmful influence of Jewry on the morality of the nation.”

Long after his death, Wagner’s anti-Semitism continues to cause many to chafe at his music. This is particularly true in Israel, where for decades no group publicly played any of his music, as part of an unofficial ban.

Yet in recent years, some Israelis have tried to change this. In 2001, Daniel Barenboim, the renownd Argentinian-Israeli conductor, asked an audience if his Berlin Statskapelle orchestra could play the overture of Tristan und Isolde as a second encore – he had originally intended to perform a different Wanger piece before the organziers of the Israel Festival, at whose invitation the orchestra was performing, made clear that “Wagner should not be played.”

The audience debated Barenboim’s request; most in attendance made clear that they wanted the orchestra to perform Wagner. A few audience members left, but many more stayed and gave the orchestra and maestro a standing ovation. Yet even among those who stayed, not everyone agreed whether Barenboim was in the right: Haaretz wrote at the time that some “spoke about the ‘trick’ that Barenboim had executed, about ‘exploiting the festival stage and the auditorium for his own private obsession,’ and also about the breach of the understanding between him and the festival.”

Since then, no orchestra has performed Wagner again in Israel.

On Tuesday, however, the Israeli Chamber Orchestra performed one of Wagner’s compositions at the Bayreuth Festival, which the composer founded, in Berlin. The festival, where a veriety of Wagner’s operas are performed, is an annual occurrence, organized in part by Wagner’s descendants, many of whom have played an important role in addressing Wagner’s anti-Semitic beliefs. According to Fox News:

The piece, the “Siegfried Idyll,” is a symphonic poem lasting just 20 minutes that Wagner composed for his second wife Cosima after the birth of their son Siegfried in 1869. But the fact that it was played at all has scandalized many Jews, The (London) Times reported Wednesday.

Wagner was a hero of the Fuhrer, who admired and drew inspiration from the composer’s anti-Jewish essays, which raged against the “corruption” of the “German spirit” by Jews.

Playing Wagner is obviously a sensitive subject for many Jews, and increased acceptance of the composer’s music may be a sign of younger generations’ increased distance from the Holocaust.

Yet while Wagner’s views on Jews were unquestionably abhorrent, the opposition to performing his compositions only began after Hitler embraced his work. In the 1930s, the Palestine Orchestra (now the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra) performed works by Wagner, including during its first concerts.

The Philharmonic has intended to play Wagner since 1991, when member musicians voted to perform concert of his music in December, only to see Philharmonic officials cancel their plans.

Playing Wagner in Israel is an issue that arises complex emotions. Some claim that Jews and Israelis should be able to appreciate Wagner’s music, irrespective of his anti-Semitic beliefs, and others argue that Israelis should play Wagner as a way to show the strength of the Jewish people, who thrive around the world more than 65 years since the end of National Socialism in Germany. And many believe that Wagner’s operas, no matter how impressive they might be musically, should not be performed in a Jewish state.

Hopefully the Chamber Orchestra’s decision will reignite a debate that has lain dormant in recent years, which may someday allow more Israelis to realize that Wagner is much more than an idol of Hitler’s; he is a composer of great historical import who fundamentally altered the course of music. If Israel truly wants to consider its classical music scene among the best in the world, Wagner’s compositions ought to be a part of that scene.

Lars von Trier Acts Up…Again

By Symi Rom-Rymer

This past week at the Cannes International Film Festival, Danish film director and provocateur Lars von Trier announced in a press conference for his most recent film, Melancolia, that he understood Hitler and that Israel was a “pain in the ass.”  These comments and several others, made in response to a question by a journalist about his self-described ‘Nazi aesthetic,’ predictably caused an instantaneous uproar at the festival.  Cannes organizers responded by banning von Trier from the festival. Jason Solomons, chairman of the Film Critics’ Circle in London told Reuters that he believes the political furor in the wake of von Trier’s remarks will prevent the festival from considering his current entry for the Palme d’Or, the festival’s top award.

The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors & Their Descendants (AGJHSTD), an umbrella organization of survivors groups, immediately issued a statement applauding the festival’s decision.  “This is a welcome action which declares to the world that the suffering of victims is not a fit subject for mockery or casual self-promotion.…The organizers of the Cannes Film Festival have eloquently taken a determined moral stand against cavalier expressions of hate and insensitivity to those brutalized by the Nazis—Jew and non-Jew.”

Von Trier seems to enjoy courting controversy.  In 2005, he said that “President Bush dreams of being spanked by Condeleezza Rice.” Indeed, just before he launched into his Hitler-themed ramblings at Cannes, he mentioned that he was planning to make a four hour porn film starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, the female leads from Melancolia, with lots of “uncomfortable sex.”  Danish photographer Martin Hoien, who was covering von Trier for a Danish newsmagazine, told The New York Times that among Danes, the filmmaker has a reputation as a provocateur. He observed that “It’s not a surprise that he said what he said. Mr. von Trier is uncomfortable doing press [conferences] and seems to act out because of it.”

It is tempting to jump on the anti-von Trier bandwagon and add to the expressions of outrage.  After all, he is an adult and must therefore have some understanding of (and take responsibility for) the impact that his words would have on his audience.  But examining the situation more closely, it really isn’t worth all the indignation. The AGJHSTD said that the Holocaust is not “fit for mockery” and they are right.  But von Trier was not mocking the Holocaust.  He did not denigrate its victims or their suffering.  His use of politically loaded words: ‘Nazi’ and ‘Hitler’ was dumb, but using outrageous language is not equivalent to mocking others pain.  His remarks that he ‘understood’ and even ‘sympathized with Hitler’ have been blown out of proportion. Articles about the incident have led with sensationalist headlines, “’I’m A Nazi…I Understand Hitler” or “Lars Von Trier Declares Himself A Nazi, Hitler Sympathizer.”  Out of context, his comments are, indeed, deeply troubling.  One might even assume, based on headlines alone, that von Trier is a closet neo-Nazi.  Taken within the larger context of his body of work, however, his remarks have a different meaning.  Von Trier has made a career out of making films with dark plots and destructive protagonists, such as Antichrist and Dogville. That he might  be fascinated with a dark and disturbed historical figure such as Hitler would not be surprising given the themes that he repeatedly returns to in his films.

Over the past week, there has been a great deal of space online and in print devoted to this latest Cannes controversy.  Much of the reaction from the press or from Jewish groups, however, is little more than political theater.  If von Trier wants to call himself ‘a Nazi’ or say that he understands Hitler to attract attention to his film, then let him.  He is not using his media pulpit to call for another Holocaust or express solidarity with today’s neo-Nazis or truly saying anything that could harm anyone other than himself and the actors—by dint of association—who acted in his film.  Until he does, we might all save some valuable energy and react as the Danish photographer Hoien did when he heard von Trier’s comments: roll our eyes and walk away.

The Human Touch

By Merav Levkowitz

Tuesday (November 9th) marked seventy-two years since Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” which marked the beginning of the Holocaust in Germany. The first manifestation of Nazi-led violence against the Jews, Kristallnacht saw destruction and vandalism of synagogues and Jewish businesses. Over the past few days, Jewish communities around the world have gathered to remember Kristallnacht and the Holocaust. While “Never Forget” has become a mantra for the Jewish people in particular, I, as many others, fear that as time goes on, we risk distancing ourselves from the Holocaust in a dangerous way.

While the Holocaust remains at the root of much of contemporary Jewish thought and action, for many of us it lives on as part of collective memory, which causes pain but is very much intangible. As American Jews in particular, the realities of 1940s Europe are remarkably distant.

Though I am not a descendant of concentration camp survivors, my paternal grandparents escaped to Israel from Poland just before World War II. On both sides, their large families perished at the hands of the Nazis. While I did not grow up seeing the direct imprints (tattoos, even) of the Nazis, the Holocaust was made real for me by my father’s stories of growing up without grandparents. Beyond the stories of what happened, I was struck by what could have been—that is, the way world Jewry, and on a small scale, my own family, would have been different if not for the Nazis.

Museums, monuments, organizations, and films that seek to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, those who perished, and those who acted righteously are crucial to the preservation of knowledge and memory. But they are often sterile; there is nothing like the human touch. In the vast hallways of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, among the statistics and the photographs, I get the chills, but it is when I hear a survivor’s personal account—a story of being separated from parents, for example—that my heart aches and I cry.

My generation is the last that will have the opportunity to meet Holocaust survivors in person. As we lose these contacts, I fear that our understanding of the Holocaust risks fading like old photographs and becoming diluted. It is our duty to maintain our ties with survivors for as long as possible and to preserve their stories. Even in a globalized, virtual world, the human connection continues to reign supreme. Reach out and connect, so that we never forget.