Articles & Essays

The Fate of Professional French Jewish Musicians Under the Vichy Regime

By Philippe Olivier

When the Second World War began, on September 1, 1939, French musicians who were practicing or non-practicing Jews – conductors, instrumentalists, singers and composers – felt even more anxiety than did their compatriots who belonged to other religions. Since 1933 they had been aware of the persecutions being carried out in Germany, and later in Austria, against members of the faith of Abraham and Moses. These French Jewish artists belonged to several generations; they were active in education, opera, chamber music, orchestras and liturgical music – since some of them were cantors in synagogues. Many of them worked in the area of light music – cabarets, restaurants, bars in the principal hotels, revues at the Folies-Bergère and popular song – or in the movies. Furthermore, all of them had to face the emigration of their fellow Jews who had fled to France from Germany or Austria after Hitler’s accession to power and the Anschluss; these people were the successors of Jewish musicians who had arrived in France during the 1920s from Hungary, Poland and Romania. All of them understood, however, that the universe that Stefan Zweig had described in Die Welt von Gestern (The World of Yesterday) – one of his most lucid works – was about to disappear forever.

This essay will not deal exhaustively with the subject, given its vast proportions. Furthermore, this task is currently limited by the fact that the French authorities still do not allow researchers to examine all of the archives related to what is called the “Vichy” period. This term refers to the collaborationist government headed by Marshal Philippe Pétain from July 1940 to August 1944. The memory of this regime, which was subservient to Nazi Germany and which, in particular, installed the celebrated pianist Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) as president of its Committee for the Professional Organization of Music, 1remains, in part, a taboo in France even in 2009. It is also true that the activities of cultural historians concerned with that period are not facilitated by the public authorities – sixty-four years after the end of the Second World War. Amaury du Closel, 2a pioneer in this area, and the members of his Forum Voix étouffées (Stifled Voices; FVE) have sometimes experienced this. Thus the very existence of the FVE is made possible thanks to subsidies that come mainly – and this is highly significant – from the European Union and the Austrian Federal Republic.

The gradual disappearance of the last witnesses of that sinister period does not help researchers in their work. I recall the reticence expressed, during the 1980s, by Irène Aïtoff (1904-2006) and Gabriel Dussurget (1904-96) when I repeatedly attempted to discuss the events that they had lived through between 1939 and 1944. Yet Aïtoff, a pianist, had been not only Charles Munch’s associate and Yvette Guilbert’s accompanist: she had helped the singer Marya Freund (1876-1966), who had given the French premiere of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, to be hidden in a secure place after having escaped from the Gestapo’s claws. Dussurget, who became artistic director of the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 1947, was one of the most highly placed members of the French musical elite during the dark years; Olivier Messiaen wrote part of his Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus on Dussurget’s piano, and the latter had connections with Jacques Rouché, director of the Paris Opéra, and was close to Francis Poulenc. But he did not like to talk about the period of the Occupation. Yet once Paris had been liberated from the Nazis, he was made a member of the committee that “purged” musicians who had collaborated with the Propaganda-Staffel and with one of its branches, the German Institute of Paris. The duty of this organization had been to arrange the visits of Herbert von Karajan, Clemens Krauss, Wilhelm Kempff, Elly Ney and the Berlin Philharmonic in the France that the writer Vercors evoked throughout Le Silence de la Mer.

Another peculiarity regarding the subject of documentation is related to the anti-German attitudes demonstrated by certain observers decades after the war’s end. Thus Olivier Merlin (1907-2005), a journalist for the daily newspaper Le Monde, refused to deal at any point in his book, L’Opéra de Paris, with the history of that institution during its four years under the German jackboot. In describing the fate of singers who were part of the Opéra’s ensemble, he wrote: “Many of them accepted only reluctantly to have contact with the military Siegfrieds who professed eternal German feeling for music.” 3 The impossibility of expressing themselves also marked numerous Jewish victims of Vichy’s collaborationist policies. Violette Jacquet-Silberstein, one of the last survivors of the Auschwitz women’s orchestra conducted by Alma Rosé (1906-44), is now eighty-four years old; she regrets “a heavy silence that has lasted too long.” 4 Yet it was broken, as long ago as 1948, by the publication of Musiques d’un autre monde – the account of the concentration camp experiences of Simon Laks (1901-83), who conducted one of the Auschwitz complex’s orchestras. 5 This Polish-born composer later became a French citizen. It is also to be deplored that the notebooks written in those dark years by Max Deutsch (1892-1982), one of Schoenberg’s last European pupils, are not yet accessible to the public at large. Among other things, we still do not know the final fate of the clarinetist Henri Akoka, one of the original interpreters of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, performed in a camp at Görlitz on January 15, 1941. Finally, we are still awaiting statistics that clearly indicate the professions of the adults among the 75,000 deported French Jews, 6 therefore also of the professional musicians among them.

A definition in terms is necessary: by professional French Jewish musicians we mean those individuals who were citizens of Victor Hugo’s native land of as of September 1, 1939. Within the limits of this study it is not possible to take into systematic consideration those artists who had moved to France and had not left it, such as the Lithuanian-born pianist Vlado Perlemuter (1904-2002), a worthy specialist in the works of Maurice Ravel, or the composers Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986) and Wolf Simoni (1907-91). Tansman had arrived during the 1920s from a working-class Poland described by the Yiddish-speaking writer Isroel Rabon in his novel, Di Gas. As for Wolf Simoni, who later took the name of Louis Saguer: he had fled from Nazi Germany, and he became a French citizen in 1947. It was not the same for Hanns Eisler, Schoenberg or Kurt Weill, who were refugees in Paris in 1933. The fate of the refugees is well known: they were forbidden to exercise any professional activities whatsoever; they could not become members of the S.A.C.E.M. (Association of authors, composers and music publishers), thus they also could not receive royalties from performances of their works; and, once the armistice had been signed between Pétain’s French nation 7 and the Reich’s representatives, they had to live in the Milles internment camps near Aix-en-Provence, Pithiviers or Beaune-la-Rolande. This last measure meant, in effect, that these unfortunate people would be delivered to Nazi Germany.

The guarantees that had been included in the law regarding the emancipation of the Jews, put into effect by the French Constituent Assembly in September 1791, 8 no longer existed for French Jews. Having been so naïve as to believe that France carried the torch of enlightenment among the nations, they now saw themselves basically grouped together with their foreign or stateless fellow Jews. Regardless of whether they were of Alsatian or German origin or had established themselves in one or another of France’s North African départements, they became victims of a state of mind that had gradually been deployed over several decades: the bogey-man of a Jewish-Communist conspiracy that had brought about the Front Populaire; virulent anti-Semitism represented by the Dreyfus Affair and stirred up by La Croix, the Catholic daily newspaper; anguished nationalism that viewed the Jews as agents of a concerted campaign to destroy French culture. Thus the École Normale de Musique that Cortot had founded in Paris in 1919 was conceived as a weapon meant to weaken the prestige of superior Germanic musical instruction, which was feared to have been “infested with Jewish influence.” 9 As to the radical modernism of a Hindemith or of the Second Viennese School – it was discredited by the French academic milieu, which saw in it the supposedly pernicious work of the Jewish avant-garde. The first Paris performance of Pierrot Lunaire, in 1922, aroused the indignation of nationalist and conservative circles, whose representatives then dusted off a vocabulary that had been developed during the last quarter of the 19th century.

Let us consider, for instance, the diatribes of Vincent d’Indy (1851-1931), an assiduous deprecator of Meyerbeer, Halévy and Offenbach and a notorious anti-Dreyfus man, who was convinced that French taste had been “swallowed up by Jewish opera.” 10 Throughout Siegfried et le Limousin (published in 1922), by the writer and German scholar Jean Giraudoux, there is a sculptress who was incapable, like “most French people, [of] recognizing Jews” 11 by their noses! When the English scholar Pierre Messiaen – father of the composer of the Turangalîla-Symphonie – described his years as a teacher at Paris’s Lycée Charlemagne before the Second World War, he picked on his former Jewish students because they had, he said, a “hybrid, vulgar, Semitic look.” 12 The times were ripe for the spreading of anti-Semitic rumors; thus it was said that Erik Satie and Maurice Ravel were Jews. Ravel’s name even appeared in the Dictionary of Jews in Music, by Theo Stengel and Herbert Gerick, published in Germany in 1940. Florent Schmitt (1870-1958), one of the best-known figures in Parisian musical life, caused a xenophobic scandal during a concert of Kurt Weill’s music given at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on November 26, 1933: three days later, Lotte Lenya wrote to her husband: “Florent Schmitt stood up and shouted, ‘Heil Hitler! Enough of this music by the German émigrés!’” 13 This incident illustrates the general atmosphere between 1933 and 1939. Professional French Jewish musicians felt increasingly ill at ease, although some of them used chastising irony toward their refugee colleagues from Central Europe. In his book Exile, the novelist Lion Feuchtwanger describes the situation, showing the cynicism of part of the French aristocracy, represented by one Léa de Chassefierre, whose sexual appetite for the Third Reich’s diplomats earned her the nickname of “Notre-Dame-des-Nazis.” 14

Nevertheless, certain French musicians of Jewish origin were ingenuous enough to believe that they would not be persecuted if Hitler decided to invade their country. For a long time, they did not understand at all their unfavorable situation with respect to the mysterious criteria that then as now ruled Parisian and French musical life. Worse still, the novelist and journalist Irène Nemirovsky (1903-42) oppressed her brothers and sisters in misery throughout her writings. Still, they represented less than 1% of the profession, 15 as opposed to approximately 1.5% in Germany before the election that brought the National Socialist Party to power on January 30, 1933. The great French Jewish conductors, soloists and singers were a minority within a minority, even if you think of Manuel Rosenthal (1904-2003), who gave first performances in France of music by Bartók and Prokofiev, or the tenor Edouard Kriff (1905-66), a member of the Paris Opéra celebrated for his interpretation of Saint-Saëns’s Samson and of Lohengrin and Siegfried. On the other hand, Jews seem to have been strongly represented in the world of vaudeville and film music.

With respect to composers of so-called “serious” music, two names stand out – those of Paul Dukas (1865-1935), who wrote the symphonic poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), an international celebrity in the field of contemporary creativity. The events that followed the Nazi invasion of France obviously concerned the composer of Le Boeuf sur le Toit: Milhaud’s apartment in Paris’s Boulevard de Clichy and his home in Aix-en-Provence were pillaged; before the Liberation, some twenty members of his family were arrested and assassinated by Hitler’s bootlickers. In July 1940, Milhaud and his wife fled to the United States, where they were welcomed by Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill, and they lived there in America until 1947. It was forbidden to play so-called “degenerate” music in the occupied zone. Thus, in January 1942 Charles Munch was denied the right to conduct Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris. This did not stop German soldiers at the Moulin Rouge from delighting in the famous French can-can of Jakob Eberst, alias Jacques Offenbach, son of a cantor in a German synagogue, nor did it stop the Casino de Vichy from performing Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène on July 5 and 16, 1942! And his opera Tales of Hoffmann was given three times during the same summer season. Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) saw his Ciboulette listed in the same venue on July 9, 1942. This Venezuelan-born Jew, who was also a noted homosexual and confirmed man of the world, was forced to go into hiding. But it seems that the Germans’ decrees were not carried out to the letter in the occupied zone.

For their part, Alfred Cortot and his assistants set up a Committee for the professional organization of music. It was in fact noteworthy for its complete exclusion of Jews from the profession; thus it was modeled after the Reichsmusikkammer (RMK) that had been created in Berlin at the end of 1933. In January 1943, Cortot sent to Abel Bonnard, who was then Minister of National Education in the Laval government, a translated summary of the official German text that the RMK had instituted a decade earlier. This plan by a virtuoso who had become a high-ranking functionary not only denied the Rights of Man: it condemned to the most abject misery people who had already been stricken by the promulgation of the first Jewish Statute, in 1940. Beginning in 1942, following the decisions made at the Wannsee Conference, their lives were hanging by a thread; that meeting, with its catastrophic consequences, had taken place near Berlin on January 20. Ten months later, the Germans invaded the free zone 17 and a pitiless manhunt began. Arrests and raids became more and more frequent. In Paris, beginning with the raid of the Winter Cycling Arena on July 16 and 17, 1942, nearly 13,000 people were deprived of their freedom. The collaborationist press – of which the ringleader was the writer Robert Brasillach – saw hidden Jews everywhere. It was suspected that the popular singer Charles Trénet’s real name was Netter. French Jews, whether or not they were professional musicians, were tracked down. Eugène Adler (1890-1942?), cantor at the synagogue of Sarreguemines – a small town in the Moselle département, was questioned at Jarnac, where he and his family had hidden; he reached Auschwitz on November 6, 1942, on Convoy No. 42, and perished there, probably upon arrival.

Jewish artists joined the ranks of the Resistance. The aforementioned opera singer Edouard Kriff, who had left Marseilles following the German raids in the Vieux-Panier quarter, fled from the train that was heading toward the extermination camps and joined up with the snipers and partisans operating in the Ardèche. As for Max Deutsch, his combative streak (he had been active during the First World War, in the Foreign Legion and during the Spanish Civil War) led him to take part in Resistance fighting in central France. He “will bear witness, on November 24, 1944, in favor of the prefect of Corrèze who had protected him […] from the denunciations of which he had been the victim on several occasions.” 18 Some interpretive and creative artists who later became internationally famous went into hiding, in town or country, without taking part in offensive actions. The harpist Lily Laskine (1893-1988) was hidden together with the pianists Clara Haskil (1895-1960), Youra Guller (1895-1981) and Monique Haas (1909-87) in the magnificent residence of Countess Lily Pastré at Montredon, near Marseilles. Although Guller’s history during that period was recently brought to the attention of the general public thanks to the writer Dominique Fernandez, 19 this was not the case for a long time with respect to Monique Haas. “The war interrupted her musical activities”: this is the mysterious formula applied to the subject by Alain Pâris, a writer on musical matters. 20

The composer and conductor René Leibowitz (1913-72) – one of the young Pierre Boulez’s teachers – fled toward the southern zone during the summer of 1940. He returned to Paris at the end of 1943 and lived there completely illegally, like some of his fellow Jews from Berlin and Warsaw. He was concealed at the time – thanks to the writer Georges Bataille and the painter Louis Balthus – not far from the attic in the Rue des Grands-Augustins in which Pablo Picasso received the German officer Ernst Jünger, author of a Journal that would one day delight President François Mitterand. This journal demonstrates the hateful game played by an unpatriotic, depraved sector of Parisian society in its relations with the occupying Nazis. René Leibowitz did not leave this hiding place until the Liberation of Paris, which took place from August 19 to 25, 1944, thanks to the Allied forces assisted by the Resistance. He then organized a rebroadcast by Radio-Paris – freed at last from the Nazis’ grip – of Arnold Schoenberg’s Quintet for Winds, Op. 26. His great joy was shared by true democrats and other survivors who belonged to the Jewish milieu, including members of several generations. Worthy of mention are artists who had been members of the Paris Opéra, such as the singing coach Maurice Franck, whose life had been saved by Germaine Lubin (1890-1979), a Wagnerian soprano lacking in political sense to such an extent that she performed at Bayreuth in 1939 and was the mistress of a German officer, Hans-Joachim Lange. 21 In 1940, she was Mélisande in Debussy’s opera during performances given at the Opéra-Comique that later became legendary. Irène Joachim later joined the French Communist Party.

Some thirty Jews belonged to the Paris Opéra at the beginning of the war; they constituted about 8% of the institution’s artistic team. The orchestra included three Jewish players: the associate principal cello, Alfred-Mathieu Barraine; the principal double-bass, Ernest Weiller; and the second harp, Isaac Cauderer. 22 It would be very useful if a detailed study of their fates were one day undertaken. By way of comparison, in 1933 four members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra were of the same faith. 23 What happened at the beginning of the latter institution’s 1935-36 season is well known: the Nuremberg Laws were promulgated.

The composer Henri Dutilleux, who was a choral coach at the Paris Opéra in 1940, recalled the wartime period with deep emotion: “Jewish artists were fired in the fall of 1940.” 24 Nevertheless, the Opéra’s general manager, Jacques, Rouché, tried to soften their fate temporarily: “He did his best to see that those who lost their jobs received severance pay and at the time of the Liberation were reimbursed for lost income.” 25 If they were still alive! Be that as it may, Jacques Rouché supported these unfortunate people until December 1942 and kept track of their seniority. After that, they were removed from the Opéra’s administrative control.

The Paris Conservatoire, another of the most prestigious public institutions, suffered through equally painful episodes. In October 1940 the first Jewish Statute imposed the same quota on it as on all other institutions of higher education. Two years later, the Conservatoire numbered only three Jewish professors 26 - André Bloch, the aforementioned Maurice Franck and the famous piano pedagogue Lazare Lévy (1882-1964) – out of a 75-member faculty – and twenty Jews among the 580 students. Moreover, fifteen future professional musicians enrolled at the Conservatoire were considered partly Jewish according to the discriminatory legislation that then obtained. The institution’s director, Claude Delvincourt (1888-1954), joined the Resistance in September 1942. Jules Boucherit (1877-1962), one of the most respected violin professors at the Conservatoire, who taught Ginette Neveu and Christian Ferras, was revolted by the fate of his Jewish students. He was scandalized by the Second Statute and the deportations, and at that point he decided to hide five of these aspiring violinists.

“Under the pretext of ill health, and in agreement with the administrative director, [Jules Boucherit] moved his courses to a villa at Bourron-Marlotte, very near Fontainebleau. This house had been made available to him by […] the pianist Magda Tagliaferro, who had been forced to flee to South America.” 27 Those hidden at Bourron-Marlotte were Devi Ehrli, a future professor at Paris’ École Normale de Musique; Ivry Gitlis; Charles Cyroulnik; Denise Soriano (1916-2003); and Michel Schwalbe, who later became Herbert von Karajan’s concertmaster in the Berlin Philharmonic. None of these young artists was arrested, nor was their protector. At the very time when the cellist Pierre Fournier (1906-86) was regaling his Nazi listeners with Bach’s Suites; when troops of the Wehrmacht were applauding their country’s opera ensembles and great orchestras on tour in occupied France; when Radio-Paris, Radio-Vichy and the regional networks of Lyon, Toulouse or Marseilles were broadcasting endless hateful propaganda; and when hundreds of thousands of deported Jews were dying at Treblinka or Sobibor, these future high-level professional musicians were learning their art and hoping for peace. This was possible thanks to the complicity of the people of Bourron-Marlotte, in spite of difficulties such as those encountered by Denise Soriano before her arrival there: she had been denounced as a Jewess.

On February 28, 1993, Jules Boucherit was posthumously proclaimed “Righteous among the Nations” at a ceremony organized by the Yad Vashem Institute of Jerusalem. His memory is blessed not only by the world’s Jews, citizens of the Jewish state, promoters of Jewish-Christian friendship and all believers in democracy: it also does honor to France forever, and the light that it spreads pushes back into the shadows of opprobrium and damnation the evil beings who, from 1940 to 1944, contributed to discrimination against and marginalization and physical liquidation of the children of Israel, whatever their social status or their profession.

Philippe Olivier (b. 1952) is associate musicologist of Forum Voix étouffées, as well as guest professor at the Institut Elie Wiesel in Paris, the Akademie der Künste in Berlin and the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Rostock. He has published some twenty books in France and Germany; in the latter, his Der Ring des Nibelungen in Bayreuth von den Anfüngen bis heute (Schott, 2007) earned the praise of Marcel Reich-Ranicki in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He has won many French and foreign awards and has written documentaries for Arte and for Télévision Suisse Romande.

Posted December 1, 2009

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  • 1. Frederic Spotts : The Shameful Peace – How French artists and intellectuals survived the Nazi Occupation, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2008, pp. 192-220. Myriam Chimènes : Alfred Cortot et la Politique Musicale de Vichy, in Myriam Chimènes (dir.) : La Vie Musicale sous Vichy, Editions Complexe, Bruxelles-Paris, 2004, p. 39.
  • 2. An important source is Amaury du Closel : Entartete Musik – Les voix étouffées du 3ème Reich, Actes Sud, Arles, 2005, as well as Déracinements – Exil et déportation des musiciens sous le 3ème Reich (edited by Amaury du Closel and Philippe Olivier), Hermann, Paris, 2008, and Retour-Rückkehr-Return, Editions Samuel Tastet, Bucarest-Paris-Jérusalem, 2009. The following sites may also be consulted: http://www.voixetouffees.org et http://www.sumusnet.eu.
  • 3. Olivier Merlin : L'Opéra de Paris, Hatier, Paris, 1975, pp. 139-140.
  • 4. Conversation between Violette Jacquet-Silberstein and the author, Paris, 4 August 2009.
  • 5. In 2004, this work was the object of a new edition titled Mélodies d’Auschwitz, with a preface by Pierre Vidal-Naquet and an epilogue by André Laks; Le Cerf, Paris.
  • 6. Serge Klarsfeld: La Shoah en France Arthème-Fayard, Paris, 2001.
  • 7. This was the Vichy Government’s administrative designation, carried out by people whom Charles de Gaulle described, in his famous Appeal of June 28, 1940, “authorities by accident.”
  • 8. Jean Kahn and Philippe Olivier: Combats pour les Droits de l'homme, Hermann, Paris, 2009.
  • 9. Le Messager du Centre, July 13, 1919.
  • 10. Vincent d'Indy : César Franck, Librairie Félix Alcan, Paris, 1930, p. 62.
  • 11. Jean Giraudoux : Siegfried et le Limousin, Bernard Grasset, Paris, 1961, p. 49.
  • 12. Pierre Messiaen : Images, Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 1944, p. 224-225.
  • 13. Sprich leise, wenn Du Liebe sagst – Der Briefwechsel Kurt Weill-Lotte Lenya, Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne, 1998, p. 114.
  • 14. Lion Feuchtwanger : Exil, Aufbau Taschenbuch, Berlin, 2007, p. 249.
  • 15. No study has as yet either confirmed or denied this statement.
  • 16. Nevertheless, it is to Cortot’s credit that he helped to free the singer Marya Freund from death’s anteroom – the Drancy camp – located at the gates of Paris. It is also certain, now, that he helped the young Jewish violinist Devi Ehrli (about whom there will be more later in this essay) to escape anti-Semitic persecution. A letter signed by Ehrli’s father and addressed to representatives of the Allied forces that had liberated Paris bears witness to this. (Telephone conversation between Devi Ehrli and the author, Paris, January 14, 2007.)
  • 17. Free zone: this refers to the part of French territory that was not occupied by Nazi Germany; it included 45% of the country’s area and 33% of the active population.
  • 18. Amaury du Closel : Les Voix étouffées du 3ème Reich – Entartete Musik, Actes Sud, Arles, 2005, p. 333.
  • 19. Dominique Fernandez : Ramon, Grasset, Paris, 2008, pp. 302-306.
  • 20. Alain Pâris : Dictionnaire des interprètes et de l'interprétation musicale, Robert Laffont, Paris, 1989, p. 438.
  • 21. Nicole Casanova : Isolde 39 – Germaine Lubin, Flammarion, Paris, 1974.
  • 22. Agnès Terrier : L'Orchestre de l'Opéra de Paris de 1669 à nos jours, La Martinière, Paris, 2003, p. 247.
  • 23. Misha Aster : «Das Reichsorchester» – Die Berliner Philharmoniker und der Nationalsozialismus, Siedler, Munich, 2007, p. 95.
  • 24. Conversation between Henri Dutilleux and the author, Paris, April 24, 2003.
  • 25. Frederic Spotts : The Shameful Peace – How French artists and intellectuals survived the Nazi Occupation, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2008, p. 206.
  • 26. Jean Gribenski : L'exclusion des Juifs du Conservatoire (1940-1942), in Myriam Chimènes (dir.) : La Vie Musicale sous Vichy, Editions Complexe, Bruxelles-Paris, 2004, p. 145.
  • 27. Israel Gutman (ed.) : Dictionnaire des Justes de France, Arthème-Fayard, Paris, 2003, p. 110.
  • Trans. h.s.