Articles & Essays

The Jüdische Kulturbünde in the Early Nazi Years

By Lily E. Hirsch

The Jüdischer Kulturbund (Jewish Culture League), originally called the Kulturbund Deutscher Juden (Culture League of German Jews), was a performing arts ensemble by and for Jews, created in Berlin in collaboration with the National Socialist regime. The Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums (Law for the Reconstitution of the Civil Service) of April 7, 1933, generally dismissed non–Aryans — defined at that time as any person descended from a Jewish parent or grandparent — from holding positions in the public sphere, especially at cultural institutions such as state–run music conservatories, opera houses, concert halls and theaters.1 From 1933 to 1941, the League was the most significant site in Nazi Germany that still allowed, and, paradoxically, even encouraged Jews to participate in music as well as theater.

In 1933, Kurt Baumann (1907–1983), who, as a Jew, had been dismissed from his duties as a director's assistant, developed the preliminary plan for the League, which was to include theatrical plays, opera, and orchestral concerts. 2 In his memoirs, he explained:

I based my idea of founding a Jewish cultural circle on very simple numbers. At the time, 175,000 Jews lived in Berlin alone, many other big cities had similar concentrations, percentage–wise.3

Baumann shared his plan for the League with Kurt Singer (1885–1944), whose assistant he had been at Berlin's Städtische Oper (Municipal Opera). 4 Singer, a musicologist, neurologist and conductor, known and respected in nationalist circles, had envisioned a similar organization. Together, they worked to recruit other Jewish luminaries, such as Berlin's chief rabbi, Leo Baeck, journalist Werner Levie and conductor Joseph Rosenstock. When Baumann approached theater critic Julius Bab with the project, Bab was justifiably skeptical: “Dürfen wir denn das?” (“Are we allowed to do it?”)5

Singer attempted to generate support for the organization within various Nazi government offices, and he was eventually invited to meet with Hans Hinkel, who had been appointed head of the Prussian Theater Commission by the new Prussian minister, Hermann Göring, immediately after Hitler's ascension to power. 6 In April 1933, Hinkel and Singer began to negotiate terms for the creation of the League – terms that included several stipulations: the League was to be staffed only by Jewish artists and financed by the all–Jewish audiences through a monthly fee; only the Jewish press was allowed to report on League events; League programs were to be submitted to Hinkel for approval before performance. This last requirement allowed the regime to exclude works of “Aryan” German origin and promote a repertoire considered appropriate for a Jewish organization – a repertoire that included “Jewish” art, according to Hinkel's definition of Jewish art.7

These stipulations explain the regime's otherwise apparently puzzling support of the Jewish organization. For the Nazi officials, the League was meant to function as propaganda: by pointing to their support of the League, the Nazis could claim that Jews were not oppressed but encouraged to find their own forum for cultural expression. 8 At the same time, however, through Hinkel's censorship of the repertoire the League offered a way for the regime's leaders to attempt to segregate Jews from Germany's cultural life and prevent Jewish appropriation of so–called German art.

By the beginning of September 1933, the League consisted of eight separate sections. Its lecture department included Anneliese Landau, Julius Bab, Arthur Eloesser, Max Osborn, Julius Guttmann and Ernst Landsberger. Bab also directed the drama department, which was associated with the dramaturgy department. Heinz Condell, Hans Sondheimer and Werner Levie supervised the décor and costume division, the technical department, and the management division, respectively. Levie, who had worked until 1933 as economic editor of the Vossische Zeitung (a liberal Berlin newspaper), also acted as League secretary. 9 Along with Singer, Joseph Rosenstock led the opera department, in which Baumann also worked. 10 The concert department, linked to the opera division, was also headed by Rosenstock and Singer as well as the concert director Michael Taube, who had been Bruno Walter's assistant at the Municipal Opera in Berlin. 11 When Taube left for Tokyo in 1936, Hans Wilhelm Steinberg (later known as William Steinberg) replaced him. When Steinberg left for Palestine later that year (to work with the newly conceived Palestine Orchestra), he was succeeded by Rudolf Schwarz.12

Berlin's municipal administration leased the Berliner Theater on Charlottenstrasse, in the northwest corner of Berlin, to the League's management, for use as a performance venue. But in 1935, after two years, the League was not allowed to renew the lease and lost the theater. League operations were then transferred to the Herrnfeld–Theater on the Kommandantenstrasse. By October 1933, the League had about 12,500 members; this number increased to circa 20,000 – nearly twelve percent of Berlin's Jewish population – during the following winter. From 1934 to 1937, membership remained at about 18,500, with new members replacing those that emigrated. 13

The creation of the Jewish Culture League in Berlin was soon followed by the formation of active League chapters in Cologne and Frankfurt. Whereas the original Berlin League maintained a theater ensemble, opera company and philharmonic orchestra, the Cologne branch operated only an independent theater ensemble, and the Frankfurt League, which had no opera or theater ensemble, focused on orchestral music and maintained its own philharmonic orchestra under the direction of Steinberg, until he left for Berlin in 1936. 14 Smaller offshoots of the Berlin League were formed in Hamburg, Munich, Mannheim, Breslau, Kassel, Stuttgart and other locations. The most active League branches were in Berlin, Frankfurt, Cologne and Hamburg, which maintained a third independent Jewish theater ensemble. 15 The Berlin chapter, supervised by Singer, was the largest. By 1935, the Jewish Culture League had forty–six local chapters in other towns and cities, which the Nazi regime put under the umbrella union, Reichsverband der jüdischen Kulturbünde (Reich Association of Jewish Culture Leagues), also based in Berlin.

Singer was primarily in charge of program approval, which was no easy task given Hinkel's requirements for League performances and the censorship of offending offerings. Still, despite pressure from the regime, League organizers did not generally gravitate toward “Jewish” works. To some, such a repertoire was, in fact, at odds with their sense of Germanness and threatened to turn their Jewish organization into a ghetto. On the other hand, from the very start the Jüdische Rundschau, a newspaper serving the Zionist movement, challenged this Teutonic mindset and demanded that the League confront the changing situation of Jews in Germany and the need for a repertoire specifically connected to Jewishness. 16 The existence of this conflict, which the heterogeneousness of the Jewish public only compounded, helps to explain why League leaders did not follow the example of other organizations dedicated to the question of “Jewish” art. The League lacked the support for any specific program, as well as the time needed to create one. Indeed, the organization was never envisioned as a long–term venture; at the time, most people did not expect the regime or its anti–Semitic policies to last long. 17 League organizers also differed as to the very definition of “Jewish” art. To address this controversy officially, Singer convened a Jewish Culture League Conference, designated Die Kulturtagung des Reichsverbandes der Jüdischen Kulturbünde in Deutschland, on September 5, 1936. In speeches given the following day, prominent theater and music scholars advised League representatives how best to satisfy all those involved through the performances of recommended Jewish works. 18

This conference probably represented the peak of official interest in the question of Jewish art within the League, but it yielded no definitive solutions. In the following years, as conditions worsened in Nazi Germany, other concerns overshadowed this debate. After Kristallnacht – November 9–10, 1938 – and in the absence of Singer, who was visiting the United States, Levie was put in charge of the League, and on December 31 the League in Berlin and its various branches were consolidated into the Jüdischen Kulturbund in Deutschland e.V. (Jewish Culture League in Germany, Inc.), which was still based in Berlin. 19

On September 4, 1939, Fritz Wisten, who had been involved in the League's theatrical productions, replaced Levie, who had left Germany at the end of August. 20 When the League had finally outlived its usefulness, the organization was officially dissolved on September 11, 1941. At this time, Germany was embroiled in war on two fronts — both with Britain and the Soviet Union. Hitler had also become committed to the elimination of European Jewry, and had approved the mass deportation of German Jews eastward. 21 Although the Final Solution was not discussed until the Wannsee meeting on January 20, 1942, Hitler's approval of deportation was a decisive turn toward murder. 22 The regime no longer needed the League for propaganda purposes and had found a more extreme means of segregation. Still, as an explanation for the liquidation of the League, the secret police cited Paragraph 1 of the Reich president's order of February 28, 1933 — for the protection of people and state. 23

Lily E. Hirsch is Assistant Professor of Music at Cleveland State University. She has published articles in Philomusica, the Journal of Popular Music Studies, Musical Quarterly, and has a book, entitled A Jewish Orchestra in Nazi Germany: Musical Politics and the Berlin Jewish Culture League, forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press (2010).

1 Alan E. Steinweis, Art, Ideology, and Economics in Nazi Germany (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 106. See also Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews, Vol. I: The Years of Persecution, 1933–1939 (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997), 28 and Erik Levi, “Music and National Socialism: The Politicization of Criticism,” in The Nazification of Art: Art, Design, Music, Architecture & Film in the Third Reich, ed. Brandon Taylor and Wilfried von der Will (Hampshire: Winchester Press, 1990), 168.

2 Julius Bab, Leben und Tod des deutschen Judentums, (written in Summer 1939) ed. Klaus Siebenhaar (Berlin: Argon, 1988), 106. See also Germans No More: Accounts of Jewish Everyday Life, 1933–1938, eds. Margaret Limberg and Hubert Rübsaat, trans. Alan Nothnagle (New York: Berghahn Books, 2006), 183.

3 Ken (Kurt) Baumann, “Memoiren,” Leo Baeck Institute, New York, 27. All translations are my own unless otherwise noted.

4 Sylvia Rogge–Gau, Die doppelte Wurzel des Daseins: Julius Bab und der Jüdische Kulturbund Berlin (Berlin: Metropol, 1999), 60.

5 Baumann, “Memoiren,” 32.

6 Steinweis, Art, Ideology, and Economics in Nazi Germany, 33–35.

7 See Letter from Hans Hinkel to Kurt Singer, 15 July 1933, Fritz–Wisten–Archiv, Akademie der Künste, Berlin, and “Satzung des Kulturbundes Deutscher Juden,” Fritz–Wisten–Archiv, Akademie der Künste, Berlin. See also Michael H. Kater, The Twisted Muse: Musicians and their Music in the Third Reich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 101.

8 See Martin Goldsmith, The Inextinguishable Symphony: A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2000), 298; Kater, 98; Erik Levi, Music in the Third Reich (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), 51; Michael Meyer, The Politics of Music in the Third Reich (New York: Peter Lang, 1991), 75; Bernd Sponheuer, “Musik auf einer ‘kulturellen und physischen Insel’: Musik als überlebensmittel im Jüdischen Kulturbund 1933–1941” in Musik in der Emigration 1933–1945. Verfolgung, Vertreibung, Rückwirkung, ed. Horst Weber (Stuttgart/Weimar: Metzler, 1993), 111; and Herbert Freeden, Jüdisches Theater in Nazideutschland (Tubingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1964), 51.

9 Horst J.P. Bergmeier, Ejal Jakob Eisler, and Rainer E. Lotz, Vorbei . . . Beyond Recall: Dokumentation jüdischen Musiklebens in Berlin 1933–1938. . . A Record of Jewish musical life in Nazi Berlin 1933–1938 (Hambergen: Bear Family Records, 2001), 67.

10 Bergmeier, Eisler, and Lotz, 401.

11 Bergmeier, Eisler, and Lotz, 53.

12 Rogge–Gau, 62. See also Barbara von der Lühe, “Konzerte der Selbstbehauptung: Die Orchester des Jüdischen Kulturbundes 1933–1941,” Das Orchester 44 (1996): 7 and 10; and Bergmeier, Eisler, and Lotz, 365 and 385.

13 Bergmeier, Eisler, and Lotz, 71, 91–93, and 107–109.

14 Eva Hanau, “Die musikalischen Aktivitäten des Jüdischen Kulturbunds in Frankfurt am Main,” in Verfemte Musik: Komponisten in den Diktaturen unseres Jahrhunderts, Dokumentation des Kolloquiums vom 9–12 Januar 1993 in Dresden, ed. Joachim Braun (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1993), 79–80.

15 Hanau, 80.

16 See for example, “Warum ‘Nathan der Weise’?” Jüdische Rundschau, 25 July 1933: 3.

17 See Henryk M. Broder and Eike Geisel, Premiere und Pogrom: der Jüdische Kulturbund 1933–1941 (Berlin: Wolf Jobst Siedler Verlag GmbH, 1992), 228 and 247.

18 See conference transcript in Geschlossene Vorstellung: Der Jüdische Kulturbund in Deutschland 1933–1941, ed. Akademie der Künste (Berlin: Akademie der Künste, 1992), 266–297.

19 This reconfiguration was described by Werner Levie in “Aktennotiz,” 16 December 1938, Fritz–Wisten–Archiv, Akademie der Künste, Berlin.

20 Fritz Wisten, “Bericht über die Arbeit des Jüdischen Kulturbundes in Deutschland e.V. in der Zeit von 1.9.1939–31.8.1940,” Fritz–Wisten–Archiv, Akademie der Künste, Berlin, 4.

21 Mark Roseman, The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution: A Reconsideration (New York: Metropolitan Books ,2002), 57.

22 Roseman, 81–94.

22 Letter from secret police, 11 September 1941, Vereinsregister Berlin, Leo Baeck Institute, New York.