Articles & Essays

"Some Jewish Colleagues are Back at Their Desks…"

By Emile Wennekes

A Dutch case study in the re-migration of European musicians after World War II1

Early in February 1945, violinist Samuel Swaap received a liberating note that contained the following message: "You are placed in the February 5 transport to Switzerland. In order to get things settled, you are requested to go to the meeting point at Langestrasse 3 with your baggage, today: Sunday February 4, 1945, from 7:00 pm until 11:00 pm. Only hand luggage and one suitcase is allowed, because the journey will take place in an express train and no hand luggage carrier is made available." This little note for Swaap, former concertmaster of the the Hague Philharmonic (Het Residentie Orkest, meant the end of protracted hardships in the supposedly "beautified" concentration camp of Theresienstadt (Terezín). Together with approximately 1,200 other Jews, Swaap was sent on a transport to Switzerland as part of an exchange program that was the outcome of a series of cloak-and-dagger stories and secret police games, in which personalities like Heinrich Himmler, the former Swiss president Jean-Mary Musy and the Jewish activist Recha Sternbuch each played a part. Even the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Switzerland were involved in a string of events that illustrate the grotesque side of Nazi power.

Among Swaap's acquaintances in this complicated exchange were several other Dutch Jewish musicians, including—to name just two fellow sufferers—Rosa Spier, the former solo harpist of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, and Samuel Tromp, former associate leader of the same orchestra's second violin section. As late as August 1945 musicians were still being repatriated to the Netherlands. For some of them the process took only a few days, but for others weeks went by before they could resume their places in the orchestras and music academies in which they had played and taught before the war.

The group of Terezín survivors exemplified a category of Dutch Jewish musicians who managed to survive the National Socialist atrocities. Coming back to their home country after the war, they were confronted with new and hardly less critical difficulties, not least of which was the attempt to regain their former positions. It is important to try to classify this group within the broader perspective of the "re-migration" of the survivors of German persecution.

The subject of musicians' post-Second World War re-migration has barely been studied, in part because it was not a mass phenomenon. The number of musicians deported from Germany during the war has been estimated at 4000.2 Of these, a mere five to ten percent returned to their fatherland, and among that small number many were no longer able to function in their former positions. Statistics for other countries are not yet available and are merely a subject for speculation. Thus far, in individual biographies or in research relevant to certain institutions (conservatories, orchestras and so on), re-migration has functioned only as a coda to the issue of exile. But this does not do justice to the specificity of the subject. In the case of exile, the persecutor drove the events, whereas re-migration was a secondary, subsequent consequence for the persecuted.3 Survivors had to ask themselves crucial questions: "Can I return home?" "Do I want to return home—and if so, under what conditions?"

Some preliminary conclusions indicate that there were substantial differences from country to country. By limiting the comparison to Germany and the Netherlands, one might tentatively conclude that the number of exiles in the latter was substantially lower than in the former. And there is a crucial psychological difference: in the Netherlands the occupiers, rather than fellow countrymen, had forced the persecuted to leave the country. Thus, the question as to whether or not one ought to return to the nation that was responsible for the atrocities was irrelevant. Nevertheless, the larger moral question retained some relevance, inasmuch as fellow Dutchmen had acquiesced to the terror, willingly or unwillingly, and some of them had even benefited from the absence of the refugees or deportees.

Whatever scholarly attention has been paid so far to the exiled musicians has focused mainly on well-known names, whereas re-migration has less to do with the elite than with the relatively unknown. This survey focuses on a group of Jewish musicians who, coincidentally or not, shared to a large extent, similar wartime experiences, but who, on returning home, were confronted with different circumstances, from which they drew different conclusions.

The Nazi occupation of the Netherlands began with the invasion by German military forces on May 10, 1940. At first, much remained as before; concert life and radio programming continued after only a short break. But by the following autumn the varnish of correctness and tolerance had worn thin. Censorship was proclaimed and performances of music by Jewish composers were banned. In March 1941, all Jewish musicians were banned from music academies and orchestras. Living conditions became very harsh for these unemployed musicians. Only occasionally were financial arrangements made between individual musicians and the orchestras that had been forced to fire them. An alternative was offered—although for a total of only seventy-three seemingly lucky musicians of Jewish descent—through the creation of the Amsterdam-based Jewish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Albert van Raalte.4 For eight months, from November 1941 until July 1942, this orchestra, like the Jewish Kulturbund in Germany, created deceptive expectations of survival. But as soon as deportations began, in the summer of 1942, the Jewish orchestra was forced to end its activities. What happened next is well known: substantial numbers of Holland's Jewish musicians were brutally killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Sobibor. Nevertheless, fifty percent of Dutch Jewish orchestral musicians survived, a substantially higher percentage than members of many other professions.

In April 1941, fifty-seven so-called volljüdische (hundred-percent Jewish) musicians had been employed in the eight Dutch symphony orchestras extant at that time, a figure of more than eleven percent.5 Amazingly, twenty-nine of them survived the war. Fourteen of these were members of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, five of them played with the Hague Philharmonic and four with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. The remaining six were employed by local symphony orchestras.

One of the musicians shunted around Europe, from one concentration or transit camp to the next, was the above-mentioned Rosa Spier (1891-1967), who had been principal harpist of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra since 1932 and had taught at the leading music academies of Amsterdam and The Hague. After she was sacked from the Concertgebouw Orchestra, in 1941, she joined the Jewish Symphony Orchestra. She must have expected that this orchestra would survive the German atrocities, since she stipulated that, should she get a good offer from abroad, her contract could be annulled.6 This proved to be a vain hope. She went into hiding immediately after the orchestra was disbanded in mid-1942, but she was soon betrayed and deported, first to the Westerbork transit camp and then to Theresienstadt, from which, at war's end, she was sent to Switzerland.

In May 1945 Rosa Spier wrote from Switzerland to Amsterdam that she looked forward to playing again in her Concertgebouw Orchestra. In August she was finally able to return home, or rather, to the city that she had always called home. In reality, post-war Amsterdam meant a "huge deception" for Rosa Spier, as she later wrote in her as yet unpublished memoirs. Directly after her return, she was allowed to reclaim her former position in the Concertgebouw, but as early as October 1, 1945, she resigned to accept a position in the newly established radio orchestra. In this job she would earn a higher salary and, as the minutes of the orchestra's board indicate, she especially hoped to have more possibilities to perform as a soloist in her new working environment.

But matters are never as simple as they seem in the minutes of board meetings. A remarkable detail in Spier's correspondence is her application, almost two years later, to join the Concertgebouw Orchestra on a tour of Scandinavia: "Payment doesn't play any role," she wrote to the orchestra's board; clearly, she was not anticipating a permanent return to her old job. But, she said, "this travel would work as a balm for the wound which my last travel abroad—in a cattle truck—has created […], a very painful memory that is still very much alive." Her application was rejected.

What exactly had happened during the first two months, when Spier had performed again with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, remains a mystery. Not even her memoirs provide any idea of her disappointments, nor do the board's minutes or Spier's correspondence. Could it be that her former student Phia Berghout had practically taken over the position of principal harpist? Officially, Berghout was given the position only after Spier had resigned.7

Rosa Spier was but one of several Jewish musicians in the Concertgebouw Orchestra who were confronted with the postwar results of the wartime "Aryanization" of musical life in the Netherlands. Nearly twenty percent (sixteen out of eighty-eight) of the orchestra's musicians had been forced to resign,8 among them, the second and third concertmasters, the principal viola, the assistant principal cellist, the assistant principal bassoon and the first trombone. All of the vacancies that they left were filled during 1941 and 1942.

The position of assistant principal second violin also needed to be filled after the dismissal of Samuel Tromp. Tromp (1902-1987) had joined the Concertgebouw Orchestra during the 1928-29 season and was fired in June 1941, as a result of Aryanization, after which he became a member of the Jewish Symphony Orchestra. Within a few months, deportation had become inevitable; via the transit camps of Barneveld and Westerbork, he ended up in Theresienstadt as a Verdienstjude (here indicating a Jew of recognized social standing). Tromp and all the other Jewish musicians mentioned were part of the so-called "Barneveld Group," a privileged list of wirtschaftliche wertvolle Juden (economic or socially relevant Jews) of Dutch origin. They were deported as a group to the Westerbork polizeiliches Durchgangslager (police transit camp), where they also enjoyed a few small privileges, and from there to Theresienstadt, still mainly as members of a separate group of prisoners.

After the war, and following the Swiss detour, Tromp finally returned to Amsterdam, where the orchestra welcomed him back on September 11, 1945. Instead of returning to his old position, however, he was made a section player in the first violins;  9 his former position had been officially given to Piet Heuwekemeijer. Did this seemingly uncomfortable situation cause any conflicts or hard feelings? No, according to the surviving archival material. Apparently it was the newly appointed chief conductor, Eduard van Beinum, who proposed this compromise.  Van Beinum had replaced Willem Mengelberg when the latter was banned from the orchestra as a result of his reprehensible compromises with the Nazis. Van Beinum suggested that Heuwekemeijer could remain in his position as section leader, whereas Tromp would achieve a sort of promotion by moving to the first violins, but as a section player with fewer responsibilities. By way of compensation, Tromp would receive a monthly bonus in order to make his salary comparable to that of his former position.10 This job rotation seems to have taken place in a friendly atmosphere. In 1946 Tromp was even named Secretary of the Concertgebouw Orchestra's Association (Vereniging Het Concertgebouworchest. He was twice elected president of this highly influential peer pressure group of orchestra musicians. In this position he had to collaborate closely with Heuwekemeijer, who became the orchestra's managing director in the 1950s.

The Association's minutes of May 16, 1945 (shortly after the liberation of Holland), mention the preparations for the first post-war concerts. They state that the musicians could only temporarily assume any given position: "The definite placing can be decided only when all colleagues are again present." Tromp had not yet returned to the Netherlands, but he must have written to the Association shortly thereafter, because on June 23 the secretary and president jointly responded to him in Switzerland: "It is very remarkable that someone who, after suffering a long time, at the start of some improvement in his personal situation first expresses the hope that all his friends have been spared the things he has experienced. Your heartfelt interest in the well-being of your colleagues is proof that the warm feelings of solidarity within the orchestra could not be destroyed by the humanly disgraceful experiences of the war." The letter ends with the words: "Some Jewish colleagues are back at their desks; they received a warm welcome. The ones still missing are the colleagues from Switzerland. We are looking forward with pleasure to your safe homecoming to our good Amsterdam."

One need not doubt the sincerity of these Association board members; even during the occupation the influential organization always acted with social conscience and fraternal sensibility. As early as 1944, post-war plans were being made, and the first point on the list of actions to be undertaken was the restoration of Jewish colleagues to their former posts. The second, and somewhat contradictory, point, however, was that orchestra members hired during the occupation should retain their new positions. These two conditions could have caused conflicts between the hired and the fired, but that was not the case; at least the orchestra's official minutes make no mention of any such problems. The strategy relevant to the job rotation of Samuel Tromp seems exemplary. Moreover, new vacancies were created in the midst of the Katharsis, the post-war purification of Dutch society; Nazi sympathizers were dismissed on the spot.

In comparison with other countries, it appears that the possibilities for Jewish instrumentalists to return to their former posts in the orchestras of the Netherlands were indeed quite good. The cases of Tromp and Spier at the Concertgebouw Orchestra seem to have been similar to those of Jewish musicians returning to other Dutch symphony orchestras. Nor should it be forgotten that those who returned were often in terrible physical and psychological condition, without means of survival, sometimes even without a roof over their heads. In general, they had lost all their possessions in the chain of events, which, for many musicians, meant that they had also been deprived of their instruments. Moreover, insurance premiums hadn't been paid in years. No one — state or city, insurance company or orchestra - accepted financial responsibility for the losses that had been incurred as a result of the wartime situation.

In other words, although these musicians were still alive, many of them were ill and impoverished. As early as the summer of 1945, the board of the Concertgebouw Orchestra discussed what the official date of re-hiring of the returning musicians (and those expected to return) should be: should it be the day on which they would actually reappear at their desks, or should the organization perhaps adhere to a more symbolic date? After ample consideration, the second option was chosen: all musicians fired during the occupation were officially re-hired as of May 8, 1945, three days after the capitulation of the German forces in Holland and the actual day of the Third Reich's official collapse.

Another difficult matter was the question of compensation for missed wages. It took years, and in some cases decades, before this complex matter could be settled to the reasonable satisfaction of all parties concerned. Closely related to this issue was the matter of pre-paid pension claims. Two and a half years after the liberation of Holland, none of the Jewish musicians had been given any compensation payments whatsoever. Confronted with this situation, the board of the Concertgebouw Orchestra established a fund in which they deposited a quarter of the monies owed. Not until halfway through 1949, however, was an official settlement reached. In the end, the wages due were paid out over four to five years. The total amount paid in compensation was first reduced by the amounts earned in the Jewish Symphony Orchestra.

Violinist Sam Swaap (1889-1971) also belonged to the Theresienstadt Group. He had made his debut as a soloist with the Concertgebouw Orchestra at the age of sixteen, and he had entered the ensemble's first violin section in 1909, remaining there until 1913. In 1914 he was named concertmaster of the orchestra of The Hague. Like other Jewish musicians, he was fired in 1941 and subsequently joined the Jewish Symphony Orchestra. In 1944 he was deported via Westerbork to Theresienstadt, and finally returned via Switzerland to The Hague and regained his former position. A single letter from him in Switzerland was sufficient for him to be re-engaged. "Of course you can regain your former position of first concertmaster the moment you arrive," responded the orchestra's board. By the time Swaap's contract for compensation was finally signed, he had retired.

It is evident that both during and after the war, the musicians of the Concertgebouw Orchestra were better off than their colleagues in The Hague, and far better off than those in other parts of Holland. The fact that fourteen of the twenty-nine surviving Jewish orchestra musicians were members of the Concertgebouw Orchestra can be explained by the great prestige that the orchestra and its conductor, Mengelberg, enjoyed with the Nazis, augmented by the great efforts made by the board time and time again to obtain privileged positions for those musicians who had been sent to the concentration camps.

The Amsterdam orchestra led not only in musical quality and international reputation, but also in setting the standards for post-war financial compensation for Jewish musicians. Nevertheless, it took years—too many years for those involved—before Amsterdam's settlements were completed, and in the end the settlements were largely symbolic.

Prof.dr. Emile Wennekes is chair professor of Post-1800 Music History and former Head of School, Media and Culture Studies at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. He has published on diverse subjects including Amsterdam's Crystal Palace, Bernard Haitink, Bach and Mahler reception, and contemporary music in the Netherlands; some books are available in translation (six European languages and Chinese). Wennekes previously worked as a journalist for leading Dutch dailies and was artistic advisor and orchestral programmer before intensifying his academic career.  His current research focuses on the remigration of musicians after WW II, as well as on the topic of Mediatizing Music. He chairs the Study Group Music and Media (MaM) under the auspices of the International Musicological Society. See for details:

Article published May 12, 2012

  • 1 This contribution is part of a larger article that will be published in the upcoming yearbook ExilArte. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes refer to unpublished archival material in the Amsterdam City Archive and the Nederlands Muziek Instituut, The Hague. Translations are made by the author. For details: see ExilArte. The article is a collage of papers presented at conferences in Wolfenbüttel, London and San Francisco. The author wishes to express his gratitude to Johan Giskes (Amsterdam City Archive), Frits Zwart (Nederlands Muziek Instituut) and Cynthia Wilson (wwclassics) for their collaboration and support.

  • 2. Maren Köster,. 'Musik-Remigration nach 1945. Kontuoren eines neuen Forschungsfelds', Mann kehrt nie zurück, man geht immer nur fort. Remigration und Musikkultur, ed. by Maren Köster & Dörte Schmidt. München: edition text + kritik, 2005), 20.

  • 3. Dörte Schmidt, 'Über die Voraussetzungen unserer Musikkultur. Die Aktualität der Remigration als Gegenstand der Musikgeschichtsschreibung', Mann kehrt nie zurück, man geht immer nur fort. Remigration und Musikkultur, ed. by Maren Köster & Dörte Schmidt. (München: edition text + kritik, 2005), 12.

  • 4. Micheels, Pauline. 'Het Nederlandse muziekleven tijdens de Duitse bezetting', Een muziekgeschiedenis der Nederlanden, ed. by Louis-Peter Grijp et alt. (Amsterdam, 2001), 636-643.

  • 5. Micheels, Pauline. Muziek in de schaduw van het derde Rijk. (Zutphen, 1993), 164.

  • 6. Heuwekemeijer, Piet. Van Rosa Spier tot Rosa Spier Huis. Vijftig jaar symfonieorkest. De autobiografie van Piet Heuwekemeijer. (Amsterdam 2000), 46.

  • 7. See Rijpstra-Verbeek, Mimi. Harpe diem. Phia Berghout's Arpeggio. ('s-Gravenhage/Rotterdam, 1974),  41-42.

  • 8. De Leur, Truus. Eduard van Beinum 1900-1959. Musicus tussen musici. Een biografie. (Bussum/Amsterdam 2004), 179.

  • 9. Waar bemoei je je mee? 75 Jaar belangenstrijd van de Vereniging 'Het Concertgebouworchest', ed. by Johan Giskes et alt. (Zutphen, 1991), 85.

  • 10. Heuwekemeijer, Van Rosa Spier tot Rosa Spier Huis, 46-47; 58-59.
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