On November 9th, 2017, as the Jewish communities around the world commemorated the 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht, Germany’s supergroup, The Semer Ensemble, paid tribute to the lost lives and art of the Jewish people persecuted by Hitler’s Nazis during the 1938 two-day pogrom.

Organized jointly by Artspace613, Concerts by the Canal, RideauStone Arts Centre, and the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, the event, which was hosted by Southminster United Church, was a rare occasion to see the Berlin-based ensemble perform in North America.

“I was called to do an interview last year with Myka Burke (Artspace613) from CHIN Radio Ottawa. After she finished interviewing me she said: ‘I like this (speaking of The Semer Ensemble); I’m going to find a way to bring the band to Ottawa,’” recalls New Jewish Music luminary Alan Bern. “Of the hundreds of interviewers who have said they would do that, only one actually did it—Myka Burke.”

Under Bern’s direction, the ensemble offered a superb interpretation of the incredibly diversified Jewish archival recording from the 1930s. The group’s repertoire is comprised of pre-Holocaust Jewish songs, including Berlin cabaret, Russian folk songs, Yiddish theatre hits, operatic arias, and cantorial music.

The Artistic Scene in the Third Reich

During the Weimar Republic era, Berlin Scheunenviertel (“Barn Quarter”) was the hub of a vibrant Jewish community.

“Following the Nazi rise to power in 1933, anti-semitism became the state doctrine,” says Dr. Rainer Lotz, a German economist, mechanical engineer, political lecturer, and amateur musicologist who spent ten years of his life chasing the relics of pre-Holocaust Jewish music around the world.

For post World War I Germany, the growing popularity of what was referred to as ‘degenerate music’ was yet another reminder of the ‘collapse of German society and values’, states the website dedicated to Music and the Holocaust, holocaustmusic.ort.org. Until then, German music had been “associated with heroism, love of nation, the drive toward creation, and rootedness in blood and soil.” Conversely, the ‘degenerate’ music was viewed as capitalistic, “imitative and superficial,” lacking in originality for the lack of its “own healthy nation and culture.”

The Jewish Cultural League

Because of their ‘foreignness’ and their perceived association with what holocaustmusic.ort.org refers to as ‘an undesirable and destructive modernity,’ Jews quickly became the primary target, even though they made up only a small percentage of German artistic society.

Under Hitler’s regime, Nazi supporters of the Kampfbund für Deutsche Kultur (Combat League for German Culture), an organization founded in 1929 by Alfred Rosenberg, began disrupting musical performances by Jewish artists.

“The Nazis had started forcibly retiring Jews and boycotting Jewish businesses,” says Dr. Lotz.

Nazi leaders were soon confronted with increasing unemployment amongst the Jewish artistic community, and so in June 1933, the Prussian Ministry of Education consented to the formation of the Jüdischer Kulturbund (Jewish Cultural League) as a ‘temporary solution’.

Out of the one million Jews living in Germany at the time, about 30 000 were artists who eventually joined the Kulturbund.

“The activities of the Jewish people went unnoticed by the majority of the population because they could only perform in closed venues,” explains Dr. Lotz. Tickets, he says, could only be bought in Jewish or Hebrew bookshops and could only be advertised in Jewish newspapers. “No non-Jews could attend those concerts, which of course were subject to censure and close watch by the Gestapo.”

Holocaustmusic.ort.org describes how, in September 1935, laws were passed to prohibit ‘half-Jews and those married to Jews from legally performing or composing music,’ worsening the situation further. Nonetheless, the anti-semitic policies did not lower the artistic temperature. According to Dr. Lotz, “against all odds, a very lively cultural life existed; and someone who survived all this later described it as madly beautiful.”

The Berlin Exhibition

In 1992, an exhibition on the Kulturbund to which Dr. Lotz contributed some artifacts was hosted in Berlin, Germany. The curators, he says, had documented the activities of the Kulturbund, but rumor had it they had been unable to verify whether its members had actually made recordings. Besides, none of the records had turned up. “That’s when I said to myself, well, there’s a challenge, and I should accept it,” recounts the professor.

For Dr. Lotz, recovering the lost Jewish records would prove to be quite the endeavour. Fortunately for him, he is well connected. “As a record collector, I am very active in the history of recorded and archived sounds—I have connections all around the world. In the cadre of my professional activities, I also happen to travel around the world two or three times a year.”

Semer Label: The Story

Using his wide network of contacts, Dr. Lotz enlisted the help of a biographer from the Netherlands and a record collector from Israel to track down the prized shellac ‘78s’ collection.

“When I started, I found out that there was indeed a record company, and the owner of that record company was a man named Lewin.” After identifying Lukraphon and Semer as the two main labels, Dr. Lotz started looking for the owner. “I discovered that there was not one, but two men with the same name,” he recalls.“One was Moritz Lewin, a Western Liberal and very assimilated businessman who conducted his business from the city centre; the other one was an Eastern Jew who had come to Berlin from Lithuania and he was orthodox and qualified as a rabbi.”

As it turns out, Moritz Lewin had started his company two years after the Nazi takeover in 1935, whereas the other man—Hirsch Lewin—got in the business before 1933. Both companies continued to operate during the period up to the Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass).

“These two entrepreneurs created a repertoire on their labels devoted exclusively to Jewish music and it ranged from modern composers to instrumental virtuosos to cabaret to chansons to Yiddish comedians to synagogue liturgy to cantorial chants – an amazing variety of music,” asserts Dr. Lotz.

Rescued Treasure

Eventually, Dr. Lotz was able to reconstruct the entire catalogues of both record companies. “My goal was to find the artifacts, digitize them using modern technology, put them on CDs, and write a book to contextualize the whole thing—the social, political, economic, where it all happened—and find images, photos, all sorts of illustrations,” he explains.

In 2002, after devoting ten years of his life to the project, Dr. Lotz says he “finally was ready to go to print, but had difficulty finding a label that would take this on.” That’s when he turned to a friend—the owner of The Bear Family music label—for help. “I had to tell him, ‘if you don’t do this, I won’t be your friend anymore’,” he recounts jestingly.

His friend’s specialty was country, Rasta music, and post-war German pop. “He’d never even heard of Jewish music but he did it,” recalls the professor, adding that the small family business almost went bankrupt over it.

The book, he says, was written in both German and English. “When I suggested to my friend that there should also be a Hebrew version, he kicked me out of his office!”

The final product was a large box set of 11 CDs and 1 DVD titled Vorbei: Beyond Recall. “It weighs about 5 kilograms. If you drop it on your foot you’ll need crutches,” Dr. Lotz quips. The treasured box set was officially presented to the Neue Synagogue on Oranienburger Straße, with the surviving owner attending the ceremony.

A Serendipitous Meeting

While he is certainly very proud about the work he’s done, Dr. Lotz didn’t give the project a thought again until last year, when he was invited to a panel at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. There, for the first time, he met Alan Bern “who has since become a good friend.”

In 2012, the Jewish Museum in Berlin commissioned Bern to create new interpretations of the archival recordings.

“Alan Bern has instilled new life into those old scratchy recordings,” says Dr. Lotz. “He did an amazing job of selecting some of the most beautiful, moving music and melodies, and transformed them into a modern 21st-century ideal. It’s still Jewish, it’s still full of klezmer (a musical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe); it’s still full of music, it’s… just listen to it!”

Semer Ensemble: Reviving Pre-Holocaust Jewish Music Lost During Kristallnacht

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