CSUB presents “‘Jewish Music’ in Nazi Germany”

Lily E. Hirsch

In June 1933, just months after Adolf Hitler’s rise to sole dictatorship over Germany, the Jewish Culture League formed in Berlin. While the Nazis worked to establish a New Order and eliminate Jews from Europe, this organization had a surprising role: to encourage Jews to participate in the performance of Jewish music, either as musicians or audience members.

This irony struck Dr. Lily E. Hirsch, a musicologist who first learned about the Jewish Culture League as a graduate student at Duke University.

“How was this possible? Why would the Nazis support Jews in this way when one of their primary goals was to eradicate them first from Germany’s musical life and then from Germany as a whole?” Hirsch asked herself. “These questions dovetailed with my existing interests in the roles music plays in politics – racial, national and religious.”

After much research into the subject, including a fellowship from the German government and Leo Baeck Institute, Hirsch wrote the recently published book “A Jewish Orchestra in Nazi Germany: Musical Politics and the Berlin Jewish Culture League,” (University of Michigan Press, 2010) – the first scholarly book in English to investigate the organization and why the Nazis would promote Jewish music.

Hirsch will visit the campus of California State University, Bakersfield to give a free talk on the subject of “’Jewish Music’ in Nazi Germany” on Friday, Jan. 27.

“Dr. Lily Hirsch’s book is yet another illumination into the complications, subtleties, and contradictions of life for Jews in the Third Reich,” said Dr. Cliona Murphy, a history professor at CSUB. “Through her exhaustive study of the Jewish Orchestra, Dr. Hirsch provides fascinating and surprising insights into Jewish survival and identity in Hitler’s Germany. Dr. Hirsch’s talk should appeal to students and those in the Bakersfield community who are interested in music, Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust.”

So why did the Nazis support the Jewish Culture League?

Hirsch offers a few theories. One, they could use it as an example to the international community that Jews were not being mistreated. Secondly, the cultural outlet and source of income for Jews would help quell social unrest.

“And, finally, the creation of the League could help the Nazis ensure the end of perceived Jewish appropriation and thus pollution of German culture,” Hirsch said. “To this end, (the Nazis) would censor within the League music by composers of German origin and generally encourage the performance of accepted Jewish music.”

Hirsch’s talk will offer insight into the Jewish organization, which she says, “was, for many, a place of both salvation and damnation.”

“It is important to accept the complexity of the League’s functioning during the Third Reich,” she said. “This organization was not good or bad. It played different roles in the lives of different people and black or white judgments only hinder our understanding of this history.”

“’Jewish Music’ in Nazi Germany” is presented by the CSUB History Department as part of his History Forum series. Hirsch’s talk will be at 3:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 27, inside the Albertson Room, adjacent to the Doré Theatre. Parking is $5. For more information, call the CSUB History Department at 661-654-3079.

— Jennifer Burger, CSUB Public Affairs Coordinator