“Vom Jüdischen Schicksal” – The Jewish Cultural League, or Der Kulturbund

performance at Kulturbund

Performance of Stefan Zweig’s “Jeremias” at Berlin’s Kulturbund, 1934, directed by Fritz Jessner with music by Arno Nadel

(Richard Fuchs’ “Vom Jüdischen Schicksal”, written for the Kulturbund. World Premiere in Wellington New Zealand, 2014: Jenny Wollerman, Christian Thurston, Cantoris Choir, NZSM Orchestra, Donald Maurice – conductor)

One of the most unsettling chapters of cultural history must surely be the one regarding the creation of the Jewish Cultural League, or the Kulturbund, as it colloquially came to be known. Originally called by its Jewish founders the Kulturbund deutscher Juden, (“Cultrual League for German Jews”) Nazi officials insisted it be called Kulturbund der Juden in Deutschland, (“Cultural league for Jews in Germany), the concept of “German” and “Jew” a contradiction in Nazi ideology. The unsettling aspect of this chapter comes from viewing it through the lens of the Holocaust. At the time, the Kulturbund was seen as lifeline for German Jews unwilling or unable to uproot themselves and leave their native country. It also represented something of a financial windfall for the Nazi central government unwilling to pay unemployment  to Jews, who through Nazi policies had lost jobs.


Kuturbund membership card

The story of the Kulturbund offers an expanse of ethical dilemmas when viewed in retrospect. Jewish performers were the unexpected collateral damage of Hitler’s 1933 “Revolution”. Removing Jews from cultural life as an act of “national renewal”, was something that sounded good when bellowed at the crowds; it was less easy to put into practice. Removing Jews from orchestras and opera ensembles would not relieve the misery of the 24,000 musicians out of work or the 50,000 whose earnings were barely at subsistence levels. But Jews offered up a simple lie that could usefully disguise the more complex truths of Germany’s precarious public finances: and in Germany, nearly everyone in the performing arts was paid from the public purse. With the enactment of the so-called “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” (Known in German as the Berufsbeamtengesetzt), musicians, writers, composers and actors who were on the public payroll were unemployed from April 1933. It needs to be recalled that the reasons the Nazis regarded Jewish success within Germany’s performing arts a danger, was because they saw Jews as a separate “race”, and therefore lacking any conceivable entitlement within German society. Jews, however, had been part of German life for millennia; quite a number of them had become so assimilated, they had no idea they were Jewish until forced by Nazi decree into carrying out genealogical research.


Early actions to boycott Jewish businesses and exclude Jews from German society

The Nazi threat had already galvanised various Jewish charities, unsure of how to respond to events. There were Zionist charities and non-Zionist charities, which until April 1933 had little to do with one another. Their views as to how to address events following Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor were quite different. The Nazis threw both sets of charities together into a single organisation initially called “Aid and Development”, which by June had been redubbed “The Central Office for Jewish Economic Aid”. Regional chapters were bundled into a Reich’s “Representation of Jews in Germany” in September 1933. It’s also worth noticing the awkward formulation of “Jews in Germany” rather than “German Jews”. To the Nazis, this was an unacceptable concept. These many organisational mutations were intended to give the outside impression that Jews, following Hitler’s appointment, were excluding themselves from German society, by setting up organisations that allowed them to appeal for emigration sponsorship.

Reichsvertretung deutscher Juden

Letterhead of Reich’s Representation of Jews in Germany

(Frank Pollak’s Maccabi March, performed by Orchestra: Čsl.peší pluk 5, Prague 1933)

It was in this confusing context that the idea of a Cultural League appears to have occurred to a number of people at the same time. First off the mark was a twenty-six year-old director named Kurt Baumann and his cousin, the critic and journalist Julius Bab (1880-1955) who contacted the conductors Michael Taube (1890-1972) and Joseph Rosenstock (1895-1985) along with the multi-talented Kurt Singer (1885-1944), a neurologist, violinist, conductor and indefatigable string-puller and fixer, who claimed to have had the same idea.

Kurt Baumann

Kurt Baumann 1907-1983

Kurt Baumann explained that with 175,000 Jews in Berlin, it would be possible to sustain commercially some sort of parallel cultural existence. He encountered resistance from some of the Zionist organisations who wanted plays to be in Hebrew or Yiddish, languages hardly any Berlin Jews spoke. They also wished to place the focus on eventual emigration. Nevertheless, the idea of creating anything that reminded Berlin Jews of the ghettos their forefathers had left behind generations ago was rejected out of hand. In 1933, Jews had yet to be barred from attending public concerts or performances, so the initial purpose of the Kulturbund appeared merely as a means of providing employment to out-of-work Jewish performers. The Zionist implication was that the Kulturbund was a stopgap until Jews could leave the country. To most Berlin Jews, however, it was viewed as something far more central. In these days when the idea of mass murder seemed inconceivable, German Jews decided that the Kulturbund offered Jews a dedicated platform of cultural excellence.

Kurt Singer und Joseph Rosenstock_Kulturbund Berlin_Jüdisches Museum Berlin

Kurt Singer violin; Joseph Rosenstock, piano

Kurt Singer, never one for taking a backseat, offers a slightly different spin on events: “Keeping outer politics at bay from our affairs and not mixing in the domestic affairs regarding Jewish policies. We nonetheless stand up more boldly than ever for our Jewish heritage and believe in drawing from that, all which is specifically Jewish in drama, music and various intellectual fields. [This] is our uppermost duty and must ultimately be our greatest gain! That we are living proof of what has been nurtured by German culture and its great masters does not need to be repeated to any German Jew. So, is this a compromise? Yes! But it is one that is made in the conviction that there is a will to join German Jewry’s diverse communities of ideas into a single unit!”


A membership drive for the Kulturbund

Writing later in the Zentral Vereins Zeitung, Singer explained: “In those days during which we Jews had to put up with work restrictions, the young director Kurt Baumann came to see me at the beginning of April with a plan for the foundation of a theatre and members’ organisation. I had already worked out a similar plan and passed both of them on to Rabbi Dr Baeck for his consideration. With his support I invited leading representa­tives of Jewish organisations for preliminary consultations. [. . .] One working committee drew up the statutes, while another prepared the organ­isational aspects for recruitment evenings and yet another took on the artistic planning. I presented official requests for permission to set up the ‘Cultural League of German Jews’ to various government offices. The deci­sion on the matter was handed over to the Prime Minister of the Ministry of Education and the Arts, under whom was placed the President of the Prussian Theatre Committee and the State Commissioner Hinkel, who conducted the negotiations in part in person and in part through his repre­sentatives. At the same time I continually kept police headquarters and the Ministry of Propaganda [. . .] informed of the progress of discussions”


Hans Hinkel, 1901-1960

The real advantage to Dr. Singer over Baumann was his general air of efficiency and seriousness that allowed him to establish a meaningful relationship with the Nazi command in the person of Hans Hinkel. With the Kulturbund also having the sciences thrown in, Hinkel saw himself in charge of a vast repository of intellectual talent, thus placing him in the unusual position of being principal protector as well as persecutor. Publically, he disparaged Jewish superiority in the arts and sciences and stated that as a result, “Germans were no longer masters in their own homes”.

Better shot of maccabaeus rehearsal

Rehearsal for a performance of Judas Maccabaeus (Handel) in May 1934 by the Kulturbund Deutscher Juden Orchestra, in the (Bernburger Straße) Berliner Philharmonie; conductor: Kurt Singer

Only a month following the mass sacking of all Jews in the performing arts, a precursor Kulturbund orchestra and chorus had in effect already been established in Berlin by the “Community of Jewish Musicians”. A programme of symbolic works from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, along with other works by Schubert and Hayden was conducted by Kurt Singer on May 22nd. By June, the petition to have the league officially recognised and supported was put to Hinkel by Singer, though Martin Buber denounced the development as “merely a ghetto that calls itself a ‘league’”. Singer’s view that the ghettoization of Jewish performers would simply underline the wilful amputation carried out by Nazis of their own culture, and indeed, initially concerts with works by Mendelssohn, Offenbach and Mahler were only to be heard in performances by the Kulturbund Orchestra, along with non-embargoed Austria composers such as the afore mentioned Schubert, Haydn and in November, even a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovani.


Nathan the Wise from October 1. 1933

Lessing’s play Nathan the Wise was unsurprisingly the first theatre production, taking place in October 1933, directed by Karl Loewenberg with among others, Käthe Foerder, Lilly Kann, Jenny Schaffer; Fred Alexander, Martin Brandt, Klaus Brill, Max Koninski, Fritz Lion.The Kulturbund also extended its remit to Jewish carpenters for stage sets, tailors for costumes, printers for programmes, ushers and front-house management, not to mention journalists and scholars involved in press and publicity. It was not long before Nazis authorities realised that access to such events had to be restricted to Jews and imposed a rather complex membership system that allowed subscriptions of mixed programmes with photo-IDs and limited to Jews only.

Mitgliedsausweis des KBes

A photo membership card for the Kulturbund

This was of course according to the Nazi definition of “Jew” and not according to traditional Jewish criteria. To religious Jews or Zionists, converts or anyone who had chosen to leave the “Israel Cultural Community”, or had a non-Jewish mother was not a Jew. To the Nazis, and from 1935 with the Nuremberg laws, degrees of “Jewishness” were determined by the number of “racially” Jewish grandparents one had. With the convention of baptised former Jews (or those who simply labelled themselves as “without religious confession”) inter-marrying, it was possible to discover that despite not having set foot in a synagogue for two or even three generations, one was still “racially” a Jew, or of “mixed-race” according to Nazi race laws. As a result, the Kulturbund found itself with both performers and public coming from the widest possible distribution, consisting of people who had never even been to a synagogue or attended a Bar Mitzvah to Zionists, Zionist-Socialists, the traditionally observant along with the ultra-Orthodox. Only continued Nazi isolation and ghettoization managed to keep such a disparate coalition of interests together.

Kulturbund madrigal Choir

Kulturbund Madrigal Choir

(The Madrigal Choir with Fritz Lechner Baritone solo perform Franz Schubert’s setting of the 92 Psalm in Schubert’s original Hebrew setting, Berlin 1935)

A remarkable collection of audio, film and documentation has been put together by Bear Family publishing called Beyond Recall, consists of 12 CDs including video material and an enormous book with bilingual documentation and first-hand accounts. What is offered here is only the merest taster of what they have compiled in both sound and image.  In addition, however, I’ve used the catalogue from Berlin’s Akademie der Künste exhibition on the Kulturbund called Geschlossene Vorstellung – which carries the double meaning of Closed Performance and Closed Imagination. Another source has been E. Geisel and H.M.Broder’s Premiere und Pogrom, which presumably does not require translation. All of these references carry programmes and dates as well as venues and the chronology of the Kulturbund’s tragic decline and closure.

Marion Koegel

Marion Koegel 1909-2000

(“A jiddische Mamme” sung by Marion Koegel)

The Kulturbund would eventually open chapters across Germany, though it initially opened in Berlin with its focus on the state of Prussia, the largest and most powerful region in Germany. An honorary committee was assembled for the Kulturbund which consisted of Leo Baeck, Martin Buber, Leonid Kreutzer, Max Liebermann and Jakob Wassermann. Together, they represented the cream of German, Jewish intellectual and cultural authority. In Berlin, however, the Kulturbund succeeded in offering fulltime gainful employment to only a handful of out-of-work Jewish performers. From 2000 applications, only 200 were chosen and from these were formed an orchestra, a chorus, dancers, technical staff, house staff and management. This meant that other initiatives were also springing up. In 1934, Berthold Goldschmidt formed an orchestra of unemployed musicians, while other initiatives, such as a touring opera, also took place independently of the Kulturbund.

Frankfurt Kulturbund

Programme for the Frankfurt Kulturbund with the premiere of Ernst Toch’s “Symphony for Piano and Orchestra” (Concerto no. 2)


(Modern recording of Toch’s Symphony for Piano and Orchestra: 4th Mov. with pianist Diane Andersen, Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Halle, Hans Rotman – conductor)

The Kulturbund procured the use of the Berliner Theater in Charlotte Street with a lease from the local council. The opening season proved to be a considerable success, financed purely by the subscriptions of 12,000 members out of Berlin’s 180,000 Jewish citizens, (160,000 who were members of Berlin’s Jewish Community, with the remaining 20,000 consisting of “Jews” according to Nazi “race” laws.) By the winter of 1933, membership had grown to over 20,000.


Membership drive for the Kulturbund

What could and could not be performed would be a constant source of debate. What was considered “Jewish” and what was considered “German” was subjective and varied from individual to individual. Nazi musicologists spoke of “depth and profundity” in German music, though this was hardly an aspect that was missing from any number of works by Jewish composers. Austrian composers appear to have remained acceptable until the Anschluss in 1938, despite the arguments that they were ethnically (or “racially”) German. Even Beethoven was not barred from performance until 1937. Handel counted as English and Gluck as Italian to Nazi authorities. This at least allowed the performance of Handel’s many Old Testament oratorios.

JKConcertPruver1 oranienburgerstr

Julius Prüwer conducts the Kulturbund Orchestra at the Oranienburg Synagogue

(Early recording of the Kulturbund Orchestral performing 2 movements of Mozart’s Serenade in D Major with Joseph Rosenstock condcuting)

The Karlsruhe based composer and architect Richard Fuchs offers an example of such ambiguities. Like most German Jews, he violently objected to his exclusion from German culture on the spurious basis of “race”. He was convinced that Nazis were unworthy and indeed, incapable of removing his entitlement to German as language, musical tradition or literature. He was joined by the poet Karl Wolfskehl in the composition of a large oratorio entitled Vom jüdischen Schicksal – Of Jewish Destiny. For reasons never given, the work was proscribed by Hans Hinkel himself as being “inappropriate” for the Kulturbund. Coincidentally, both Fuchs and Wolfskehl would end up in New Zealand and it was due to the efforts of the Conservatory in Wellington that a performance – its premiere – took place in 2014.


Richard Fuchs, 1887-1947

Listening to this deeply moving work from 1937, written in an unashamedly late-Romantic idiom, the track of which is at the top of this article, one can only conclude that Hinkel’s objections arose from Fuchs and Wolfskehl flagrantly co-opting the greatest traditions of German music as represented by Schumann and Brahms. But no reasons were given, and only speculation can surround whether text or music were deemed unacceptable for a Kulturbund performance.


The Kulturbund spread throughout Germany into some twenty-seven outposts, and in 1935, its organisation was centralised in Berlin under Hans Hinkel with Kurt Singer the intermediary. Nevertheless, 1935 was also the year when the second wave of mass emigration was to take place. It was now clear to even the most optimistic, that the co-existence of Jews and non-Jews in Nazi Germany was resulting in the ghettoization of Jews with interaction with non-Jews reduced to near zero. Petty laws and regulations had Jews out of sight, and once they were out of sight, they were also out of mind to the rest of the German population.

Kommandantenstrasse Theater

The refurbished theatre in the Kommandanten Straße

To make matters more disturbing, the lease on the Berliner Theater had run out, despite the huge investment made in its renovation. The Kulturbund was barred from other venues and eventually took up quarters in Berlin’s former Yiddish Theater, the Herrnfeld Theater in the Kommandanten Straße. In 1937, in order to accommodate the approximate fifty performances a month in Berlin, the Kulturbund extended its existing facility with an additional 700 seat theatre for recitals and chamber performances.

Passfoto Joseph Schmidt

The passport for the star tenor Joseph Schmidt 1904-1942

(Joseph Schmidt sings “Recha, als Gott dich einst zur Tochter” from Halevy’s “Die Jüdin” (“La Juive”))

With international attention turned to Berlin for the 1936 Olympics, Hinkel even used the Kulturbund as a propaganda tool, announcing the high standards of productions and nightly sold-out performances. It was a short-lived hiatus from persecution and by September, Hinkel had started issuing new threats regarding programming and content. All the while, emigration meant ever fewer subscribers and more alarming for Singer, it meant the departure of key soloists. Perhaps one of the greatest avoidable tragedies was Singer travelling abroad in an attempt to persuade actors, writers and musicians to return so certain performances could take place. Tragically, Singer himself was captured when even he had registered the murderous nature of the Nazi regime and had fled Germany for first the United States before returning to Amsterdam. He was deported to Theresienstadt where he died in 1944, aged 59.

Willy Rosen

Willy Rosen 1894-1944

(Willy Rosen sings “Dort in Hawai” – about the wonders of Honolulu – he was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944)

With the annexation of Austria and absorption of Czechoslovakia in 1938, Germany now found itself with an increased Jewish population and adopted ever more draconian measures to enforce emigration, including the barring of Jewish doctors and lawyers from practicing their professions. These along with countless petty regulations and the constant raids that resulted in arbitrary deportations to concentration camps were meant to persuade Jews to leave. Inevitably, the advantages offered to Jews by the Kulturbund would also come into the crosshairs of Nazi policy-makers. Yet Nazi policies were themselves the greatest inhibition to Jewish emigration. Extortionate emigration taxes would keep many from leaving, and even an attempt to relocate the entire Kulturbund to Palestine was thwarted by the Nazis refusing to allow the export of material and musical instruments.

Ruins of Berlin's principal synagogue

The ruins of Berlin’s principal synagogue

(“Kaddisch” an anti-war setting sung by Marion Koegel with the Chamber Orchestra of her husband, Werner Seelig-Baß)

The murder of a German diplomat in Paris by a stateless, Polish student led to the Pogrom of November 9th, lasting for two days during which countless synagogues and Jewish owned businesses were torched, homes broken into, innocent people murdered or deported and hundreds committing suicide. Following the devastation, the Jewish communities themselves were held responsible for the “reasonable wrath” of Germans and made to pay for the repair. Incredibly, however, the SS had spared the Kulturbund Kommandanten Street Theatre from destruction during the so-called Reichskristallnacht. Hinkel’s intention was to show the outside world that the pogrom was not as bad as the media had made out. Performances at the theatre would have proved useful propaganda. Nevertheless, on November 12th, Jews were prohibited from participating in German economic life, meaning small shops and businesses were closed or “aryanised”.


Rudolf Schwarz, who took over the Kulturbund Orchestra from 1938

(The final part of Karol Rathaus’s “Hebrew Dance” composed for the Habima performances of “Uriel Acosta” performed by the Kulturbund Orchestra under Joseph Rosenstock)

By the end of 1938, the Reich Association of Cultural Leagues was disbanded, leaving only the original Berlin Kulturbund in operation. Singer had left Germany leaving Werner Levie in charge, with Fritz Wisten head of theatre productions and Rudolf Schwarz, a pupil of Hans Gál, in charge of music.

The Executive Committee of the Jüdische Kulturbund (Jewish Cultural League) meets in July 1939.

The Executive Committee of the Jüdische Kulturbund (Jewish Cultural League) meets in July 1939.
Among those present were the director, Fritz Wisten (extreme left), conductor Rudolf Schwarz (third from right), and Werner Levie, a former journalist for the Ullstein papers (far right)

In 1939, Hitler went public with his suggestions that removal of Jews would involve mass murder. With the outbreak of war, Levie fled to Holland, leaving Martin Brasch from Berlin’s Jewish Community in charge. Incredibly, he managed with Wisten to put together a programme of films and small concerts for the season of 1939/1940. Significantly, its programme for the season 1940/41 included Mahler’s Resurection Symphony performed in Feburary. The final concert was on the 15th of May consisting of Mendelssohn’s music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sibelius and the ever popular “Polka and Fugue” from Jaromir Weinberger’s Schwanda the Bagpiper. With ever increasing repressive measures, the attack on the Soviet Union and the requirement of Jews to wear Yellow Stars, the Kulturbund was officially dissolved on September 11th, 1941.  Its remaining employees were arrested and its property “aryanised”. The final production of the Kulturbund was Molnár’s Spiel im Schloß – The Play’s the Thing performed on August 9th.

Aus der Arbeit des Kulturbundes

(Joseph Schmidt sings Tosti’s “Vorrei morire”)

Recordings of artists who were associated with the Kulturbund were down to the last two labels held in Jewish ownership. One was the “Semer” label owned by the Orthodox Hirsch Lewin from Eastern Europe and the other was “Lukraphon”, owned by Moritz Lewin (not related to Hirsch). Semer recorded mostly cantorial, Yiddish and distinctively Jewish repertoire, whereas Lukraphon recorded popular music until circumstances meant a change, leading it to becoming the house label of the Kulturbund. Two further labels based in Tel Aviv added to the stock of Kulturbund recordings, one named “Bema” and the other “Achva”. Another cultural feature was film-making, commissioned by the umbrella association of Cultural Leagues, with the best known being Shir Ivri – Hebrew Melody


(“Techesaknah” sung by Cantor Israel Bakon)

Kantor Israel Bakon

Israel Bakon 1910-1943

(“Hakkipod” sung by Channa Kipnis)

Channa Kipnis

Chana Kipnis 1908-1995

Memories of the Kulturbund are many and varied and found in Premiere und Pogrom. Documentation and programmes from 1938 to 1941 are found in Geschlossene Vorstellung. In both publications, not to mention Vorbei – Beyond Recall, there is such copious photographic documentation that it surprises that the Kulturbund has been relegated to a virtual footnote. Yet in my first encounter with music and politics during the III Reich in Fred Priberg’s ground-breaking Musik im NS Staat, the Kulturbund is the subject of the opening chapter. I recall reading it nearly 30 years ago with mounting disbelief.

(“Hatikvah” sung by Leo Stein)

Leo Stein

Leo Stein 1908 – ?