Forced into exile
Solo timpanist Benedikt Leithner’s symphony concert reflects on three Jewish conductors from the Städtische Oper who were driven into exile by the National Socialists
It all started during a holiday to France a few years ago. My first evening there, I met a French woman who told me that her Jewish grandparents from Austria had been murdered by the Nazis, and that her father grew up in hiding as an orphan on a French farm. Her family’s history captivated me, and so I started researching after I got back home. I was astonished at how much you can learn if you simply know the victims’ names and look them up online, for example in the Bundesarchiv guestbook or in the Yad Vashem Shoah Names Database.
Later, when I was in the warm-up room at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and saw the board with all the orchestra musicians and the dates when the joined and left the opera, I noticed that some had “left” the orchestra in 1933 or shortly thereafter, even though many of them hadn’t been with the orchestra very long before their departure. One of the first names I remember seeing was Ernst Silberstein: It’s not hard to imagine why someone like him wasn’t allowed to work at the theatre anymore once it was under the supervision of the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, and thus Joseph Goebbels. I was astounded at how much I was able to learn about Silberstein and his life, because there are still a lot of written documents from the National Socialist period: personnel files with applications, employment contracts, sick notes. Silberstein had been a solo cellist at the Charlottenburger Oper since 1923 and was a member of the renowned Klingler String Quartet. He was immediately let go in 1933, and he was not supposed to play with the quartet any longer. Karl Klingler had tried to prevent this by writing to Adolf Hitler himself, but without success. Solidarity like this was, unfortunately, the exception to the rule. After the National Socialists took power, the entire opera management under Director Carl Ebert was let go and replaced with loyal functionaries. The Deutsche Oper Berlin had become a place of denunciation.
Even the personnel files tell exciting and moving stories, and I had the idea of sharing them with the public as part of the concert series “Wider das Vergessen”, or “Lest We Forget”. During our symphony concert at the end of the “Tage des Exils” (“Days of Exile”) series, we will explore the lives of Jewish conductors Fritz Stiedry, Kurt Sanderling, and Paul Breisach.
We will also play music associated with these three men: Stiedry was a frequent collaborator of Arnold Schönberg, Breisach studied under Franz Schrecker, and Sanderling was a close friend of Dmitri Shostakovich until his death. Between each set, Margarita Broich will read from personal documents written by these musicians.
All three enjoyed glowing careers after their deportation. Others, like Max Rosenthal, had a much more tragic fate. The second violinist was deported to Minsk with his wife and ten-year-old daughter on 14 November 1941. I learned from the journal of another deportee that he played the violin on the train. We will commemorate him and the many other victims with a parallel exhibit in the foyer of the Deutsche Oper Berlin.
Conductors Paul Breisach (top right), Kurt Sanderling (top left), and Fritz Stiedry (centre) lost their positions at the Charlottenburger Oper in 1933. Sanderling emigrated to Moscow in 1936 and later became chief conductor at the East Berlin Symphony Orchestra. Stiedry fled to Leningrad in 1933. After four years as the chief conductor at the local philharmonic, he left the Soviet Union in 1937 and set off for New York, where his performances at the Met were a big success. Breisach initially stayed in Europe until he was able to flee to the USA via Budapest in 1939. He went on to work at major theatres in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. Cellist Silberstein was forced into retirement in 1933, but continued to hold performances as a member of the renowned Klingler Quartet (bottom right). He emigrated to the USA in 1936 and later performed as first solo cellist at the Met in New York.