Home > Uncategorized > A New Song in Berlin (by Judy Campbell)

A New Song in Berlin (by Judy Campbell)

P1020105Judy and her husband Mark were guests of the Zamir Chorale of Boston at the Lewandowski Festival — from Australia! We were honored to have Judy and Mark in the ranks of our choir during our tour.

* * *

Berlin …. A wonderful city for Jews. Who would have thought?

Attending the rededication of the magnificent Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue, reopening after restoration to its state prior to Kristallnacht, one could not fail to be moved. The interior was destroyed in November 1938, though the building remained standing. It reopened in 1947 as best it could and continued thus, until the recent restoration to its former glory. The synagogue is home to a liberal community that is an interesting mixture of traditions. Male and female seating is separate, there is a grand organ used throughout the service, and prayer is supported by a cantor and first rate mixed choir. The revered German Jewish composer, Louis Lewandowski, composed most of the musical settings used in services here.

The rededication event included the official opening of the 2014 Louis Lewandowski Festival. The inaugural festival took place three years ago and it is now presented each December in Berlin. It is a prestigious international choral festival, with just 6 Jewish choirs being invited to Berlin to participate in 2014. This festival saw two choirs from Israel and one each from Rome, Strasbourg, London and Boston. As director of the Australian Jewish Choral Festival, I was honoured to be invited, with my husband Mark Ginsburg, by conductor Professor Joshua Jacobson to sing with the Boston Zamir Chorale at the festival.

The festival and the synagogue have obvious shared interests, resulting in close ties and the natural combining of the festival opening ceremony with the moving rededication of the synagogue. The Lewandowski Festival was thrilling – the concerts, the enthusiastic audiences, the channelling of composers no longer with us, the knowledge that we were helping to revive Jewish life in Germany based on the great cultural achievements of 19th century masters and 20th century greats from the Weimar period. The 2014 festival had an interesting focus: German Jewish composers who fled Nazi Germany and subsequently became famous in the United States. These included Kurt Weill, Heinrich Schallit, Arnold Schoenberg, Stephan Wolpe, Herbert Fromm, Hugo Adler, Samuel Adler and others.

Some of these composers were closely connected to the legacy of Lewandowski and continued to model their work on his choral style; others, however, consciously sought to depart from it, finding new musical expressions in synagogue music that catered to the tastes of American Jewish culture. The participating choirs performed music composed by many of these illustrious gentlemen, including several items in German.

At the festival, Joshua Jacobson delivered a fantastic lecture about some of these composers, their tumultuous experiences in Germany in the 1930’s and their flight to America.

We had the honour of the presence at the festival of Professor Samuel Adler himself, age 87, though you’d never think it. He delivered a fascinating lecture about his life, his famous father, Cantor Hugo Chaim Adler, and their harrowing escape from Germany in 1938. His long and impressive career in America included extensive composition of Jewish music and teaching composition at revered institutions such as the Eastman School of Music and Julliard. Mark and I had the unexpected pleasure of sharing a table one day at breakfast with Professor Adler and his wife, Dr Emily Freeman-Brown, Director of Orchestral Activities at Bowling Green State University, Ohio. Had I ever had any doubts as to the value of preserving the tradition of Jewish choral music, they would have been truly swept away by that lively and inspiring conversation over boiled eggs and hash browns.

Interestingly, the director of the Lewandowski Festival, Nils Busch-Petersen, is not Jewish. He is a Berliner, a businessman, philanthropist, and lover of Jewish choral music. He is also a man on a mission to build bridges and honour the Jewish community. He rallies the support of a staggering array of German organisations and individuals to support the festival, under the auspices of Klaus Wowereit, Governing Mayor of Berlin.  Festival events and concerts take place at stunning venues, from St Lukas Church to the gorgeous Rykestrasse Synagogue, where we performed to an appreciative audience of over a thousand people from the Jewish and wider community.

We were warmed and delighted by the way in which the Boston Zamir Chorale welcomed us into their choral family for the festival performances, where I must say that this choir stood out as one of very high quality.

Equally delightful, and a surprise to us, was the way in which we saw Jewish life and culture welcomed and acknowledged in Berlin. This took several forms, starting with the festival itself, from the incredible warmth of Nils and his team to the chanukiah lit in the hotel foyer each night. In the city in general too, there were amazing things to be seen. Immediately in front of the Brandenburg Gate, near the huge Christmas tree, was an even huger chanukiah. We were there at sunset (about 3:30pm!) the day after the festival ended and heard Voices of Israel, one of the Israeli choirs at the festival, singing Chanukah blessings and songs. We saw a pamphlet for the Maccabi Games to be held in Germany in 2015. We saw what are called “stumbling blocks” on the pavements of the city, including one right next to our hotel. These are small, brass tiles set into the pavers, but slightly raised so that one literally almost stumbles over them. They commemorate the Jews who lived in homes in these locations and were either caused to flee, or were evicted by force and murdered by the Nazis.

We visited the Jewish Museum, which outlined the history of Jewish life in Berlin. It was good, as one would expect. In another museum, however, “The Story of Berlin”, starting in the 1200’s, there were surprises. An entire room on religious history contained an excellent presentation of the histories of Christian, Jewish and Muslim history in Berlin. The museum did not focus particularly on the Holocaust, but did not shy away from it either.

We met B’naya, a young Israeli composer and his wife Atalia, an aspiring opera singer. They feel there is vast opportunity for them in Germany and love their new life in Berlin. There are differing opinions, but the number of Israelis now living in Germany is estimated to be as high as 20,000. Most are landing in Berlin, the former Nazi capital that is fast emerging as a beacon for young Jews. Nir Ivenizki, a 32-year-old Israeli who recently opened a café-record store in the exceedingly hip Berlin neighbourhood of Neukölln, spoke to the Washington Post, saying “You cannot forget the past, but I’m interested in the present and the future. Germany is now one of the most socially accepting countries in the world”.

There is a new English language quarterly newspaper, called “Jewish Voice from Germany”. Established in January 2012, it contains a range of articles similar to items you might find in the Australian Jewish News. The issue I read also contained an article highly critical of the Holocaust claims process in Germany.  From the website, a statement of their mission: “The Jewish Voice from Germany is intended as a bridge; it will connect Jews with Gentiles, Germany with the world. We want to communicate the long history that Jews and Germans share with each other. Our paper intends to make the dream of a new togetherness a reality. And we will keep an eye on the Diaspora and Israel. We invite all of good will to contribute to that goal.”

Our experience in Berlin was a real surprise amid the stream of gloomy news about rising anti-Semitism around Europe. In Germany we felt safe, respected and warmly welcomed as Jews. How ironic. The terrible past is of course unchangeable. But it seems that in Germany, two generations down the track, there are a great many who value the part played by Jews in German society, and are actively demonstrating this in public arenas. A final word on the subject came from Professor Samuel Adler, German Jewish refugee, who, over his boiled eggs, told us that he believes there is nothing to be gained by holding on to vengeful feelings, while there is much to be gained by opening the door to the efforts being made in Germany today.

Mark and I will always be grateful to Joshua Jacobson for his invitation and the opportunity to sing with the Zamir Chorale of Boston at this fantastic event. It was fascinating to sing with, and hear Jewish choirs from other parts of the world, and experience a taste of renewed Jewish life in Berlin.

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