Tran­scend­ing Dystopia: Music, Mobil­i­ty, and the Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty in Ger­many, 1945 – 1989

  • Review
By – July 19, 2021

The uni­ver­sal lan­guage of music unites human­i­ty. Yet, in the book, Tran­scend­ing Dystopia, the read­er con­fronts a dif­fi­cult real­i­ty: music can also be polit­i­cal. By exam­in­ing the musi­cal world of Holo­caust sur­vivors in Ger­many, Tina Frühauf has found an orig­i­nal way to look at Jew­ish life in Europe after the war. She views this his­to­ry through the frame­work of dystopia, the post­war con­di­tion of Jews in Germany.

It com­pli­cates our under­stand­ing of that time peri­od to learn that some Ger­man Jews longed for a renew­al of the days of the Weimar Repub­lic, when life was close to ide­al for them. Among the native” sur­vivors, there were those who were deter­mined to rebuild their Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties, and they were uncom­fort­able with the pres­ence of Yid­dish-speak­ing Jews in the DP camps. The con­trasts over lan­guages, rites, and instru­men­ta­tion in ser­vices and con­certs expressed the com­plex­i­ties of post­war Jew­ish life in Europe.

Frühauf’s work is an ide­al vehi­cle for exam­in­ing the minute region­al dif­fer­ences in Jew­ish music. The Jew­ish sur­vivors in Ger­many bemoaned the destruc­tion of their syn­a­gogue organs, a crit­i­cal com­po­nent of their musi­cal ser­vices. In many cas­es they used har­mo­ni­ums, an unknown instru­ment to most Amer­i­cans. Some con­gre­ga­tions want­ed a Ger­man-speak­ing can­tor, some accept­ed the pres­ence of Yid­dish, and some wel­comed can­tors from Israel, both native-born and those return­ing to Ger­many after the war.

Frühauf breaks down the phe­nom­e­non of Jew­ish music in post­war Ger­many by peri­od, by loca­tion — the four zones of post­war occu­pa­tion, and then East and West Ger­many — and by cru­cial ele­ments such as lan­guage, instru­men­ta­tion, con­cert set­tings, medi­um, and audi­ence. For West Ger­many, she looks at the regen­er­a­tion of Jew­ish musi­cal life in terms of organs, can­tors, choirs, and com­mu­nal orga­ni­za­tions for Jew­ish cul­ture. In the Sovi­et zone there were no DP camps, and many Ger­man Jews who emi­grat­ed there did so out of com­mu­nist con­vic­tion. Musi­cal activ­i­ty in East Ger­many was overt­ly polit­i­cal, reflect­ing the ups and downs of Sovi­et atti­tudes toward Jews and reli­gion. The lack of sur­vivors and immi­grants led to the rise of lay lead­er­ship in musi­cal culture.

Frühauf’s research is com­pre­hen­sive, down to the lev­el of describ­ing indi­vid­ual con­certs with their per­form­ers, the pieces that were heard, the loca­tion, and the date. She includes details about radio broad­casts and news­pa­per reviews, career moves of indi­vid­ual can­tors and oth­er musi­cians, and the musi­cal fate of local con­gre­ga­tions. There is no oth­er book on this sub­ject, with or with­out this lev­el of detail. It’s an aston­ish­ing achieve­ment and an essen­tial addi­tion to the his­to­ry of Jew­ish music.

Beth Dwoskin is a retired librar­i­an with exper­tise in Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture and Jew­ish folk music.

Discussion Questions