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.