Buchenwald violin played for first time since the Holocaust
Music written in concentration camps is being performed on a violin played by German writer and Holocaust survivor Bruno Apitz at the Buchenwald concentration camp. It marks the violin's first performance in 72 years.
The instrument, which is estimated to be at least 150 years old, is about to resonate this week for the first time since the Holocaust.
Matthias Wollong, first concertmaster with the Staatskapelle Dresden, will introduce the instrument Thursday evening in Erfurt as part of a "conversational concert," during which "there will be as much talking as music," he told DW.
"It's an exciting new experience to breathe life into history through sound and, above all, to tell this history that way as well. There isn't much knowledge about music in concentration camps. And this concert will hopefully contribute to telling more about this piece of forgotten history," Wollong explained ahead of the concert.
The concert, during which pieces of music written in concentration camps will be performed on Bruno Apitz's violin, is part of the Achava Festival, which highlights interreligious and intercultural dialogue between Israel and Germany.
Festival organizers said the inspiration for the concert came not from Apitz, but from the collection of Jewish Lithuanian violinist Moshe Weinstein, who fled to Israel in 1939. He became a violin maker and collected violins from Holocaust survivors, though no one wanted to play them after the war, since they'd been made in Germany.
Weinstein's son inherited his father's collection in the 1980s and took over his business. One day, write the festival organizers, a man walked into his shop with a violin that had been played in Auschwitz. He wanted to have it repaired before he gave it to his grandson. Interest in that era, it seemed, had been renewed.
The link back to present-day Germany is that Dresden-based bow maker Daniel Schmidt became familiar with the Weinstein collection during a stay at his workshop in Tel Aviv in the early 90s. It was Schmidt who put the finishing touches on the Buchenwald violin so that it could be played in concert.
Though Bruno Apitz wasn't Jewish, the organizers of the Achava Festival nevertheless wanted to emphasize his commitment to defending freedom in the face of oppression during the Third Reich.
"Bruno Apitz was as multifaceted as he was controversial. As a communist, he was a political prisoner, but political prisoners were often treated as trustworthy counterparts by the SS. And so he survived the camp," said Wollong.
"His name has since become synonymous with his autobiographic book, 'Naked Among Wolves,' and that book was mandatory reading at my school," continued Wollong, who grew up in communist East Germany. He added that Thursday's concert is less about Apitz and more about music at the concentration camp.
While Bruno Apitz managed to bring the harrowing ordeals he witnessed at Buchenwald to paper, other narratives have been largely forgotten, including the musical traditions that secretly flourished throughout Nazi Germany's concentration camps.
Helmke Jan Keden, a musicologist at Bergische University in Wuppertal says that, while there has been a great deal of academic inquiry into the subject, the broader public in Germany remains unaware of the significant role music played a in concentration camps.
"Our society associates music with incredibly positive things. It is extremely difficult for many people to even begin to associate music with concentration camps," Keden told DW.
"On the one hand, music helped those incarcerated in the camps to deal with their ordeals, while also trying to create some semblance of normalcy there," he continued. "On the other hand, music was also deliberately used as a form of torture, for instance whenever prisoners were forced to perform in front of German soldiers."
The transcendental power of music
Apitz once wrote that concentration camp prisoners were treated like "luxury slaves" when asked to perform music in front of Nazi soldiers, hinting at the conflicted relationship he had with the violin.
Apitz is said to have never picked up the instrument again after the Holocaust. His widow gave the violin to the Buchenwald memorial foundation after his death in 1979.
There, it was almost forgotten over the years, which meant that when it was rediscovered later, it was in a well-preserved state when it finally arrived in Daniel Schmidt's workshop.
"The violin was in a good, playable condition, which is why there wasn't any need for major work to be done on it. It needed a new bridge and strings, but these kinds of things are pretty normal for such an instrument," said Wollong.
"It's normal for a violinist to play old and historic instruments. But what is exciting about this violin is its unique history. As a musician, you think that is something you can sense, and you kind of want it to be something you can even hear - even if this might be more of a myth than a fact."
Helmke Jan Keden is also excited to have the old violin get a new lease on life. "I think it's great that there are these kinds of events that highlight the incredible potential of music," he said.
Anti-Semitism in 16th-century Prague
One of Germany's most famous silent films, "The Golem: How He Came Into the World," was made in 1920. Paul Wegener directed and played a leading role in the film set in 16th-century Prague. The Jewish ghetto is in danger and the emperor order the Jews to leave the city. Only the mythical Golem can help. It's one of the earliest films to address the persecution of Jews.
Persecution of Jews in 1920s Vienna
Based on a novel by Hugo Bettauer, "The City Without Jews," is an important example of how films have taken on anti-Semitism. The Austrian-made film is set in Vienna in the 1920s and shows how the residents held Jews responsible for all social ills. Critics, however, have lamented the film's use of anti-Semitic cilches.
Fine line between tolerance and clichés
Four years earlier in 1916, the American director DW Griffith had created the monumental historical film,"Intolerance." The story explains historical events over the course of four episodes, taking intolerance to task. Yet in a scene showing the crucifixion of Jesus, Griffith employed Jewish stereotypes. As a result, critics have also accused "Intolerance" of demonstrating anti-Semitic tendencies.
Ben Hur through the decades
"Ben Hur" was first made in 1925, but has been reinvented many time since then. It tells the story of a conflict betweet Jews and Christians at the beginning of the 1st century. Jewish prince Judah Ben Hur lives in Roman-occupied Jerusalem as a contemporary of Jesus Christ. The way the Jewish-Christian relationship is showed in the Ben Hur films remains a topic of discussion today.
A trial and pogrom in 1880s Hungary
Although hardly known today, GW Pabst's "The Trial" (1948) is an astounding early example of how the cinema reacted to the Holocaust. Filmed in Austria just three years after the end of the war, Pabst tells a true story set in 1882 in Hungary. A young girl disappears from her village and Jews are blamed. Tragically, a pogrom follows.
Broaching the truth
"The Trial" remained an exception. After the war, it took the film industry in Europe quite some time to deal with the subject. The French director Alain Resnais was the first to address the Nazi genocide in 1956, in the unsparing 30-minute documentary "Night and Fog."
Bringing the Holocaust to TV
It wasn't until the 1978 television mini-series "Holocaust" was made that the genocide was brought to the broader public. The four-part US production directed by Marvin J. Chomsky tells the story of a Jewish family that gets caught in the cogs of the Nazis' genocidal policies.
Steven Spielberg's 'Schindler's List'
Fifteen years later, American director Steven Spielberg was able to accomplish on the big screen what "Holocaust" had done for television audiences. "Schindler's List" portrayed the brutal reality of the Nazis' anti-Semitism in Germany, but also in Eastern Europe, spotlighting the unscrupulous SS offcer Amon Göth.
Claude Lanzmann and 'Shoah'
French director Claude Lanzmann harshly criticized Spielberg's drama. "He did not really reflect on the Holocaust and cinema. The Holocaust cannot be portrayed," he said in an interview. Lanzmann himself took up the subjects of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in a completely different way - through long documentaries and essay films such as "Shoah" and "Sobibor."
Humor and the Holocaust
Italian comedian and filmmaker Roberto Bengini took a daring approach in his film on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. In 1997, "Life is Beautiful" premiered, telling the fictional story of Jews suffering in a concentration camps. The humor he wove throughout had a liberating effect.
Roman Polanski's 'The Pianist'
An equally moving film by Polish-French director Roman Polanski was released in 2002. In "The Pianist," the fate of Jewish-Polish musician Władysław Szpilman during the war years of 1943-44 was brought to the big screen. The project allowed the director, whose mother and other relatives were deported and murdered by the Nazis, to work through his own family's past.
Anti-Semitism and Jesus the Jew
Films about the life of Jesus Christ often come up in discussions about anti-Semitism in cinema. Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988), for example, has been accused of reinforcing anti-Semitic clichés, particularly in scenes in which Jews are indirectly associated with greed.
Mel Gibson's scandalous 'The Passion of the Christ'
Much more controversial was the film that Australian Mel Gibson released two years later. Both Christians and Jews accused Gibson of explicit anti-Semitism in the film, saying he didn't counter the implications in the New Testament that Jews were to blame for the death of Jesus (who himself was Jewish). In public, Gibson likewise used anti-Semitic speech.
Audiences and critics alike decried the anti-Semitism in the Turkish film, "Valley of the Wolves." The action-packed movie version of a TV series of the same name showed a battle between Turkish soldiers and Israel. The film employed "anti-American, anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic stereotypes and was inciteful," according to several organizations.
WWII still a challenge for filmmakers
Just how difficult it can still be to address the subject matter of World War II is evident in the response to a three-part German TV series from 2013, "Generation War." The series follows a handful of German soldiers fighting on the eastern front. It was criticized in Poland for anti-Semitism and was said to have represented the Polish resistance.
Hannah Arendt and 'the banality of evil'
Margarethe von Trotta's film about Hannah Arendt was well received in 2012. The director sketched a balanced portrait of the philosopher and publicist who, in the 1960s, grappled with a figure who was largely responsible for the Nazi genocide: Adolf Eichmann. Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil" to explain anti-Semitism clothed in seemingly harmless bureaucracy.
The 'Wonder Woman' controversy
Because the protagonist of the current Hollywood super hero hit "Wonder Woman" is played by Israeli Gal Gadot, the film was not shown in a number of Arab countries. Gadot herself had served in the Israeli army and defended her experience. Not showing "Wonder Woman" is anti-Semitic, according to the public sentiment in Israel.