Musicologist Unearths Holocaust-Era Compositions The Third Reich and its concentration camps claimed the lives of a number of musicians. A German musician is unearthing their compositions in what has become a controversial project.

Musicologist Unearths Holocaust-Era Compositions

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

And now to the legacy of another time of hatred. For Germans, some of the most disturbing memories of the Third Reich are how it used German culture and arts to further Hitler's repression. Hitler held up three master composers he said proved Germans were a master race - Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Wagner and Anton Bruckner. But the art and music of so-called lesser races was suppressed or destroyed.

Ethan Lindsey has this profile of a man trying to revive music thought lost to the Holocaust.

Mr. ALFRED DUEMLING (Director, Musica Reanimata): (Unintelligible)

ETHAN LINDSEY: Alfred Duemling sorts through his mass of CD collection, one that stretches up and down and across a whole wall of his home. And it's clear this short balding historian is describing the music he spent the past two decades unearthing.

Mr. DUEMLING: (Unintelligible)

LINDSEY: Duemling is the director of the Berlin-based organization Musica Reanimata, a group dedicated to uncovering musical scores and recordings by artists killed in the Holocaust. In his work, he's crossed continents and scoured basements, dusty museum storerooms and obscure libraries in rural Germany.

(Soundbite of music)

LINDSEY: All music the Nazis labeled as degenerate.

Mr. DUEMLING: What the Nazis hated was other cultures as they said invading the German music. They wanted to have race purity. They say these people who claimed to be German in fact are Jewish. They should do their own thing. They should do their Jewish thing instead of doing our German music.

LINDSEY: In the 1930s, Hitler imposed a two-tier musical prohibition. Germans were forbidden from playing any music that had Jewish influences and Jews were banned from playing any German music, and even then could only play while confined in their homes. Conductor William Steinberg was famously confronted in the Cologne concert hall, when SS Storm Troopers rushed the stage and physically seized the baton from his hand. Duemling says the idea for the Musica Reanimate project began in 1990 after he first saw the opera "Kaiser of Atlantis."

(Soundbite of music)

LINDSEY: Jewish composer Victor Ullmann wrote and staged the entire thing while imprisoned in 1942 at Terezin, the Czech concentration camp for artists that was used by the Nazis for propaganda. Two years later, Ullman was killed in Auschwitz.

(Soundbite of music)

LINDSEY: Duemling was so moved by the performance, he began to wonder what other sorts of music Hitler's propaganda machine had suppressed? Berlin's art scene would seem to be an ideal home base for such a project, what with the areas deep-pocketed support for the arts.

But reviving degenerate music meant Duemling's playbill was limited to the music he could find and recover, meaning it wasn't always of a consistent quality. Eventually in an effort to gain more support, Duemling decided to branch out and include the works of persecuted musicians who were better known because they didn't perish in the Holocaust.

Mr. DUEMLING: Quite often we had totally unknown names, never ever heard of these composers. And so that some time there should be a name which rings a bell somehow.

LINDSEY: Take for instance, Eric Zeisl, an Austrian Jew who fled Nazi rule in 1938. He moved to Hollywood, where he composed music for blockbuster films, including "The Postman Always Rings Twice."

(Soundbite of music)

LINDSEY: A couple of years ago, Musica Reanimata featured some of Zeisl's other music in a show. Several of Germany's leading music critics still questioned that decision. Peter Petersen(ph), a historian at the University of Hamburg, says many asked whether Musica Reanimata's money would be better spent on those who didn't make it out of the concentration camps. But Duemling says growing the spotlight can add insight.

Mr. DUEMLING: In the cases of the other persecuted composers, excellent composers, we have still the chance to invite relatives, sons or daughters or sometimes even the composers themselves. The case of Eric Zeisl, the daughter came. It was quite wonderful that she came, and we played them piano pieces, which her father, Eric Zeisl, composed for her, for Barbara.

(Soundbite of music)

LINDSEY: Even with bigger names and more famous music, Duemling's group continued to struggle. And as the new year began, 2007's budget looked especially grim. Then Duemling got a phone call. The Hamburg-based Toepfer Foundation had just named him the winner of its Kairos European Culture Prize complete with a $100,000 check.

A relief? Well, not quite. In the past decade, historians discovered political ties between Alfred Toepfer, the businessman who founded Germany's largest arts foundation, and the Nazis. Some award recipients have declined to accept the prize, citing this connection. To help Duemling make his own decision, the foundation sent him a biography of Toepfer.

Mr. DUEMLING: They first came over to Berlin and gave me this big book and said please read first and then you can decide if you accept that prize.

LINDSEY: Some see the award as a cynical act by a foundation that's trying to clean up its tarnished image. Former Berlin culture minister Kristof Stolzer(ph), who sat on the prize jury, says that's just not true. The foundation believes Duemling deserves the award.

Mr. KRISTOF STOLZER (Former Berlin Culture Minister): We are not corrupt. It was exactly because what he did at the right moment, the right thing, not sponsored, not driven, not financed, not engaged by something official; he and himself, one man alone did that.

LINDSEY: In the end, Duemling says he made a judgment call. He's convinced there's no evidence Toepfer ever explicitly supported Hitler's idea of racial superiority. And more importantly, the prize money will help keep Musica Reanimate alive and aid in the discovery of the music Hitler hated so much.

For NPR News, I'm Ethan Lindsey in Berlin.

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