Steve Kettmann's Reviews > The Inextinguishable Symphony: A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany

The Inextinguishable Symphony by Martin Goldsmith
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May 02, 10


Here is my review of this wonderful book from the San Francisco Chronicle in 2001:

The Night Jewish Musicians Played Mahler Amid Nazi Terror
Reviewed by Steve Kettmann


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THE INEXTINGUISHABLE SYMPHONY
A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany

By Martin Goldsmith

John Wiley & Sons; 352 pages; $24.95


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The Holocaust has hovered on the periphery of the American imagination for so many decades now, it's hard to believe a book could come along at this point to burn a whole new perspective into our consciousness. But that's just what National Public Radio commentator Martin Goldsmith has done with this astonishing work, "The Inextinguishable Symphony: A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany."
For many, the single most important date to remember from the nightmare years of the Third Reich will always be Nov. 9, 1938, dubbed Kristallnacht by the Nazis, or the Night of Broken Glass, and called simply the November Pogrom by the Jews of Berlin. But anyone who surrenders to the narrative pull of Goldsmith's masterly work may be tempted to turn instead to Feb. 27, 1941.

That was the night, deep into the Nazi terror, when a group of Jewish musicians -- including Goldsmith's parents, Rosemarie and Guenther -- came together in Berlin and offered the city's Jewish community a spine-tingling performance of Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony. Their son, normally understated to a fault, calls the night a "miracle," and who are we to argue?

"For the next hour and twenty-five minutes, Gustav Mahler's Resurrection Symphony took possession of the theater, of the musicians, of the audience," Goldsmith writes. "No one, either on stage or in the hall, was conscious of time passing, just of an immense sound and an equally immense spirit moving among them. Rosemarie, whose practical mind did not usually acknowledge such phenomena, was dimly aware of someone or something in addition to (conductor) Rudolf Schwarz directing the proceedings.

"There were virtually no sounds -- coughs or sneezes or rustling with coats or hats -- coming from the crowd. More than a thousand people, men and women who had come to know danger and pain and hurt and humiliation on an almost daily basis for more than eight years, heard from a valiant ensemble of artists who had struggled along with them a vibrant musical account of their difficulties and then the infinitely hopeful message that they had not lived and suffered in vain and that from their depths they would rise again."

It sounds unbelievable. Preposterous, almost. And yet there does in fact exist in Berlin a monument to the so-called Kulturbund, which came about only because the Nazis thought it was useful first to segregate all Jewish cultural activities before opting for the Final Solution.

Many fine musicians and other artists did in fact offer their talents to the Kulturbund in hope that the best defense against ugliness was creating beauty. The hopefulness of that belief may have been tainted by the horrors of what Hitler and his henchmen unleashed on the world, but the bravery and grace of this small band of Jewish artists cannot and should not be overlooked.

As Schwarz, the conductor, told his musicians in May 1941 in what ended up as a final meeting: "All of us -- musicians, electricians, tailors, grocers, mothers and fathers -- need to be reminded that life is paramount. Even when it is stamped out, it eventually returns. Where there is life, there is spirit.

And where there is spirit, where there is even one human soul, there is music.

We are proof of that: We have suffered, yet we have endured. And we have made music."

Such sentiments might sound cloying delivered by voices who had not endured so much. Given the backdrop that Goldsmith lays out with such modesty, restraint and skill, the small triumph of these musicians feels like a triumph against the malignancy of spirit that colored wartime Europe -- and the entire 20th century.

Any such triumph has to be put in context, of course. Most of the musicians who performed Mahler's Resurrection Symphony that magical night in Berlin ended up dying in the camps. Goldsmith's parents were lucky enough to escape to America, but many other family members did not -- including, most hauntingly, his grandfather and uncle, who sailed to Cuba on the ill-fated St. Louis but ended up back in Europe because Cuba and the United States denied them entry.

Also, the legacy of the Kulturbund remains clouded. They were undeniably tools of the Nazis. The organization's fiery founder, Kurt Singer, went so far as to berate any musicians who were considering emigration, though he himself returned to Europe from a fund-raising trip to the United States and paid the ultimate price for his devil's bargain, dying at Theresienstadt in January 1944.

Still, at its heart, Goldsmith's tale is about people and their stories. He gives us a full, rich account of his parents' own love story, including his father's decision to return from Sweden, risking death, to play music, and yet never strays into self-indulgence or sentimentality.

The deep love and understanding of music that come through on every page are a true delight, and, if nothing else, this labor of love ensures that no one who has read it can ever listen to Mahler again with quite the same ear.

Steve Kettmann lives in Berlin. His work has appeared in the New Republic and Salon.

This article appeared on page RV - 5 of the San Francisco Chronicle



Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article...
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