RAANANA, Israel (AP) — In 1933, the promising young Jewish-German violinist Ernest Drucker left the stage midway through a Brahms concerto in Cologne at the behest of Nazi officials, in one of the first anti-Semitic acts of the new regime.
Now, more than 80 years later, his son, Grammy Award-winning American violinist Eugene Drucker, has completed his father’s interrupted work. With tears in his eyes, Drucker performed an emotional rendition of the Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77, over the weekend with the Raanana Symphonette Orchestra.
“I think he would feel a sense of completion. I think in some ways many aspects of my career served that purpose for him,” the 63-year-old Drucker said of his father, who passed away in 1993. “There is all this emotional energy and intensity loaded into my associations to this piece.”
Thursday’s concert, and a second performance Sunday night, commemorated the Judischer Kulturbund — a federation of Jewish musicians in Nazi Germany who were segregated so as not to “sully” Aryan culture.
After the humiliation in Cologne, the elder Drucker became a central player in the Kulturbund, a unique historical phenomenon with a mixed legacy.
On one hand, it gave Jews the opportunity to carry on with their cultural lives and maintain a sense — some would say the illusion — of normalcy in the midst of growing discrimination against them. On the other, it served a Nazi propaganda machine eager to portray a moderate face to the world. It was a prototype for the “Judenrat” system in which relatively privileged Jews naively operated under Nazi auspices all the way down the road to destruction.
Long before the Nazis placed Jews in ghettos and gassed them to death in concentration camps, they were mostly preoccupied with “purifying” German institutions with racist laws and street justice. Jews were fired from their government jobs, excluded from almost all organizations and public events and harassed into emigrating.
For the largely assimilated German Jews, who had a deep connection to the country’s culture and history, the Kulturbund offered a much-needed creative outlet as their world was crumbling.
“They wanted to show the Germans why it was important to preserve us and why we were better than they thought we were. There was this delusional sense that this may alter their fate,” said Orit Fogel-Shafran, general manager of the Raanana Symphonette Orchestra. “This was their mistake. They thought this gave them some sort of immunity.”
Initially, the Nazi culture ministry granted the Kulturbund relative freedom, so long as its performers and audiences were exclusively Jewish.
At its height, thousands of musicians, theater actors and other performers took part, including some of Germany’s most notable artists, at dozens of venues across the country. As the years progressed, however, and the Nazi ideology took deeper root, greater restrictions were imposed until eventually they could only perform Jewish works, with Bach and Beethoven off-limits.
The Kulturbund was reduced significantly after the pogroms of Kristallnacht in 1938 — when Nazi-incited riots marked the start of the campaign to destroy European Jewry. Musicians went underground or fled, like Drucker’s father, who went to America.
Many found their way to the Holy Land where they helped establish what would later become the world-renowned Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Most of those who stayed until the end in 1941 were sent to concentration camps.
Hillel Zori, a cellist and artistic director of the Raanana symphonette who initiated the event after much research, said he had mixed feelings. By organizing themselves, he says the Jews offered the Nazis a blueprint for “unwitting self-destruction.” Still, he said he was in awe of the way they preserved their humanistic values through Germany’s descent into genocide.
“They felt ‘we are preserving our culture. We belong to the German culture,'” he said.
In many ways, Ernest Drucker’s experience was a watershed moment that made the Kulturbund necessary. As a top student at the Cologne conservatory of music, he was scheduled to play the entire Brahms concerto at his graduation ceremony in the summer of 1933.
Shortly before the event, he noticed his name had been crossed off the program. His teacher threatened to resign if Drucker’s name was not reinstated, and a compromise was reached with the school’s newly installed Nazi administrators whereby Drucker could perform the first movement only before being replaced by a non-Jew. Drucker played in front of rows of Nazi Stormtroopers before being whisked offstage and ultimately into the refuge of the Kulturbund.
“This showed the writing on the wall. The bells were ringing at full volume,” said Fogel-Shafran, who traces her own family history in Germany back several generations. “But the German Jews didn’t want to believe it.”
Drucker fled Germany in 1938 and moved to the U.S., where his son was born. The younger Drucker said the incident in Cologne was a “dramatic experience” for his father that stayed with him for years. “Music was practically everything to my father,” he said.
Drucker, a founding member of the nine-time Grammy winning Emerson String Quartette, said he was not willing to criticize those who clung to their German culture in those difficult times.
“It may have lulled some people there into thinking that they had more security existentially than they really had,” he said. “But it was an organization that kept the Jews culturally alive through the 1930s when they were increasingly segregated and kept out of most areas of personal fulfillment in the Third Reich.”
Thursday’s performance in the central Israeli city of Raanana was preceded by a panel discussing just such dilemmas, as well as a musical rendition of the Jewish prayer Kol Nidre, with archival black-and-white footage of the Kulturbund showing in the background along with its logo of a flame inside a Jewish Star of David.
Drucker said he didn’t know if it was “my place to correct a history wrong.” But backstage, after the performance, he was clearly moved.
“As a musician I feel like the circle is never completely closed,” he said. “But I was standing there at one point … and I really did start to think about my father.”