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KU scholar’s new book examines Jewish theatre in Nazi Germany

Tue, 03/05/2013

LAWRENCE — For a prisoner with little freedom, the singing of a song or performing of a play may provide just enough of an escape to make it through another day.

This was the case for some German Jewish thespians who watched their rights dissolve in the years leading up to the Holocaust.

But according to a new book by University of Kansas professor Rebecca Rovit, Jewish artists and actors also felt their creativity being stifled by the Nazi regime.

In “The Jewish Kulturbund Theatre Company in Nazi Berlin,” Rovit, assistant professor of theatre, explores the effects of Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies on Jewish theatre actors. The book was published by the University of Iowa Press.

“It deals with creativity and survival in very difficult times,” Rovit said. “The arts can be a source of comfort when someone is oppressed or incarcerated. You can use them to express things you can’t with just plain words. It provides refuge, a distraction.”

By 1933, many Jews were kicked out of careers in the public sphere, including theatre arts. They were no longer allowed to work alongside so-called “Aryan” Germans.

In Berlin, Jewish musicologist Kurt Singer negotiated the formation of an all-Jewish arts and cultural organization with Ministry of Propaganda SS-Kommandant Hans Hinkel, who oversaw Jewish cultural affairs.

Hinkel expressed concern about how the group would be monitored and controlled, according to Rovit’s book. Ultimately, however, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels ordered a separate network of all-Jewish performing arts groups — the Kulturbund Deutscher Juden, or the Cultural Association of German Jews.

The Berlin Kulturbund became the organization’s largest branch.

Rovit began research for her book in the 1990s, realizing the Kulturbund was a part of German Jewish history that had remained largely untold. She reviewed old Jewish newspapers, original scripts and script notes.

Rovit also tracked down and interviewed several former Kulturbund members who survived the war. In some cases, where members were deceased, she talked to their children, she said.

As the 1930s wore on, the Nazis became increasingly strict on what content was permissible for the Jewish theatre, according to the book. 

For example, a performance of “Nathan the Wise,” a play about religious tolerance, featured an altered final scene. In the Kulturbund’s 1933 performance, Nathan, a Jew, stands alone at the end of the play instead of in an “all-around embrace” with the Sultan Saladin and a Christian Templar, as written in the original script.

Some would interpret the change as a representation of the isolation Jews were experiencing at the time, Rovit said.

Content that too closely incorporated German culture was ruled out. Non-Jews were not allowed to participate or attend performances. The actors could not perform scripts written by non-Jews, either.

“As the years passed and the (Nazis) figured out what they were going to do with the Jews, the censorship became more obvious,” Rovit said.

It was difficult for the Kulturbund thespians, Rovit said, because many of them considered themselves to be assimilated Germans, who merely happened to be of Jewish ancestry. Some felt more connected to the “non-Jewish” plays they’d become accustomed to performing as part of German theatre.

“There was definitely a cultural discussion about what the Kulturbund should be doing,” Rovit said. “There was a spectrum of opinions — ‘Is this a Jewish theatre? Or is it a German Jewish theatre?’ They were trying to decide who they were in a fluid environment. Many of them just wanted to do theatre, period.”

After eight turbulent years, the Gestapo dissolved the all-Jewish theatre in 1941.

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