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Finding the Jewish musical genius who was lost to the world

  • JordanMusic4
Josima Feldschuh was a child prodigy in Warsaw, Poland. She started composing at the age of eight and by 12, she was performing with some of the city’s renowned musicians.
by JORDAN MOSHE | May 31, 2018

She – like so many other immensely talent children – never grew up for the world to see her realise her potential. She was smuggled out of the ghetto, after which she contracted tuberculosis and died.

The Holocaust not only claimed six million people, it eliminated an entire age of European Jewry’s contribution to world culture.

The names of composers, performers, singers and actors whose achievements could rival those of Brahms and Mozart are lost to us, their talents unacknowledged. However, with the efforts of Dr Stephen Muir, we are slowly reclaiming our rich cultural history.

Last Wednesday, Muir, senior lecturer of the music department of the University of Leeds in the UK, shared his findings at a presentation held at the Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre. “Our work sees us look for music of Jewish composers and dramas by Jewish authors, regardless of their religiosity, regardless of the type of music,” says Muir.

“The thing that unites all the personalities we look at is that they were persecuted, and in many cases, murdered. There is a whole swathe of European Jewish culture that was totally wiped out. This was Hitler’s intention, but we aren’t going to let him win. We are trying to fill in gaps in humanity’s archive.”

Muir, together with a team of 11 other international researchers, undertook to bring recently rediscovered musical, theatrical and literary works by Jewish artists back to the attention of scholars and the public in 2012. This project, called ‘Performing the Jewish Archive’, was a British Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project led by the University of Leeds.

At the heart of this project is a series of international performance festivals Muir arranges, titled Out of the Shadows. Jewish cabaret, choral and chamber music, and an exhibition of visual art and more at venues across the globe are presented. The festivals are drawn from the documents Muir and his team have discovered around the world, archives of information that can be found in the most obscure places.

“To me these hidden archives are so important,” explains Muir. “They give some kind of subjective agency to people who either didn’t make it out of Europe or to those who did, but were then sidelined because they were Jewish. The stories behind these people, not just their music, are extraordinary.”

Perhaps most extraordinary is the fact that Muir is not Jewish. “I have two Jewish colleagues in my department at Leeds,” explains Muir. “They became close friends of mine, and I wanted to find out about their lives. They took me to the shul one week when the choir and chazzan were singing, and it totally blew my mind.

“I felt guilty that this whole culture was something of which I had no knowledge. My interest grew and I learned more about the music and its structure. Intellectual curiosity became a personal responsibility; I can’t dabble and then move on. It’s so important to civilisation that this material is recovered.”

Muir’s discoveries are many and are individually remarkable – Josima Feldschuh being just one. Says Muir: “Her music is in some sense naïve, but it is beautifully constructed, and as the work of a 12-year-old, it is nothing short of remarkable.” Feldschuh’s brother and other members survived and have listened to her music.

“Her niece, who is today a woman in her 70s, said she feels that she knows her aunt a little bit more,” says Muir. “The impact of these discoveries on people is quite profound.”

Adds Muir: “We are all archives. We are full of information, and we categorise it into sections. We sometimes forget things and try to fill in the gaps.

“As we know, this is a fading archive that doesn’t last forever, which is, sadly, a fact of human life. The urgency of capturing these memories is therefore ever in our minds. Together with physical archives, this information allows us to reconstruct and bring back music of the past and enable people to appreciate it now.”

Cabaret is a genre that featured prominently in Muir’s work. It was very popular among Jewish artists of the early 20th century, even after the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s. Light-hearted, comedic cabaret composition and performance continued, even under the direst of circumstances in ghettos and concentration camps.

“The culture was kept alive even in the Theresienstadt camp,” says Muir. “While not an extermination camp, this was a holding camp for mostly the intellectual Jews of Czechoslovakia where conditions were extremely harsh. Somehow, its prisoners managed to have a rich and intense cultural life of cabaret and theatrical performances. Tragically, while most were deported to Auschwitz, some of their material survived.”

Muir explains that 90% of the material created in the camp was comedy, and until survivors who had watched performances in the camp themselves shared their testimonies, the use of this genre seemed bizarre.

“There may have been a small element of resistance involved,” says Muir, “but only one recorded case of a Nazi interrupting a performance exists. Mostly, survivors have reported that it was a means of escape. These were people who had been performers all their lives, and who wanted to continue doing what they did. Many productions harked back to the lives they knew and looked forward to the lives they wanted. Tragically, it was never to be for most of them.

“For many audiences, watching comedy emerging from this dark period in history is an uncomfortable experience,” explains Muir. “They’re not sure if they’re really allowed to laugh at this. But a survivor who had been involved in the original performance in Theresienstadt said: ‘Please laugh. That’s what it was for. If you don’t laugh, it has no point.’”

Even before the Holocaust, this rich musical culture was not limited to Europe. Émigré composers – predominantly sidelined and repressed because they were Jewish – took their work with them around the globe, some of which was brought to our own shores.

Born in Zambia, Muir’s particular area of interest in the project lies in the Jewish music that arrived in South Africa, predominantly in the Cape area.

A particularly interesting figure is Froim Spektor, who had been the “Über-Kantor” of the grand Choral Synagogue in Rostov-on Don, Southern Russia from 1915. In 1928, he travelled to South Africa to take up the post of chazzan at the New Hebrew Congregation in Roeland Street, Cape Town.

When he arrived, Spektor brought not only his music, but lots of works of other European Jewish composers.

Now in the possession of his granddaughter, Leora Braude, in Cape Town, Spektor’s manuscript folder contains a treasure trove of his own compositions and previously unknown works (or works considered lost) by other significant Jewish composers.

The contents of this folder, says Muir, suggest that shuls were far more progressive in their thinking in 1915 than we thought, including choirs in Russia which were mixed and featured an organ – both surprising in an Orthodox setting. “We get their music and snapshots of their lives through these documents,” he says.

While Muir was carefully looking through these manuscripts with Spektor’s granddaughter, she casually mentioned that “Mrs Greek probably has some of her father’s papers, too”. And indeed, Shirley Greek did have a whole suitcase full of manuscripts and unique printed music taken to Cape Town by her father, Cantor Morris Katzin.

Katzin arrived in South Africa from Riga (modern-day Latvia), settling first in Johannesburg and later becoming chazzan of the Sea Point Synagogue. Katzin’s journey to Africa in 1933 included a singing tour that took place in several European countries, ending up at the private opera company Paris Opéra, where he was engaged to sing alongside the great Russian bass, Fyodor Chaliapin, in a number of operas.

Katzin helped to preserve a great deal of Spektor’s music in his own collection, which resided in a dusty packing trunk in a Cape Town garage. It was untouched for decades before Muir arrived.

“Shirley admitted that she had avoided opening them because she was terrified of spiders,” laughs Muir. “I’m also terrified, so we had to get someone in to open them for us. What we found inside was astonishing, and significantly contributed to the project.”

Reflecting on his work, Muir admits that the undertaking is vast, such that it will probably never be completed. Still, he and his team remain committed to the project, and continue to make astonishing discoveries around the world.

“I honestly think that there’s enough material out there – even just in my own area – for the rest of my career, and I still won’t get through everything I want to,” he says.

“The Jewish Archive, as a broad concept, was so fractured and dispersed during the 20th century that artefacts come up in the most unlikely of places, and I think we’ll be kept busy for a very long time to come yet!”

1 Comment

  1. 1 Dr Stephen Muir 09 Jul
    I am deeply grateful to Jordan Moshe and the South African Jewish Report for this highly flattering report following the talk I gave to a most receptive audience in Johannesburg back in May.

    Whilst it is both humbling and gratifying to have one's work recognized in this manner, I feel a moral duty to pay tribute also to the other members of the research team, and acknowledge specific elements of the project work that are the result of their personal tireless efforts, and which helped me create the public lecture mentioned above:

    Research into Josima Feldschuh:
    Dr Teryl Dobbs, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA.

    Research into cabaret:
    Dr Lisa Peschel, University of York, UK (cabaret in the Theresienstadt ghetto);
    Dr Simo Muir, University College London, UK (cabaret in the Finnish Jewish community).

    Other members of the team whose work has been absolutely central to the project:

    Dr David Fligg, Royal Northern College of Music, UK (music in Theresienstadt, especially  composer Gideon Klein).

    Dr Joseph Toltz, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney, Australia (the music of emigre composers Walter Wurzburger and Wilhelm Grosz; Jewish refugees and Australian musical life, especially Werner Baer).

    Dr Nick Barraclough, University of York, UK (audience responses to performances of Holocaust-related materials, development of computer facial recognition for real-time emotion tracking in audiences).

    And hundreds of other individuals and organizations who together added an immeasurably large amount to our research.

    Thank you again for SAJR's generous coverage of our work!

    Dr Stephen Muir

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