From the Publisher
The Israeli Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer once remarked that when you write about the Holocaust, you should remember that you are writing in front of burning children. What he meant was that the murder of six million Jews is a subject that requires a unique sort of humility-a warning that seems especially resonant today, now that redemptive Holocaust tales are suddenly in fashion. I'm referring to films such as "Schindler's List," the story of a transformed Nazi who just wants to save Jews, and "Life Is Beautiful," where the message appeared to be that you shouldn't let a genocide prevent you from having a good time.
Of course, the urge to find even a flicker of light in this darkest of human tragedies is an understandable one. Perhaps more to the point. Holocaust stories that are, in some utterly improbable way, a little bit uplifting or empowering are part of the larger saga-albeit a very, very small part of it.
Such is the case with Rich Cohen's The Avengers and Martin Goldsmith's The Inextinguishable Symphony, the latest literary contributions to this genre. The Avengers is the tale of the Vilna partisans, Zionists who tunneled out of the Jewish ghetto before the Nazis could round them up and kill them. . .
The Inextinguishable Symphony is, on its pace, less dramatic. The author, Martin Goldsmith, reconstructs the lives of his parents, two young German Jewish musicians who fell in love and married during the war. His mother, a violist, and his father, a flutist, were both members of the Kulturbund, a Jewish cultural organization that allowed the Nazis to purge their various arts entities of Jews without sounding international alarm bells. It was a crude form of segregation, and the Nazis closely monitored all performances to ensure that they were in no way political and that, above all, they didn't sully any cherished German ideals, but the Kulturbund nevertheless became a cultural and spiritual refuge for a people with nowhere else to go.
War and revenge versus music and love:
The two books are opposite sides of a single coin. Cohen's is self-consciously muscular, macho, the story of a courageous group of people who refused to accept the fate handed to them. Goldsmith's is more sensitive, more humanizing: Here are two young people who did the best they could to simulate a normal life within unthinkable circumstances. . .
Goldsmith, by contrast, is conscientious about alerting the reader to his flights of imagination, and his motives are clear. He is not writing compensatory history; he wants to know what happened to his parents before they escaped to America. But more than that, he wants to understand how they became who they were: it's a literary journey reminiscent of Art Spiegelman's in Maus.
In the book's most moving passage. Goldsmith describes his father fleeing Berlin during Kristallnacht, the murderous rampage during which the Nazis torched synagogues and razed Jewish-owned stores. Goldsmith's father boards an overnight train to the small town where his future wife lived with her mother and father, a music teacher. He shows up at their home early in the morning and unannounced; he is out of breath and desperate to alert her family to the imminent danger, but her father only dismisses the going's on as the work of some drunken hooligans.
Goldsmith's prose is spare and simple, as if this were just a little sliver of the huge, terrifying story of the Holocaust-and that is precisely the point. This is the humility about which Yehuda Bauer was speaking.
Renewed b/JONATHAN MAHLER
--Jonathan Mahler is a senior writer and editor at Talk Magazine
San Francisco Chronicle
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 Martin Goldsmith has done with this astonishing work. . . . Goldsmith [writes] with modesty, restraint, and skill . . . masterly.
A fascinating insight into a virtually unknown chapter of nazi rule in Germany, made all the more engaging through a son's discovery of his own remarkable parents.
An immensely moving and powerful description of those evil times. I couldn't put the book down.
Martin Goldsmith has written a moving and personal account of a search for identity. His is a story that will touch all readers with its integrity. . . . This is a journey everyone should take.
For years I've been familiar with Martin Goldsmith's musical expertise. This book explains the source of his knowledge and his passion for the subject. In tracking the extraordinary story of his parents and the Jewish Kulturbund, Martin unfolds a little-known piece of Holocaust history, and finds depths in his own heart that warm the hearts of readers.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
As much a tribute to the power of music as it is a Holocaust memoir, this book--written by Goldsmith, the former host of NPR's Performance Today--tells a deeply affecting story of a love that survived the terrors of WWII. The lovers in question are Goldsmith's parents: G nther, a flutist, and Rosalie, a violist, were German Jews who met in 1936 when they were both playing in the Kulturbund's orchestra in Frankfurt. An organization that performed at the pleasure of Joseph Goebbels's Ministry of Information and Propaganda, the Kulturbund hired Jewish artists (forbidden to play in German orchestras) to present concerts, plays and lectures for solely Jewish audiences from 1933 to 1941. Drawing creatively from historical documents and family memories, Goldsmith's story suggests that the Kulturbund was both a lifesaver and a cultural refuge for Jews--but it was also a Nazi smokescreen that gave German Jews a false sense of security. In engagingly reflective prose, Goldsmith tells the story of this institution and recounts how his father jeopardized his life by returning from Sweden, where he had fled, to be with Rosalie in Germany. The two married and finally migrated together to the U.S. in 1941. But other family members did not fare as well. Goldsmith's paternal grandfather and uncle were passengers on the St. Louis, the ship that sailed from Germany to Cuba only to be turned away; both died in concentration camps. Dealing perceptively with the complex emotions aroused in him by his parents' lifelong refusal to discuss their past and with their passion for each other and for the music that may have saved their lives, Goldsmith's account offers an excellent contribution to Holocaust studies. B&w photos. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Goldsmith, a senior commentator on NPR, tells the story of his parents, musicians who played in the orchestra of the Jewish Kulturbund, which was established by the Nazis as a propaganda tool. By dint of good fortune, in the summer of 1941 they managed to leave Germany and immigrate to the United States, where the author's mother became a prominent concert musician. Goldsmith weaves together the exploration of his family history (his father's experience was featured on NPR) with the Nazi persecution of the Jews in general. The author checks his father's reminiscences with newspaper accounts, family letters, and documents, as well as secondary sources, so that the reader does not lose sight of the bigger picture. Unfortunately, Goldsmith often encumbers the reader with excessive details, such as the look in individuals' eyes as they parted and other such statements that cannot be verified from the documentary record. Recommended for public libraries.--Frederic Krome, Jacob Rader Marcus Ctr. of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
National Public Radio commentator Goldsmith tells the story of his parents, two courageous Jewish musicians who struggled to perform in the face of the rise of Germany's National Socialism. He traces their lives from the caf<'e>s in Frankfurt where they first fell in love, to the concert halls that offered comfort and hope to the persecuted Jews, to the United States where they made a life for themselves. He also sheds light on the Kulterbund (Culture Association of German Jews), which gathered together some of the most prominent Jewish artists of the day and became the main source of culture and entertainment for Germany's Jews. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
A nattily written, moving history of the Kulturbund-a Jewish cultural agency that collaborated with the Nazis during the early years of the Third Reich-from NPR commentator Goldsmith, whose parents were members of the group.
Read an Excerpt
The first scene of the opera Die Walküre, the second of the four operas making up Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle, takes place in the house of Hunding, a fierce warlord. The central feature of Hunding's house is a mighty ash tree, its trunk soaring up from the floor, its branches forming a canopy over the roof. Embedded in the massive trunk is a golden sword the god Wotan has left for his son, the hero Siegmund, to find and wield at his hour of need.
In the house where I grew up with my father, my mother, and my brother, there was also an enormous tree growing up through the roof, its great trunk dominating the enclosed space. In many ways we shared a perfectly ordinary family life. My father spoke to my mother. My mother tucked me in at night. My brother and I played with each other, when we weren't fighting.
But none of us ever acknowledged the tree.
The tree wasn't real, of course. But its impact on my family was overwhelming. The effort it required for all of us not to take conscious notice of it was also huge. This enormous presence in our house was the fate of my parents' families--Jews who lived in Germany in the 1930s--and my parents' escape from that fate. Their story, so similar to and yet so different from the six million other stories of that time and place, affected everything these two people did. It was at the root of their lives and grew ever upward as they grew older. And, as in so many other families like ours, it was something we never spoke of.
Not that I was completely unaware of the tree and the shadow it cast on our house. When my friends talked about visiting their grandparents at Thanksgiving or going to the ball game with Uncle Ed, I knew that something from the past had made similar excursions impossible for me. And returning to our house following an afternoon of playing in the neighborhood, I was often conscious of taking off my own real personality, hanging it up in the closet with my jacket, and donning a sort of internal costume that would enable me to blend in with the emotional scenery. But, again, we never spoke of such things.
Let me hasten to say that such talk was never overtly forbidden. By no means was I or my brother ever shushed when we attempted to steer the conversation in certain directions. We simply never made such attempts. As a family we didn't discuss what had happened in Germany for the same reason that we didn't discuss bauxite mining in Peru. They were both subjects that did not exist for us.
Nor do I want to give the impression of a dark and gloomy household where silence reigned. Not at all. Life revolved around my mother's activities as a musician--a violist--first as a member of the St. Louis Symphony and later as a member of the Cleveland Orchestra, and that meant that there was always music in the house. My parents' friends and colleagues would often come by for after-concert parties, when the house would resound with music and laughter.
But every year the tree grew taller. And as I grew older, I came to be more and more aware of its presence, and of how odd it was that we never spoke of it, since it dominated the landscape. Its leaves turned yellow and drifted to the ground when my mother died in 1984. The tree itself remained, however, casting its prodigious shadow over my relationship with my father. Finally, as we both grew more aware of the ever-quickening passage of time, I decided to do something about it.
In 1992, the year I turned forty, I was traveling in Europe while my father, who was nearly seventy-nine, was also in Europe with his new love, Emily Erwin. We arranged to meet in Oldenburg, my father's hometown. We visited his childhood home, and he told me something of his memories of that long-ago time. He took me to where his father's store had been and told me that Nazi thugs had organized a boycott of the store in April 1933, an action that led to his father's having to sell the family house. He showed me the Pferdemarkt, the Horse Market, where his father had been taken following his arrest in November 1938. Slowly, those shadowy figures, my grandparents, whom I'd never known, began to take on human form. And for the first time, my father and I began to take notice of the huge tree in our house.
It wasn't a fast process, by any means. A year later, while visiting my father in Tucson, I tried to get him to talk more about his youth. He spoke only briefly, however, and quickly moved the conversation on to something else. It was obvious that he found these trips into the past very painful. But I persisted in my efforts to talk to him about those days, believing that coming to terms with them would somehow benefit both him and our relationship. And that visit to Tucson resulted in something extraordinary: he agreed to come to Washington, D. C., and tour with me the newly opened United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
A few days before my father's arrival, I happened to mention our plan to Alex Chadwick, a friend at National Public Radio. Alex asked if he could come along with a microphone and record my father's reactions. Both my father and I agreed, and in late January 1994, the three of us visited the museum.
Those hours marked a turning point in my father's life, and in our relationship. At first, I thought I had made a terrible mistake in asking him to come to the museum. To tour the permanent exhibition, you enter an elevator that takes you to the top floor, from which you slowly walk back down to ground level. When we stepped out of the elevator, the first image that met my father's eyes was a huge photograph of General Eisenhower touring a concentration camp after the war, surrounded by the skeletal remains of former prisoners. He gasped and tried to get back into the elevator, but the doors had already closed. Alex and I steadied him and we made our way through the rest of the museum--the names and faces, the piles of shoes and eyeglasses, the cattle car, and an oboe played by the man who sat right next to my father in the Berlin Jüdische Kulturbund orchestra.
My father took it all in and spoke very little. But the next day he came to NPR and recorded an interview with Alex, trying, he said, to explain the unexplainable. Alex prepared a feature for NPR's Morning Edition, and suddenly people all over America began calling my father to tell him that they had been moved by his story. He, in turn, was moved by their interest. Having lived in silence with his thoughts and his memories for so long, he had come to feel isolated from other people. Now those people were reaching out to him, and the effect was transforming-- for both of us.
He now felt more at ease with his past and with me. I had always felt distanced from him, but now I saw him in a different light: less as someone who had deliberately shut me out and more as someone who had heroically overcome the horrors of the Third Reich to establish a normal and rich life in a foreign land. We became good friends.
And we began to talk about his early years in Germany. The more I learned, the more I respected him, and the more I learned about myself as well. I discovered an important source of my feelings for music. It's beautiful and moving, of course, but music also literally saved my parents' lives. Had they not been members of an all-Jewish orchestra, maintained at the pleasure of Joseph Goebbels's Ministry of Propaganda, they would never have made it out of Germany alive. During their years in Berlin, before their escape, my parents frequently risked everything by defying the Nazi curfews so that they could play chamber music with their friends. As I heard my father tell me his story, I came to realize that somehow I had inherited the knowledge that music can not only enrich your life, it is also something worth risking your life for. I came to see that my chosen profession has been no accident. Maybe, in fact, it chose me.
I learned that the tree growing in our house, like the ash tree in the house of Hunding, also contained a golden sword buried deep within its trunk. My parents' story of music and courage and persistence and luck was no weapon, but it has proven to be a source of great strength and inspiration for me. By sharing his life, my father has enabled me to extract and possess a rich treasure of understanding and hope.