Lest we forget: The Semer Ensemble celebrates the rediscovered Jewish music of Germany

The Semer Ensemble. Photo: Adam Berry

The story behind a special performance in Ottawa on Nov. 9 is one of those examples of the unquenchable flame of creation. A group known as the Semer Ensemble will play music recorded and published by small Jewish labels in Germany in the years before the Second World War. One such business was founded by Hirsch Lewin. Semer specialized in capturing the diverse and complex Jewish music scene, both secular and religious, that existed in the German capital, even after Hitler took control of the government. Lewin’s business was destroyed, like so many others, on Kristallnacht on Nov. 9 and 10 in 1938. He was arrested and literally hundreds of recordings were smashed and thought to be lost … except for the work of a remarkable German musicologist and expert on jazz, Dr. Rainer Lotz who, with two colleagues, spent many years pulling old recordings and pieces of sheet music out of attics, closets and other hidden places around the world and preparing a package of CDs and a book called Beyond Recall.

That rescued music from Semer, and other labels, has been arranged and assembled by the pianist Alan Bern into a recording called Rescued Treasure recorded by an all-star band called the Semer Ensemble. It has been performing this historic music around the world. Before the  Ensemble’s performance at Southminster Church, ARTSFILE interviewed Rainer Lotz by email.

Dr. Rainer Lotz

Q. You are a historian with a strong interest in jazz and a personal collection of more than 60,000 records. Why do you like this form of music and when did your interest begin?

A. I heard my first jazz record while a pupil at a public boarding school, aged about 15. It was a Columbia re-issue LP of historical Duke Ellington performances from his Cotton Club days. When I heard the sound of Bubber Miley’s growling trumpet and a wordless scat vocal on The Mooche, it struck me like a hammer. In my parental home (in Hamburg) I had grown up with Schuman and Schubert lieder. I have since replaced the original worn-out LP (actually Columbia CL-558, I will never forget), and acquired the original shellac discs for a near complete collection of Ellingtonia.

In Berlin, 28 Grenadierstrasse was the address of Hirsch Lewin’s label Semer. Photo provided by Rainer Lotz.

Q. What is Semer? When did it operate. what kind of music did it produce

A: Semer is one of several Jewish owned record labels that operated in Nazi Berlin. It was owned by an orthodox (Lithuanian) Jew, who was qualified as a rabbi. His interest was in Yiddish performances and Synagogal music. The other important label was Lukraphon, which was owned by a liberal Jewish businessman. His repertoire covered a wider range, from folk songs and serious music to cabaret but also included liturgical music. Semer was founded in 1932, while Lukraphon was founded in 1935, as the proprietor apparently did not expect the (Nazi) regime would last. Both labels closed in 1938, as a direct consequence of the Kristallnacht pogroms.

Q. When did you get interested in this music and why?

A. The anti-Semitic laws introduced within a few week after the Nazi take-over in 1933 resulted in the creation of a Jewish cultural association or Kulturbund, where Jewish artists and performers could continue their work, provided they performed in special places that were closed to non-Jewish audiences. The performances were subject to approval and under Gestapo surveillance. In spite of all the odds, a rich cultural life developed that was hidden from the rest of the population (one witness called it ‘madly beautiful’). That was especially true for theatrical performances. In 1992 I provided items for a special exhibition shown in Berlin about this phenomenon called Geschlossene Vorstellung (Closed performance). The curators wrote in the catalogue, that they heard of rumours to the effect, that members of the Kulturbund recorded for Lukraphon, but they were unable to find out any details.

Signing up for the Kulturbund. Photo provided by Rainer Lotz.

Q. You seem to have made it your mission to bring the music back to the light of day. Why?

A. The admitted ignorance or failure of those exhibition organizers attracted my curiosity and attention: I was a seasoned record collector and recording industry historian, and had some 25 volumes of the German National Discography to my credit. I was sure that, against this background, I could establish the facts.

I had no knowledge of Jewish culture, music or religion. I struggle with Yiddish and still cannot write or read Hebrew characters. But when I dug into the subject I was  overwhelmed and enamoured of the music and the musicality of the performers. Even though I am an atheist, I still get goose pimples when listening to the extraordinary voice and improvisations of, say, cantor Israel Bakon (who also happens to be the only artist to have recorded for both Semer and Lukraphon).

I decided I had to recreate the catalogues of these forgotten Jewish record labels, put them into historical perspective and establish the identities and biographies of all the people involved. This turned out to be a gigantic task, and I had to ask two specialist friends from the Netherlands and Israel to join. It took us almost 10 years to complete the research and publish.

The Semer label. Photo supplied by Rainer Lotz.

Q. How did you find it? Where did you find it? In what form was the music in … sheet music, records, tapes, wax rolls, 78s?

A. I have a background in mechanical engineering, economics and development policy. I have lived and worked in all continents, and once or twice a year I have travelled around the world, all the while pursuing my hobby by visiting flea markets and record collectors. I established a network of likeminded people and, as a member of professional associations in the field of audiovisual archiving, had knowledge of private and public archives, radio stations, libraries and their managers. The 1990s saw the rapid development of the internet and digitization. Within seconds I could communicate worldwide, exchange drafts with my co-authors, and do extensive armchair research in addition to personal visits.

I spread the news, alerted people, contacted Jewish communities around the globe. I searched for written documents, sheet music, photographs and other images, and 78 rpm discs. We even discovered a lost film. We tracked down descendants, and a few contemporary witnesses, the eldest was 102 years old. With just one unfortunate exception, everybody reacted enthusiastically, shared information and artefacts. It has been an overwhelming experience, often aided by just plain good luck.

Q. How did the Semer Ensemble form? Were you part of that?

A. I had considered my work done with the public presentation of the large box Beyond Recall, containing 12 CDs and a five kilogram book at the big synagogue at Oranienburger Strasse in Berlin. The Nazis had tried to shut the Jewish performers up for ever and erase their memory from history. My friends and I had succeeded in bringing that rich heritage to public attention again, for everybody to listen to.

Since then my research shifted to other areas, such as the Grammy nominated publication of Black Europe, a 57-hour documentation of sounds recorded by people of African descent in Europe prior to 1927.

I had no idea about the Semer Ensemble until, a couple of years ago, I was invited as a resource person for a public performance at the new Jewish Museum in Berlin. To say that I was grateful and moved would be the understatement of the year. I had not even thought of the possibility that Beyond Recall could inspire musicians not only to recreate the tunes, but to carry on the tradition in modern arrangements, to instill new life in rescued treasures.

Hirsch Lewin. Photo supplied by Rainer Lotz

Q. You will be travelling to Canada. What is your role?

A: The Semer Ensemble is to perform in Ottawa on occasion of Holocaust Memorial Day. The German Embassy has asked me to be available as a resource person. I am not travelling with the band to other venues, but I have, in the past, been asked to join them for concerts at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and the German National Library at Leipzig. In 2016 I had an invitation to be present at the KlezCanada festival, but that did not happen for lack of funds.

It seems that I am expected to deliver a brief introduction before the concert starts on Nov. 9. As well it seems I will give a more detailed powerpoint presentation with images, sound and film for a Jewish community gathering on Nov. 11.

Q. How do you feel about the project you started?

A: With hindsight I am extremely proud of our achievements. I never dreamt that Semer Reloaded would happen. This is extremely gratifying and heartwarming. 

Q. How do you find your audiences react?

A: Sometimes astounded, always grateful, especially among holocaust survivors.

Q. Jewish music has been revived in the past few decades. Do you believe it will endure?

A. In Germany, during the ‘Thousand Year Reich,’ the music was suppressed, then forgotten. People are now rediscovering the rich heritage. Klezmer-type music is now even performed by non-Jewish ensembles and enjoyed by the public at large.

Q. You were born in Hamburg in 1937. Your hometown was bombed heavily during the war. Where did you spend the war?  

A. I was sent to a safe place at a remote coastal area, but when the bombings intensified my parents took me home again. Their reasoning was that, if we were to die, we would all die together.

My father volunteered during the First World War at age 18. His battery took a direct hit. When the dead bodies were collected a couple days later, my father was still alive but he had lost his eyesight. He finished school, studied, married and left school with a doctorate in theology. He became a university lecturer, a high school teacher, poet and literary critic. His main influence was state controlled radio and I guess that made him a follower of Hitler. It took him a while after the war to accept that the unspeakable atrocities committed by Germans were a historical fact, and not propaganda by the victors.

I remember, it must have been around 1941 when I was four years old, that our family dentist and his wife committed suicide. My parents’ reaction was “Why did they do that? They were such nice people”. It apparently did not occur to them that, as party members, they had boycotted the Ledermanns and were directly guilty, even though the reason for the suicides must have been imminent deportations.

Q. I note in a wikipedia page that you have collected and included Judaica in the massive German National Discography you have prepared. Why?

A. The German National Discography was intended to document all recordings made during the so-called shellac era (of 78 rpm breakable discs, from the 1890s to the 1960s). Since one target group were record collectors it made sense to devote volumes to genres such as Spoken Word, and Opera. One category is Judaica. My aim was to cover Jewish life, music, and religion pertaining to Germany, and/or the German language. Some people objected that between the same two hard covers I documented anything from Yiddish jokes to Zionism, anti-Semitism, Cantors, or the Holocaust. Before publication I had discussed this with the Zentralrat der Juden in Germany and got their approval. The book is now a standard work.

Q. You have also investigated the role propaganda and jazz played in the Third Reich? Why?Jazz

A. As a historian and jazz connoisseur this is an extremely fascinating topic. I am convinced that because jazz was despised by the Nazis, it flourished in Germany and in all countries occupied by the Germans, as evidenced by records. Jazz is the music of freedom and became a vehicle of opposition. One cannot dance to goose steps.

The Reich Minister for Propaganda and Public Enlightenment, Joseph Goebbels, organized a jazz band of his own to be used for anti-British and anti-American propaganda radio broadcasts, using popular tunes and adding propaganda lyrics. This is a bizarre piece of history which I have documented in Hitler’s Airwaves (Yale University Press). I may have an opportunity to talk about this to the jazz class at Carleton University on Nov. 7.

Q. Today the world seems to be turning away from liberal attitudes towards ethnic nationalism. Does this concern you? Does it make the Semer story more important?

A: Yes, hugely symbolic. Not least because on this very day (Nov. 9) the properties of the two Jewish record companies, Semer and Lukraphon, were looted and destroyed in Berlin. Both enterprises had to shut down. Their stories and their heritage would have been forgotten and I am personally proud to have rescued the treasures for posterity. We witness the victory of humanity over fascism.

While saying this, I am personally unnerved about recent trends world-wide, from the United States to Poland to Hungary and Austria, from Israel to Myanmar and Venezuela. Nationalism, bigotry and racism seem to be on the rise. We have to stand united, speak up and learn the lessons of history.

Semer Ensemble
Where: Southminster United Church 15 Aylmer Ave.
When: Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: southminsterunitedchurch.com

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.