Review: Semer Ensemble reveals a lost world though beautiful songs and and bittersweet stories

Some members of the Semer Ensemble in a previous performance: Sasha Lurje, Mark Kovnatskiy, Lorin Sklamberg and Paul Brody.

Seventy-nine years ago, Nazi thugs in brown shorts smashed into the businesses of Jews across Germany and Austria in the pogroms that began the spiral into the Final Solution.

One of the businesses that was destroyed was a small record label founded by a Lithuanian Jew named Hirsch Lewin. He recorded the music of the vibrant Jewish community of Berlin from the secular to the sacred.

The records were of shellac and easily breakable. And many of them were broken. For many years the music was thought to be lost. But through the efforts, over a decade, of a dedicated and motivated German musicologist named Rainer Lotz, they were found.

But the story of Semer doesn’t end there. The music deserved to be played … live. And five years ago the American ex-pat exponent of new Jewish music Alan Bern was asked to put together an ensemble to perform the songs of Semer. He’s done a pretty darn good job.

A packed sanctuary at Southminster United Church got an earful of the joy and sorrow that the music of Semer conveys on Thursday night.

It’s not possible to deny the emotional resonance of such a performance on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the long ago night of broken glass and terror.

But what Bern and his six colleagues have done is put the memory in the past, never to be forgotten, and created something new that has outlived the thugs and the haters.

Thursday night, the Semer Ensemble performed music from klezmer to cabaret to prayer, sung in German, Yiddish and Russian, that feels as fresh today as the day it was recorded. One of the songs was called Die Welt ist klein geworden (The world has become small) could have been pressed yesterday with its take on technology and alienation. It was sung originally by a soprano named Dora Gerson. The Ensemble also presented another of Gerson’s standards, called Vorbei (Beyond Recall).

Before they performed the latter number they told her tragic story:

Gerson was a Jewish cabaret singer and actor who was married to a film director who would go on to direct anti-Semitic films. The couple separated and by 1936 Gerson had fled the Nazi regime and settled in Holland. But she did not escape a second time. Gerson ended up in Auschwitz where she died. With that knowledge, the songs sung by Sasha Lurje took on powerful poignancy.

Another piece called Czardas was a violin solo, performed Thursday night by Mark Kovnatskiy that was first performed and recorded by Andreas Weissgerber. He made it out of Germany but died in 1941 in Tel Aviv. The music was found by Lotz in a suitcase stuck under a bed in a home in Israel owned by one of Weissgerber’s relatives.

Of such stuff is a culture saved.

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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.