Kurt Singer (1885-1944) was a conductor, musician, musicologist and neurologist. Though described by his daughter Margot Wachsmann-Singer as 'more German than the Germans', he was dismissed as a Jew from his roles in Germany’s musical life after Hitler’s takeover in 1933. He then turned to 'Jewish' undertakings and from 1933-1938 led the Berlin Jüdischer Kulturbund (Jewish Culture League), an organization devoted to Jewish culture performed by and for Jews. This organization, which existed from 1933-1941, was at the centre of Singer’s life and death.
The son of a rabbi, Singer was born on 11 October 1885 in Koblenz. He studied medicine and musicology in Berlin, where he became a neurologist. Combining his interests in medicine and music, in 1912 he founded the Berliner Aerztechor (Doctors' Choir), which he also conducted. During World War I, he was a military doctor, earning an iron cross for his service. After the war, he acted as music editor for the Berlin newspaper Vorwärts, the central organ of the Social Democratic Party of Germany. He also wrote and published such works as Wesen und Heilwirkung der Musik (The Healing Power of Music) as well as Berufskrankheiten der Musiker (The Occupational Illness of Musicians), and produced valuable research on German folk song and the composers Richard Wagner and Anton Bruckner. In 1927, his diverse musical accomplishments earned him a post as Intendant of the Städtische Oper (Municipal Opera House) in Charlottenburg, Berlin, under Heinz Tietjen.
When the Nazis came to power, Singer lost this position. One of the regime’s earliest decrees was the Gesetz zur Weiderherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums (Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service) of 7 April 1933, passed six days after the boycott of Jewish businesses. By means of the Law’s Aryan paragraph, 'civil servants who are not of Aryan ancestry' were to be dismissed. This measure prevented non-Aryans from holding positions in the public sphere, especially at cultural institutions such as state-run music conservatories, opera houses, concert halls and theatres. In response to such Nazi legislation, rising antisemitism, and simple mathematics (Berlin had a significant Jewish population), Kurt Baumann, who had worked as Singer’s assistant at the Municipal Opera House from 1930-1932, drafted a detailed proposal for a Jewish cultural association and contacted Singer. Baumann was wise to contact Singer. Singer had envisioned a similar organization and – as a combat veteran and respected figure in German national circles – was the perfect spokesperson for such an endeavour. Baumann and Singer revised the initial proposal for the League, and then recruited other Jewish leaders, such as Berlin’s chief rabbi Leo Baeck, journalist Werner Levie and conductor Joseph Rosenstock, who had been removed from his post as music director at the National Theatre in Mannheim. When Baumann approached theatre critic Julius Bab with the project, Bab was justifiably skeptical: 'Are we allowed to do this?' Indeed, it was not clear how the organization would win the Nazi government’s sponsorship.
A born leader, Singer has been described as charismatic and a 'great personality'. He drew on these attributes as he struggled to generate interest within various government offices. He was eventually invited to meet with Hans Hinkel, who had been appointed head of the Prussian Theatre Commission by the new Prussian minister Hermann Göring immediately after Hitler’s ascension to power. In April 1933, Hinkel began negotiating with Singer the operating terms for the creation of the Kulturbund. In the middle of May, Hinkel summoned Singer to a final meeting with Göring, who warned: 'If all of you do everything right and obey Herr Hinkel, then everything will go well. If all of you behave badly, then there’ll be trouble, you know that.' In this way, the Kulturbund received the Nazi government’s 'blessing,' and one of the most paradoxical partnerships in German history began.
During the Kulturbund's tenure, Singer did his best to meet the various demands of the heterogeneous Jewish community involved through a repertoire both familiar and 'Jewish.' He also struggled to maintain the organization despite economic hardships and emigration. To do this, Singer turned to Kurt Sommerfeld, a former musician in the Kulturbund, who had left the ensemble in 1936 to participate in the newly formed Palestine Orchestra. In a letter of 1937, he asked Sommerfeld to help prevent additional musicians from emigrating to join the Orchestra. Though Singer generally helped Kulturbund members leave Germany, Singer’s devotion to the Kulturbund at times bordered on delusional as conditions for Jews in Germany worsened. This detachment from reality became more dangerous in the following year.
In 1938, Singer travelled to the United States, where he visited his sister and lectured at Harvard University. Ernest Lenart, the Tempelherr in the League’s inaugural performance (1933) of Lessing’s Nathan the Wise and an émigré since 1938, visited Singer during his trip. Lenart told him about Kristallnacht, the catastrophic pogroms of November 9-10, and urged him to remain in America. Singer replied: 'Dear Lenart, I must go back.' Despite being offered a university position during his stay in the United States, out of loyalty and the importance he placed on the Kulturbund, Singer refused. Upon hearing news of Kristallnacht, he returned to Europe to, in his own words, 'rescue what could be rescued'. En route in Rotterdam, friends and acquaintances were able to intercede and persuade Singer to suspend his homecoming. Within a few days, he believed the Kulturbund could no longer function in Nazi Germany. He remained in Holland and, until he realized the severity of the situation, participated, to a limited extent, in musical activities there, including concerts at the Joodsche Schouwburg (Jewish Theatre), which the Nazis established in 1941 on the model of the Berlin Jewish Culture League. With the Nazi occupation of Holland, Singer tried to return to the United States, eventually pinning all his hopes on a non-quota-visa. But no means of escape was forthcoming. On 15 July 1942, the first deportations from Amsterdam to Auschwitz began. Between August 1942 and November 1943, the Jewish Theatre, of all places, was used as a deportation centre and Jews in the region, including Singer, reported there to await transport. Because of his 'outstanding service to Germany’s artistic community', Singer was sent to the 'model' concentration camp Terezín, where he died in January 1944. On 11 October 1997, a memorial tablet was erected in Singer’s honor on Mommsenstrasse in Charlottenburg.
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“Gedenktafel fuer Kurt Singer eingeweiht.” Die Tagezeitung (October 13, 1997): 23.
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Wachsmann-Singer, Margot. Interview with Martin Goldsmith of February 25, 2004. Transcript provided by Gail Prensky.
Zortman, Bruce H. “Theatre in Isolation: The Jüdischer Kulturbund of Nazi Germany.” Educational Theatre Journal 24, no. 2 (May 1972): 159-168.