Classical Singers and the Holocaust

From 1933, a fine voice and vocal artistry were passports to freedom for some classically trained Jewish singers. Among the many who escaped were the soprano Lotte Schoene who continued her career in France, Irene Eisinger and Richard Tauber who came to Britain and Gitta Alpar, Alexander Kipnis, Emmanuel List and Rose Pauly went to the Americas. Wagner performances in New York and Buenos Aires benefited from the stream of Jewish (and non-Jewish) refugees and were frequently on a vocal level that could not be matched in Hitler’s Reich.

But for singers who were retired or nearing the end of their careers the way out was not so easy. Several distinguished and much loved singers of the early twentieth century died in cattle trucks or gas chambers.  These included the coloratura soprano Grete Forst (1878-1942), the Wagnerian mezzos Ottilie Metzger-Lettermann and Magda Spiegel (1887-1944), the baritone Richard Breitenfeld (1869-1944), the operetta star Louis Treumann, and the great cantor Gershon Sirota.

Margarete Feiglstock (1878-1942)

Born in 1878 or 1880 (singers with the title of Kämmersinger had the legal right to change their date of birth in Vienna), Margarete Feiglstock adopted the less obviously Jewish name of Grete Forst. She made her debut at the Vienna court opera in 1903 in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor and was promptly invited by Gustav Mahler to become a member of the company. In 1908 she took part in the premiere of Karl Goldmark’s Ein Wintermärchen. After her marriage to the banker Johann Schushny in 1911 she retired from opera but continued to appear in concerts. Her conversion to Catholicism in 1940 failed to save her. On 27 May 1942 she was transported to the extermination camp of Maly Trostenets and murdered on 1 June.

Ottilie Metzger-Lattermann (1878-1943)

Ottilie Metzger-Lattermann had one of the finest voices of her generation and her records are still greatly admired by connoisseurs. Between 1903 and 1915 she was the leading mezzo of the Hamburg Opera where she had the honour of singing Amneris to the Radames of the visiting tenor Enrico Caruso in Verdi’s Aida. Between 1901 and 1912 she was a regular soloist in the Bayreuth Festivals where her Erda was particularly appreciated. Her international career took her to London and St. Petersburg and after World War I to the United States. In concert she sang until 1933 (and later in venues restricted to Jewish audiences). There was a last tantalising chance to escape her fate when in 1933 the American impresario George Blumenthal attempted to organize performances of Wagner’s Ring cycle in New York with 12 German Jewish soloists, in order to bring them to safety. Unfortunately this brave enterprise foundered on the failure to find an appropriate conductor. Ottilie Metzger-Lattermann and her daughter fled to Brussels in 1939 where they were later arrested by the invading Germans and taken to Auschwitz where they are believed to have died.

Henriette Gottlieb (1884-1942)

Recorded extracts from Beethoven’s Fidelio made in 1932 show the dramatic soprano Henriette Gottlieb still at the height of her vocal powers. However she chose to retire after the Nazis came to power the following year rather than to attempt a new international career. The competition amongst Wagnerian sopranos was particularly strong at the time, and as she was four years older than her fellow Germans Frida Leider and Lotte Lehmann, 6 years older than the French Germaine Lubin and eleven years older than the Norwegian Kirsten Flagstad who emerged as the front runner in the mid-1930s, she may have decided that it was too late to establish herself abroad. That she had not already done so was partly down to her diminutive stature. An irresistibly comic but also very poignant effect is created in a group photograph taken at the Bayreuth Festival in 1930 in which she is posed in front of her Wagnerian colleagues who tower over her.

In performances of the Ring Cycle staged in Paris in 1930, with many of the finest Wagnerian singers of the day, Henriette Gottlieb was consigned to minor roles while the more famous Frida Leider and Nanny Larson-Todsen took on the heavier roles. For contractual reason the French record company of Pathé could use neither Leider, nor Larsson-Todsen when they made the first ever attempt to record an abridged version of the Ring cycle on 40 78rpm sides. Instead Gottlieb was assigned the role of Brünnhilde and acquitted herself brilliantly. Her version of Brünnhilde’s solo ‘Ewig war’ in act III of Siegfried, with its confident top C and its finely executed trill is one of the best on record. Though George Blumenthal does not list the twelve Jewish singers he wanted for his New York Ring Cycle in his autobiography, one wonders if Henriette Gottlieb was one of them.

In her autobiography, the soprano Erna Berger who had recorded a deeply moving version of the quartet from Fidelio with Henriette Gottlieb in 1932, reflected on her own attitude to the disappearance and eventual fate of her Jewish colleagues at the Berlin State Opera:

We knew that Furtwängler attempted to help some, and succeeded in some cases, but we did not know of the terrible fate of those he failed to help. None of those, that I knew, knew that. Did we not want to know? Could we not have guessed it and should we not have tried to find out?

Henriette Gottlieb was deported to Poland in 1941 and died in the Lodz ghetto on January 2nd 1942.

Louis Treumann (1872-1943)

Louis Treumann was the greatest male star of the so-called “Silver Age” of Viennese operetta. Indeed he helped to launch it with his dapper performance of the role of Danilo in the premiere of Franz Lehar’s Merry Widow on 31 December 1905. Treumann’s charm and ebullience are much in evidence in his many recordings. Treumann and his wife were repeatedly saved by the intervention of influential friends and colleagues such as the popular actor Theo Lingen and the composer Franz Lehar, but eventually both were deported to Theresienstadt where his wife died in 1942 and Treumann himself in 1943.

Gershon Sirota (1874-1943)

Though Gershon Sirota never appeared in opera, his rich and powerful voice caused him to be compared with Caruso and as recorded, his spectacular technique in florid music is still a matter of wonder. His international fame and popularity meant that he could easily have found a refuge in almost any country. Returning to Warsaw to be with his ailing wife, he was trapped by the German invasion and died in the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943.