The Semer Ensemble performs lost Jewish music of 1930s Berlin
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, it didn't take them long to go after musicians. Nazi propagandists and ultra-nationalists identified non-Aryan and black musicians as a threat to the purity of German music, and labelled it degenerate, or "Entartete Musik."
Jewish musicians were forbidden to perform for non-Jewish audiences and were completely barred from playing music the Nazis identified as Aryan. What had been an innovative and liberal society was now consigning some of its most vital members to a ghetto.
Bern is Jewish, a musician, composer, cultural activist and philosopher. As director of the Semer Ensemble, he performs music from Weimar which was nearly lost to history in the years after the war.
Since 1987, Bern, who was born in Indiana, has lived in Berlin, which prior to the rise of Hitler was a destination for Jewish artists from all over Europe.
"There were Jews singing German beer-drinking songs," Bern says. "There were Jews in opera. There were Jews doing Russian folk songs. They were classical composers — Schoenberg was in Berlin at that time.
"Maybe you can compare it to New York in the '60s or something like that," he continues. "It was just phenomenal. And Jews were very well integrated into German society. So there were Jews participating in every part of what was going on."
But then, suddenly, they weren't.
A 'Noah's Ark' of music
A year before the Nazis imposed their limitations on Jewish musicians, a Berlin bookstore owner named Hirsch Lewin started a record label called Semer Records. Artists who had nowhere else to go flocked to Lewin and Semer became a seed bank of Jewish music.
"The Semer label was one of the responses on the part of the Jewish community to step up and say, 'Well, at least let's give people an opportunity to practice their craft, and let's make sure that we have a public record of what Jews were doing at this period of time,'" Bern explains.
There was a sense of defiance as Jewish musicians insisted on making and recording their music in the face of fascist oppression.
"Jewish artists who were making recordings a couple hundred meters away from Gestapo headquarters insisted on leading normal lives," Bern says. "'We have a right to German beer-drinking songs. Yes, we have a right to jokes. Yes, we have a right to cabaret. We're going to go on living as normal human beings as long as we possibly can.'"
For five years, Lewin recorded widely diverse music from the community, but the clock was ticking.
"On November 9, 1938, the Gestapo stormed the Semer label store, and destroyed all of the recordings and the masters as well, and sent Hirsch Lewin to a concentration camp," Bern says. "And basically the record of this, and the memory of it, was lost for the next 70 years."
In the early 1990s, a musicologist named Dr. Rainer Lotz began to restore the Semer catalog.
"He took it upon himself for the next several years to travel all around Europe — I think he came to North America too, and I know for sure he was in Israel — and basically follow every clue that he could and see if he could relocate any of those recordings," Bern explains.
After nearly a decade of searching, Lotz completed his mission.
"The miracle is that he was able to find at least one copy of every recording in the catalog," Bern marvels.
The global scattering of Semer recordings, a kind of musical diaspora, is a powerful idea: people fleeing the Nazis under extreme conditions retained only their most prized possessions. In many cases, that included recorded music.
"If you've ever seen any of those old 78 rpm records, they were very heavy and very fragile," Bern says. "You could bump them or look at them the wrong way and they would smash. So it's actually a really good indicator of how much those records meant to those people."
Bringing the past into the present
Rebuilding the Semer catalogue restores a crucial piece of Weimar and Jewish history. Bern wants the music to be more than archival. As the founder and director of the Semer Ensemble, he and his musicians travel and perform music recorded by Hirsch Lewin in the dark and dangerous years before the war. It's a reanimation of the recordings, an affirmation of lost lives.
"It's very difficult to connect to the people from before the Holocaust without thinking them of them as victims," Bern says, "but in their own lives they weren't victims.
"They were powerful people living full lives — as you and I are sitting here in this studio at this moment just like two other people sat in a radio studio in Berlin in 1932 not knowing what can happen in five years."
Bern has now lived in Berlin for 30 years. He says the historical weight and insistence of the place is always present.
"The historical energy of that city spoke to me and continues to this day to speak to me from every nook and cranny. And when I came to Berlin in the '80s that was very clear to me, that there was a kind of a spiritual role for my work there," he says. "I don't mean a religious role — I'm actually not a religious person, but values that go beyond simple entertainment, values that make us reflect upon how we live our lives, and the values that we deeply hold.
"I think that's an important function of art and of music."
To hear the full interview with the Semer Ensemble's Alan Bern, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.