As It Happens

Israeli radio shouldn't apologize for playing Wagner, says son of Holocaust survivor

Jonathan Livny, president of the Israel Wagner Society, says his father taught him that Wagner "was a horrible man who wrote godly music."

Jonathan Livny says the anti-Semitic German composer 'was a horrible man who wrote godly music'

German composer Richard Wagner, a virulent anti-Semite and favourite of Adolf Hitler, circa 1872. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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When Jonathan Livny's father fled Nazi Germany, he had only a few possessions with him — important documents, precious family photo albums and several records featuring the music of virulent anti-Semite Richard Wagner.

"My father taught me to love the music of Wagner and, as a Holocaust survivor, he told me he was a horrible man who wrote godly music," Livny, president of the Israel Wagner Society, told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

"By the way, my father was the only one of our whole family who survived and who came to Israel. All the rest were killed by the Nazis."

So when Livny heard Wagner's Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods) playing on Israeli public radio Friday, he said he "thought Messiah, who supposedly will come from our area, had finally arrived."

But the station immediately received complaints and issued an apology.

 'It was a wrong public decision'

There is is no official Wagner ban in Israel, but most radio stations have policies against playing Adolf Hitler's favourite composer.

"This is out of an understanding of the pain such a broadcast would evoke among the Holocaust survivors in our audience," a spokesperson for the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation said in a statement.

Jonathan Livny, president of the Israel Wagner Society, said he doesn't think Israel's public radio broadcaster has anything to apologize for. (Submitted by Jonathan Livny)

"The editor erred in his artistic choice to play the piece, and it was a wrong public decision."

Livny said the broadcaster's apology is "a lot of BS, if I may say so."

'As a human being, I despise him'

Wagner, a 19th-century German composer, was an outspoken anti-Semite whose music and views were beloved by Hitler.

He wrote screeds about about racial purity, including his notorious pamphlet Judaism in Music, which stated that "the Jew" is "incapable of artistic expression."

Winifred Wagner, left, daughter-in-law of the German composer, with her son Wieland, right, and German dictator Adolf Hitler, centre, in the garden at Wahnfried, the Wagner home in Bayreuth, on July 26, 1938. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

For this reason, Livny said he hates the man.

"As a matter of fact, several times when I went to Bayreuth, where his opera house stands, and I was asked by members of other societies to put a wreath on his grave. I used to say, 'I don't want to put a wreath on his grave. I'm willing to put a wreath on the grave of his dog, but not on his,'" he said.

"As a person, as a human being, I despise him because of his hatred of Jews. But as a music writer, he's amazing."

A letter penned by Wagner warns of Jewish influence in culture. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

That separation between man and artist is key for ​Livny.

"My father always told me: once the music is written, it belongs to the world. Whoever wrote it is not important," he said.

"And one day when I face the Almighty, I'll ask him how come such a horrible man, such a terrible anti-Semite, was able to write such beautiful, such impressive, such good music."

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the station received several complaints from listeners after playing the Wagner song.

​Livny has some advice for those who were offended.

"If somebody does not want to listen to this music, he can press the off button," he said.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Jonathan Livny produced by Kevin Robertson.

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