The whole idea behind Beyond Recall is that nothing recorded should ever be totally beyond recall. This prodigious Bear Family boxed set is like a chunk of the planet Krypton crashing our atmosphere—and not just because the accompanying 500-page, German and English book weighs almost eight pounds.
Subtitled A Record of Jewish Musical Life in Nazi Berlin 1933-1938, Beyond Recall is the ultimate artifact of Germany’s 15-year-long fascination with klezmer revivalists and parallel interest in extinct Eastern European Jewish culture: eleven CDs, comprising 14 hours of 78s made by or featuring members of the Jüdische Kulturbund (Jewish Cultural Organization), the only legal employer of Jewish musicians in Germany from the Nazi seizure of power through the Kristallnacht pogrom. The set isn’t merely the “Best of the Jüdische Kulturbund,” or a Kulturbund sampling, but everything. That is,everything that exists—even test pressings.
The material on Beyond Recall has been recovered from records found on four continents, often as unique copies. As an excavation, it’s even more arduous and obsessive than the archaeological dig carried out by the Yiddish Radio Project, whose roughly contemporaneous treasure trove of Barry Sisters close-harmonizing, hipster-nigun station IDs, freylekh ads for Bronx clothing emporia, and crazy commercials promoting “gefilte fish in jars”—much of it retrieved from aluminum discs that had moldered for 40 years in Joe Franklin’s Times Square office—has also just been released on CD.
There was no Jewish radio in Nazi Germany—in fact, Jews weren’t even permitted to own radios. They were also barred from Aryan concert halls and theaters, and banned from performing for anyone except Jewish audiences. The bulk of Beyond Recall was recorded by two small Berlin-based labels: Semer, run by Hirsch Lewin out of his Hebrew Bookshop, and Lukraphone, owned by secular businessman Moritz Lewin. These unrelated Lewins also issued a few 78s by visiting Yiddish American performers and international superstar cantors like Gershon Sirota or Yosele Rosenblatt. (There were also a few Tel Aviv firms that recorded Kulturbund artists in Berlin, producing records marketed in Palestine—robust, sometimes even jazzy, Zionist folk songs like the purposeful hora “Hand the Bricks” and the catchy “Buy Palestinian Products Hymn.”)
Not surprisingly, Lukraphone and Semer especially were heavy on comfort—which is to say sacred—music. Their cantorials represent two distinct modes—that of Eastern European Jews, based on virtuoso solo performance, and the reformed Western style, in which arrangements were fixed and the cantor’s voice more integrated into a chorus. An echt urban stylist, oberkantor Karl Neumann sings a solemn “Had Gadya” in Aramaic with a lilting, trilling German version on the flip side; other German cantors are backed by strings. More countrified, the primary Eastern khazn—and the revelation of the set—is Israel Bakon, a peripatetic young Chasidic singer from a family of cantors who was discovered by Hirsch Lewin. Bakon’s soulful, sobbing, note-bending improvisations, heard on 23 sides, are both supple and raw. His repertoire includes Yiddish folk songs and Zionist anthems—you get the feeling he could have happily cut a record a day. (Mutatis mutandis, this bravado and hitherto unknown artist was the Kulturbund Robert Johnson—complete with spooky falsetto.)
As the Nazis consolidated power, the Kulturbund repertoire was increasingly regulated. Ultimately, only work by Jewish composers was permitted. No more records of Arnon Rojanski singing arias from Bizet and Puccini in Hebrew. Thus, the German tenor Mordechai Roth switched to Hebrew lieder, and bel canto singer Josef Schwarmer Stengyel recorded Yiddish folk material. Lukraphone, in particular, specialized in artists who were compelled to become more Jewish. This produced some bizarre syntheses: Toni Turk’s operatic version of the Yiddish lullaby “Oyfn Pripetchik” (By the Fireplace), Kantor Schlomo Hartenberg’s tango arrangement of the nostalgic ballad “My Shtetle Belz,” the society klez of Sid Kay’s Fellows—a jazz ensemble which, founded in the late ’20s, had briefly included Sidney Bechet. Marion Koegel, a Marlene Dietrich look- if not sound-alike, made a German-accented, near hysterical version of the Sophie Tucker heart clutcher “My Yiddishe Mama.” Paula Lindberg, a leading German concert contralto, recorded the Yiddish folk song “Almonds and Raisins.”
These recordings haunt more than they swing. By contrast, Shanachie’s Music From the Yiddish Radio Project testifies to the particular late-’30s synthesis of klez and big-band jazz epitomized by the 1937 blockbuster “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen.” So does the new, two-CD Columbia release From Avenue A to the Great White Way: Yiddish & American Popular Songs From 1914-1950 (also assembled by Yiddish Radio Project maven Henry Sapoznik). Indeed, Avenue A, which mixes and matches obscurities like the song beginning “Yes we have no bananas—Gevalt!” with Xavier Cugat’s samba-sized Yiddish swing, suggests a sort of call and response between Yiddish theater music and Tin Pan Alley throughout the first half of the 20th century.
No such dialectic was present in what was known before 1933 as the “German-Jewish symbiosis,” unless it was in the banned Comedian Harmonists, the exiled Kurt Weill, or the extinguished world of Weimar cabaret. Beyond Recall offers only a tantalizing taste of such Kulturbund kleinkunst performances. The bon vivant Willie Rosen croons of being in Hawaii or spending a romantic evening at the “Golden Snail Inn,” while versatile Dora Gerson—a singer associated with Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble—performs the melancholy chanson “Vorbei” (Gone Beyond Recall), which gives the boxed set its title. Gerson had just been divorced by the opportunistic film director Veit Harlan, later responsible for the Final Solution curtain-raiser Jüd Suss.
As dense as it is with explications of Jewish liturgy and a detailed account of the political environment of Nazi Germany, the Beyond Recall book makes for compelling reading. Every recording and every artist has a story. To take one that ends happily: In 1939, Hirsch Lewin was thrown a lifeline by a New Haven congregation but arrested by the Gestapo before he could clear his emigration papers. Sent to a concentration camp but then shipped to Vienna, he managed to board an illegal transport to Palestine. The leaky boat sank; its survivors were marooned on an Aegean island, discovered by an Italian sub, and interned on Rhodes. His wife, meanwhile, went underground in Berlin, eluded deportation to Poland, and smuggled herself into Italy, where she and Lewin hid out for the rest of the war until they finally made it to Tel Aviv, where they revived Semer under the rubric Kol Zion (Voice of Zion).
Palestine is a constant presence on Beyond Recall. The set’s 12th disc is a DVD of Hebrew Melody, a long-lost nine-minute movie commissioned by the Kulturbund in 1935. Violinist Andreas Weissberger climbs from a car in the labyrinth of old Jerusalem, heads through the narrow streets beyond the city walls, and up into the ruin-studded hills. He opens his case, lifts out the violin, and begins ecstatically to play. Perhaps nowhere more than in Berlin 1935 would this moonscape seem like the promised land.
Bear Family, www.bear-family.de
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 21, 2002