In the early 1930s, as anti-Semitism was clenching its fingers around Germany’s throat, the Nazi party issued an edict to the effect that Jewish artists were no longer allowed to perform in any of the country’s theaters, orchestras, concert halls, and opera. As you might imagine, artists (especially Jewish artists) were already living a somewhat marginalized life, so their abrupt dismissal from cultural institutions they’d helped build was upsetting on several levels. A small number left the country for other opportunities immediately, but for most, Germany was home.
Some of the artists who remained were (almost miraculously) granted permission to create their own parallel arts institution. The Jewish Cultural League, or Jüdischer Kulturbund, as it came to be known, was an artistic smash hit: a huge subscriber base in multiple German cities and several seasons full of critically-acclaimed plays, concerts, lectures, cabarets, and operas. For the Nazis, on the other hand, the Kulturbund was a completely different kind of success: propaganda. “How bad can things be”, the Nazis told the world, “if the Jews are still free to make art?”
But things were bad, as we know, and soon to get worse. Restrictions on the Kulturbund grew and grew. First, only Jews were allowed to attend performances. Next, the Kulturbund wasn’t allowed to perform the work of any German artists—Beethoven, Bach, Wagner, Goethe—and then they were only allowed to perform work by Jewish artists. Finally, as Jews were being rounded up all over the country, all but one of the Kulturbund’s venues was shut down, a few courageous artists managing to slip out of Germany before the doors of history closed . . . and then that last venue perished, too, as the extermination began in full force.
What was it like to make music and tell stories under conditions like that? How did the members of the Kulturbund even speak, let alone create art? How, for that matter, have artists throughout the world and throughout history—from Pussy Riot and Ai Weiwei to the Belarus Free Theatre and Salman Rushdie—managed to keep creating in the face of so much terror and repression, threat and tyranny? How do any of us, really, find the courage to express something beautiful in what can be a very ugly world?