Broken lives and broken notes

Broken lives and broken notes

Actors, family members talk about the Comedian Harmonists

Eric Peters stands between Erich Collin’s grandchildren, Marc Alexander and Deborah Tint.
Eric Peters stands between Erich Collin’s grandchildren, Marc Alexander and Deborah Tint.

“There is an interesting push and pull with playing a real person, which I personally really love.”

This from actor Eric Peters. The real person he plays is Erich Collin, a member of the Comedian Harmonists in the Barry Manilow/Bruce Sussman musical “Harmony,” which opened first at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene and then moved to the Barrymore, on Broadway. The group’s intricate harmonies made them the toast of Europe — until Nazi restrictions on Jews forced them to split.

“But the real Erich by all accounts was quite different from the Erich that gets displayed on stage,” Mr. Peters continued. “That happens with a dramatization.”

To examine what at least two of the singers were like, I participated in a Zoom call with Collin’s grandchildren, Deborah Tint and Marc Alexander; Mr. Peters; Michael Salzbank, a distant relative of Harry Frommermann, another of the founding Comedian Harmonists, and Zal Owen, who plays Harry.

Despite a previous Broadway production about the a cappella group called “Band in Berlin” (it ran just a couple of weeks in 1999), a book, and a documentary film, the Comedian Harmonists remain largely unknown. In fact, when I asked Mr. Peters what his reaction was when he first learned of the group, he said that he had wondered, “If these guys were so big, how come I never heard of them? Not only that. I don’t know anyone who has heard of them.

“So at first I came at them from a place of intrigue.”

For the record, Frommermann founded the group in the late 1920s; he wanted to create a German version of an American a cappella group called the Revelers. Ironically, like the Comedian Harmonists, the Revelers also seem lost to history. The Comedian Harmonists became extremely successful, but because three of the members were considered Jewish and another married a Jew, the Nazis made their lives increasingly difficult and eventually prohibited them from performing.

In that regard, Collin was perhaps most interesting. As Mr. Alexander noted, although he had a secular Jewish father, Paul Abraham, his mother, Elizabeth Collin, was a religious Evangelical and had him baptized. “We believe the Collins used to be the Cohens,” he said. “So they were a completely assimilated family in Germany, and they got caught up in this horror.”

In fact, Erich was baptized, raised Christian, and didn’t think otherwise “until he was classified as Jewish under Hitler’s race laws,” Mr. Alexander said. In fact, Collin supposedly said that if the Jewish members of the group were forced to leave Germany, he would remain.

Of his two grandchildren, Mr. Alexander knew him better. “I was pretty much raised by my mother and grandparents for the first five years of my life,” he said. “I remember him singing in the shower, shaving with a straight razor, fishing with me in Malibu. I don’t remember him celebrating any religious holidays, but I recall him taking me to Hebrew school.

Zal Owen

“I remember him as being an even-keeled person. I remember him as doing everything he could to sustain his family through a bunch of different jobs. I also remember him as someone who had a great respect for German culture. He used to refer to the three ‘Bs’ — Brahms, Beethoven, and Bach. Then he also referred to what he called ‘happy shit music.’ I never understood whether that was popular music he enjoyed or disparaged.”

Mr. Alexander’s half-sister, Ms. Tint — their mother, Eva Suzanne, remarried after her divorce from Mr. Alexander’s father — added: “Because my mother used that expression as well, there was affection in it. It wasn’t completely disparaging.”

Ms. Tint didn’t “know my grandfather, but I knew my mother and grandmother, and they told me stories,” she said. “Also, I became the family’s de facto archivist.”

She works as an archivist for the Brooklyn Public Library, “and after my grandmother died, there were literally 100 years of photographs to be dealt with. And so I created family albums and wrote the story down as much as I could remember.

“Both my mother and grandmother didn’t talk an awful lot about the war years and their past lives. I think that’s common. So what I did was approach them very gingerly, pull out a photograph, and say, ‘Who is this? Where is it?’ Then wait for some time to elapse and do it again (with another photograph).”

According to Mr. Alexander, his grandfather did not hold a grudge. On the contrary, “at some point he told my mother, ‘Don’t feel sorry for me. I lived a lifetime in seven years.’

“He wasn’t a member of the Comedian Harmonists for seven years, so I think he must have been adding some of his career with the Comedy Harmonists,” a group the exiled Jews formed after they left Germany.

Frommermann, on the other hand, “from his letters clearly was bitter and crushed,” according to Mr. Salzbank. Some years ago, Mr. Salzbank went searching in his parents’ attic looking for “old pictures to share with relatives while I was sitting shiva for my mother,” he said.

Instead, he found two old suitcases that contained dozens of letters to and from his grandfather, Joseph Aaron Freiman, who was Harry’s first cousin. Freiman not only kept letters he received, but he also held onto carbon copies of many he sent. In total, those letters paint in many ways a sad picture of Frommermann’s post-Harmonist life.

“Throughout the letters that he sent to my grandfather, he keeps talking about how he keeps trying to resurrect some form of the recordings,” Mr. Salzbank said. “He was struggling financially, constantly trying to get involved again, to create his career again.

Zal Owen, second from right, with Harry Frommermann’s cousins, brothers Michael, Alan, and Robert Salzbank.

“That ultimately led him to return to Germany, roughly when he was 61 or 62, to live out the rest of his life. He said, ‘I’m better off. I can make do with what the German reparations are.’”

Zal Owen, who plays Harry and has a photo of one of his letters framed and hanging in his dressing room, chimes in:

“Harry absolutely had a sense of frustration and he was tortured by what he went through. It’s very much reflected in the letter.”

Mr. Owen read a paragraph in which Frommermann suggests his survival and return to Germany, living off government reparations, is a form of payback “for what I lost in health, in profession, and in regards to economic damages.”

Mr. Salzbank got in touch with Bruce Sussman, the “Harmony” playwright, and “said if the actor playing Harry was interested in touching base, he” — Mr. Salzbank — “had this plethora of letters and artifacts,” Mr. Owen recalled.

“And of course, who wouldn’t want to take advantage of that opportunity? Michael came to a show with his wife downtown and brought a manila envelope full of photocopies of letters. And I vividly remember being on the subway home, opening them up and starting to read them. I didn’t put them down until I finished every one of them that night.”

Mr. Owen “grew up in Westfield,” he said. “I was very connected with various Jewish organizations growing up. I went to Solomon Schechter for primary school. I was an active member of Beth Or in Clark. My father was president of the synagogue. My sister and I were both very active in the USY,” United Synagogue Youth. “We were both presidents of our chapter. I moved to New York City for about 10 years, but when the pandemic hit, my wife and I and our baby daughter moved  to Maplewood. Now we are members of Congregation Beth El in South Orange.”

The subject of inherited trauma remembrance came up, and Mr. Owen noted that “obviously, my grandparents made it out or I wouldn’t be here. But a lot of their brothers and sisters stayed and were murdered. Preserving memories was a major part of my upbringing. Every Pesach we would watch a Holocaust film. That was a tradition in my family. A different film every year. And so, for me, I almost grew up being given the trauma. It was instilled in me to make sure that it wasn’t lost.

“And for me,  the thing that I find most interesting about the Comedian Harmonists — and Eric and I talk about this in the dressing room — is that there are so few stories about how things got as bad as they did, how an entire nation allowed this to happen. I think what the show displays to an audience is the set-up, the beginning stages of how these men were, fortunately, not killed but lost everything. And how everyone in the society was willing to let that happen to this group.

“It should be a wake-up call.”

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