In 2007, retired West Long Branch attorney Douglas E. Friedman took a research trip to Berlin to learn more about a 1930s musical group in Nazi Germany. The group was disbanded at the peak of its career simply because some of its members were Jewish.
Motivated by his lifelong passion for music, Jewish heritage, and Holocaust awareness, Friedman wanted to know more about Jewish cultural life prior to the Holocaust. He sifted through about 50,000 archived documents, consulted translators, and interviewed historians and music experts before writing The Comedian Harmonists: The Last Great Jewish Performers in Nazi Germany.
On May 15, Friedman shared the results of his research at a Jewish American Heritage Month program at the Monmouth County Library Headquarters in Manalapan.
Once as popular in Europe as the Beatles would be three decades later, the Comedian Harmonists gave more than 150 concerts a year, Friedman said.
“They sang in sold-out performances at the major concert halls of Europe. They even performed on the battleship Saratoga in the New York harbor in 1934 in a meeting of Atlantic and Pacific fleets, with about 81,000 listeners,” Friedman told NJJN.
The group’s signature sound was the close blending of their voices in harmony. They had a wide repertoire, performing folk and classical songs as well as popular tunes of the day. They also appeared in 21 films.
“But when the Nazis began implementing their plan, bookings started to drop,” said Friedman. “They were no longer allowed to perform on radio or in films. Hecklers harassed them at performances.”
More than 200 people attended the library’s Jewish American Heritage Month event, which included a screening of The Harmonists, the award-winning 1999 German film about the group.
All proceeds from Friedman’s book go to the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education at Brookdale Community College (Chhange) in Lincroft, where he is a board member.
‘Shadow of ominous world’
Jews were officially ousted from the music profession when the Nazis created a state music bureau, the Reichsmusikkammer, Friedman said. Professional musicians were required to become members in order to perform. The Harmonists’ three non-Jewish members were approved on the condition that they replace their Jewish colleagues with non-Jews and change the name of their group.
The three Jewish musicians, founder Harry Frommermann (third tenor), Roman Cycowski (baritone), and Erich Collin (second tenor) managed to leave Germany through a false contract their agent made up for a concert in Vienna. They performed in Austria until the country became annexed to Germany. They then fled to Australia, and eventually the United States.
The group disbanded in 1935. Cycowski became a cantor in San Francisco. Collin worked at an aircraft factory in southern California. Frommermann joined the U.S. Army and became a translator at the Nuremberg Trials before returning to Germany in the early 1960s.
“It’s incredibly sad,” Friedman said. “Imagine how far they could have gone with their music had they been allowed to continue.”
Audience members at the library event were intrigued by the little-known story.
“The fact that it all happened under the Nazi regime in the pre-Holocaust world, a period we know less about than that of the Holocaust, really interests me,” said Nelly Segal of Tinton Falls, also a Chhange board member.
“The film blended beauty with some subtle sinister touches, revelry, violence, and the magical, playful, seductive sounds of the Harmonists, under the shadow of an ominous world,” Segal said. “What made it all the more powerful was the minimalistic dialogue, which invoked for me the literary world created by Holocaust novelist Aharon Appelfeld.”
For Mimi Werbler of Morganville, also a Chhange board member, the film triggered memories of her father, who survived internment in eight concentration camps and lost his entire family. “The movie upset me at one point because even though their stories differed from my father’s, when the musicians were leaving the country with nothing, it made me think of him leaving, without anyone or anything.”