Conversation with Martin Goldsmith

November 21, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: The book is “The Inextinguishable Symphony,” the story of flutist Gunther Goldschmidt and violist Rosemarie Gumpert, who meet, make music, fall in love, and ultimately survive the horrors of Nazi Germany. The man who tells their story is their son, Martin Goldsmith, longtime host of the classical music program “Performance Today” on National Public Radio. Martin, I think one of the most amazing parts of a very amazing story is that you didn’t know a lot of this, growing up and living with your parents into their old age.

MARTIN GOLDSMITH: As was the case with many families in our situation, my parents didn’t talk about what had happened to them, what had happened to their families in Nazi Germany. It was just too painful.

And it was not anything we talked about around the dining room table at home, the four of us, my parents, my brother, and me. It wasn’t that we were told not to speak of the subject. We weren’t shushed in any way. It just was something that didn’t come up.

I write in the book, “we didn’t talk about what had happened in Germany for the same reason that we didn’t talk about bauxite mining in Peru.” I mean, these were just two subjects that never came up for us.

RAY SUAREZ: Your mother passed on, your father was getting older and you started to peel away this story and understand more about their amazing lives.

MARTIN GOLDSMITH: It took a while, Ray. In 1992, the year I turned 40, I was in Europe. My father was in Europe. We arranged to meet in his hometown of Oldenberg, sort of a middle-sized town in Northwest Germany, and he showed me a few things that he remembered from his childhood: The house where he grew up in, the place where his father had a women’s clothing store, the place where Nazis organized the boycott on April 1, 1933.

He showed me the pfedermarkt, the horse market, where his father had been taken following his arrest in November, in 1938. And slowly these shadowy figures– my grandparents, whom I had never known– began to take on a bit more human form, and I began to ask a few more questions, and all of that led to the process of completing the book.

RAY SUAREZ: At the heart of this story are two people, both in love with music, eventually in love with each other, and a remarkable music ensemble. Tell us about the Kulturbund.

MARTIN GOLDSMITH: It was an extraordinary organization, Ray. The Judischer Kulturbund or Jewish Culture Association, came out of what the Nazis did the first couple of months after taking power in January, 1933.

Jews were kicked out of German artistic ensembles, out of opera companies, orchestras, theater companies, and some of those Jews came together in the spring of 1933 to form their own organization– Jews making art for the increasingly disenfranchised Jews of Germany. They realized to get anywhere they would have to get official Nazi sanction, so they found a man named Hans Hinkel, who had been with the national Socialists almost from the beginning.

He was their liaison. He eventually became second in command to Josef Goebbels in the ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, and for the next eight years, the Kulturbund put on plays, operas, orchestra concerts, chamber concerts.

They showed films, they sponsored lectures, they eventually published a newspaper– all, again, Jews making art for their fellow Jews. It became the only outlet for Jewish expression, for the… it was the only possibility that Jews had to experience art, to have any kind of cultural enrichment during these very difficult years.

RAY SUAREZ: And both your parents played in this ensemble?

MARTIN GOLDSMITH: Yes. My mom first joined the Kulturbund in Frankfurt. The first Kulturbund was formed in Berlin, but there eventually were these organizations in 49 cities across Germany, with up to 70,000 people being members of the Kulturbund.

My mom was 18 years old in 1935, when she joined the orchestra in Frankfurt. That same month that she gave her first rehearsal with the Kulturbund, the Nuremberg laws were passed. My father was kicked out of the Music Academy in Karlsruhe, where he was studying the flute. He made arrangements to emigrate to Sweden, but before he could make the move to Stockholm, he was asked to play a couple of concerts with this Kulturbund orchestra.

He played two concerts, one in Frankfurt, one in Hamburg, and duly moved to Stockholm, but he couldn’t forget the lovely young violist he’d met during those two concerts, and a correspondence ensued between Frankfurt and Stockholm. And when the same flutist who had gotten sick in March– which enabled my father to play those two concerts– when he emigrated to Palestine later in the year, my father moved back to Nazi Germany from the safety of Sweden to be with the woman who was to become his wife and who became my mother.

RAY SUAREZ: Understanding the risks of leaving safe, neutral Sweden and going back into what was becoming a prison for Jews.

MARTIN GOLDSMITH: I’ve asked him about that: What was it like to be a Jew living in Nazi Germany at the time? “Weren’t you aware of what was going on?” He was aware of many things– I mean, after all, he had just been kicked out of the music school he was attending, all of these laws were being passed and curfews and so on, and so forth. But he was young– he was 22 years old– he was in love, he wanted to make music, and he foolishly, or romantically, or perhaps both, disregarded the dangers to do what he was drawn to.

RAY SUAREZ: There is a lot of music in this book. It helps if you have a passing familiarity with the music, but I think even if you don’t, it works. But tell us about some of the more significant pieces for your parents.

MARTIN GOLDSMITH: Well, a piece that sort of became “their” song was the Symphony Number 6, the “Pathetique” symphony by Tchaikovsky, a very emotional and powerful piece of music that was on the program when they played those first two concerts together in Frankfurt in March of 1936. That was an extraordinary piece.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s listen to a bit of the Tchaikovsky.

(Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” playing)

RAY SUAREZ: We follow the story of your parents as the noose is tightening around European Jewry, Europe’s becoming a prison for them. They get away to safety, but what did they make of their experience? They had spent some of the war in a gilded cage, almost.

MARTIN GOLDSMITH: Well, that’s a very good phrase to use, Ray, and in retrospect, from the safety of the present, it is possible to look back upon the Kulturbund as a very ambiguous organization. On the one hand, it provided the Jews of Germany their only means of culture and entertainment as the 1930s deepened, and it was a wonderful opportunity for young musicians, such as my parents, to gain valuable experience.

When my parents came over here, they were musicians in this country. My mom was in the St. Louis symphony for 21 years, the Cleveland orchestra after that, and she certainly pointed to the Kulturbund as a proving ground for her skills as an artist. But it was a devil’s bargain that the leaders of the Kulturbund entered into with the Nazis.

The Nazis weren’t allowing the Kulturbund to flourish because they were good guys– by no means. This was a propaganda tool for the Nazis. They were able to deflect, to the degree that they were interested in deflecting, charges of anti-Semitism by saying, “what anti-Semitism? Look, the Jews have their own orchestra, their own opera company. How bad can it be for them?

We’re treating them just fine.” And there are those who say today– again, from the safety of the present– that had their been no Kulturbund, perhaps more Jews would have emigrated to safety earlier, that this organization gave a certain false sense of security, because the people who had attended concerts and plays before 1933 were still able to do so, so they were able to convince themselves, “Well, how bad can it be? Let’s stick it out another few months. Maybe this madman Hitler will leave after all.”

RAY SUAREZ: Did many of the members of the Kulturbund make it out of Europe safely? And on the other hand, did many of them perish in the Holocaust?

MARTIN GOLDSMITH: The Kulturbund was dissolved in September, 1941, after not being any use to the Nazis anymore. By that time, the war had been going for a couple of years, the final solution was being readied. Just ten days before the Kulturbund was dissolved, the medieval practice of forcing Jews to wear the yellow star had been reinstated. The Kulturbund was shut down in September of 1941, and all members of the Kulturb

und who hadn’t gotten out by then were sent to the camps. Most of them perished. Some did manage to survive the experience, including the conductor of the ensemble, Rudolf Schwartz, who survived incarceration in Auschwitz to live to the ripe age of 88.

He died in 1994, was knighted by the British government. He died as Sir Rudolph Schwartz for his contributions to British music. Some did make it out. Many were not so lucky.

RAY SUAREZ: Martin Goldsmith, great to see you again.

MARTIN GOLDSMITH: Great to see you, too, Ray.