A nattily written, moving history of the Kulturbund—a Jewish cultural agency that collaborated with the Nazis during the early years of the Third Reich—from NPR commentator Goldsmith, whose parents were members of the group.
When Goldsmith turned 40, he started asking his father questions that served to melt the reserve between the two men, questions about what it was like to be a Jew in Germany in the 1930s. What his father had to tell him was the dumbfounding story of the Kulturbund, where Jews—and only Jews—could gather for musical and theatrical performances, onstage or in the audience. This is essentially a linear narrative history, with the story of Goldsmith’s parents braided into the Kulturbund tale—although he does take a stab at trying to explain how and why such an institution could even exist. On the Nazis’ part, the reasons were not so abstruse: the Kulturbund restricted Jewish artists to one venue, it deflected international criticism of Nazi treatment of the Jews, it played out some intra-party squabbles, and it could serve to forestall any Jewish revolt—this was 1933, remember. The Jewish rationale for participating is murkier by far. Weren’t the players endangered by staying in Germany, asks Goldsmith? Didn’t the Kulturbund lend an aura of legitimacy to the Nazis? Didn’t art obscure moral and mortal risk? There are no simple answers, Goldsmith concludes, but perhaps it is enough to understand “the power of art to make people whole,” and to “imagine how important the Kulturbund was to people sorely in need of a little happiness.” Goldsmith’s profiles of the principal members of the Kulturbund are sharp and affecting, and his depiction of the noose steadily tightening about the necks of Jews in Germany during the 1930s makes fine, grim reading.
A remarkable story, told with clarity and appreciation for the joy and courage that characterized the Kulturbund. As the author puts it: “Such hope. It breaks your heart.”