A Thesaurus of Remembrance


Sent to various lists on May 6, 2000


Below are excerpts from an article  entitled "Ein Thesaurus des Gedenkens" ["A Thesaurus of Remembrance"] by Thomas Dombrowski which appeared in _Der Standard_  (May 4, 2000.) This is one of several recent Austrian articles which consider whether art can adequately address the theme of the Holocaust.  They were written in response to the Vienna Philharmonic's  coming performance of Beethoven's Ninth in Mauthausen Concentration Camp--a presentation reportedly costing about 1.5 million dollars, and sponsored by Austria's ultra-right, nationalist government.


Dombrowski asks if there are not better alternatives for the program than Beethoven.  He also questions the Vienna Philharmonic's appropriateness for the concert.    He begins by taking umbrage with Adorno:


"Adorno was not right: There can be poetry after Auschwitz, but not poetry about Auschwitz.  There are many attempts to deal with the Holocaust through art, but hardly any are successful.   Schönberg's _Survivor of Warsaw _ is symptomatic of the well-intentioned but irredeemable desire to comprehend the unfathomabilty of genocide.  In a search for convincing artistic projections of horror, we confront only two legendary examples: Picasso's 'Guernica' and Celan's 'Todesfuge,' a painting and a poem, which in woodcut-like abstraction focus the essential, and deeply affect the viewer/reader.  


"Why is this not accomplished by any piece of music?  Perhaps it is because music seems less precise in the description and projection of reality, and only first shows its strength in laying open spiritual and emotional precipices.


"And that is exactly why it is of little use in strategies for dealing with history.


"With the illumination of psychological backgrounds and the release of emotions--in the perpetrators as in the victims--it individualizes guilt and suffering, personalizes, even awakens compassion and abhorrence.  The facts, however, sink into a haze, the enormously important documentation of history falls by the wayside. 


"Documentation:  What is more instructive than the photographs and films the Nazis themselves made of their misdeeds?  What has moved discussions of history more than Anne Frank's diaries or the files of the Eichman trials?"  [Dombrowski then briefly discusses the visits made by a survivor to Austrian schools, then continues:]


"There are, however, also artistic documentations.  They are, above all, those often quoted works, created under the grotesque conditions of Theresienstadt, which highlight the horrific daily life of the victims, and which today provide an impression of the living conditions and human worth from which art struggled forth.  The most meaningful musical achievement was certainly Viktor Ullman's Theresienstadt Opera, "Der Kaiser von Atlantis",  the only piece of music, which -- if there is one at all -- would be worthy of performance in Mauthausen."


"TASTELESS SELF-ADMIRATION"  [caption heading]


[In this next section Dombrowski refers to an earlier article about the Mauthausen concert by Martha Halpert entitled "A Slaughter Yard Is Not A Concert Hall."  He notes that the title reveals an even more fundamental truth, namely:] 


"A work of musical art is not suited to protocol the remembrance of a crime.   And certainly not Beethoven's Ninth.  Even if its sublime 'Ode To Joy' serves as a passable backdrop for a Victory Day [its use during the Third Reich] or for the fall of the Berlin Wall [another use it was put to], it degenerates into tasteless self-admiration in this context of Mauthausen."  


"Poor Beethoven!  Once again played -- or feigned in the truest sense of the word-- by the Vienna Philharmonic, the most unworthy ensemble in the world for such a task, whose ranks contained enthusiastic Nazis well into the seventies, such as Otto Strasser or Helmut Wobisch.  What a crying shame it is no longer possible to win over Böhm or Karajan as conductor!"


[Dombrowski plays on the German the word "gespielt," which can mean either "played" or "feigned."  Strasser was concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic. Wobisch was first trumpet, and that instrument's most acclaimed classical virtuoso until about 1970. 


To state Dombrowski's view in another way, the Austrian government and Vienna Philharmonic create an atmosphere of "self-admiration" through the abuse of Beethoven--a specious projection of cultural greatness and brotherhood in a country being ruled by an extremist, xenophobic party--to say nothing of an orchestra that forbids membership to women and people of color.  This projection of self-admiration would be impossible to achieve by performing the music of a camp prisoner, even though it would be a memorial far more meaningful to the victims. 


In effect, the concert of Beethoven's Ninth is a subtle orchestration of denial, an act that weakens and disperses the survivors by burying them in a calculated atmosphere of Austrian cultural self-esteem.  If the Vienna Philharmonic were really repentant, it would use the occasion to clearly speak about its own history:  its chairman during the Reich was an SS Officer; its Nazi Party membership was far above the national average; it was willingly one of the principle propaganda organs of the Third Reich.  The orchestra has made no mention so far that six orchestra members were murdered in the extermination camps, that eleven had to save their lives by fleeing the country, and that another nine were reduced in status within the orchestra due to "contaminated" blood.  If the purpose of the concert is remembrance and remorse,  these facts would be mentioned, especially in regard to the orchestra's complicity and its current policy of excluding women and people of color.]


Dombrowski continues:


"The organizers could have learned of many works and composers far more appropriate, if they had consulted the Orpheus Trust, which since 1996 has rigorously sought to trace the numerous musicians who had to flee Austria in 1938, or who were murdered: a self-imposed task of documentation - supported with good public words and far too little public funding!


[While 1.5 million is being spent on the concert by an ultra-right government.]


Dombrowski:  "An unbelievable abundance of biographical data and works has been meticulously brought together with high musicological standards by the Orpheus Trust ; the data bank contains references to 3360 persons and about 6000 compositions, many of which still await refurbishing.  A true 'Thesaurus of Remembrance' shall come into being out of the encyclopedia, already substantially enhanced by more the 100 concerts organized by the Orpheus Trust.  There are very special gems among the interviews given by people who, in spite of all resentment, do not to want to repress the cultural humus this homeland once gave them.


"The situation of the Orpheus Trust truly reflects Austria today.  A project, which should seem very important and worthy of support to those responsible, especially when considering the moral dimension, is neglected to the benefit of activities which carry prestige.


"Shouldn't the music of the exiled at least ring out as a document of their own tragedy?  And why must it be, that the many people who are not ready to forget must disintegrate into isolated resistance, instead of locking shoulders and presenting a united front against  those who want to draw history's final lines and banish remembrance."


Dr. Thomas Dombrowski is a musicologist and publicist, and has been on the board of the Orpheus Trust since 1998.  (orpheustrust@netway.at).


William Osborne