Expect The Unexpected in Jewish Bayreuth

by Judith Fein January 3, 2018


bayreuth-market-squareLet’s get this out of the way. I hate to gossip and I didn’t know the famous 19th century composer Richard Wagner personally, but by most accounts, he was a pretty awful human being. He milked his friends like cash cows, carried on with their wives, lived high on the hog and was foppish in dress, having his benefactors pay for his pink and green silks and magnificent lodgings. He was also a rabid anti-Semite, and the only one in his entourage more anti-Semitic was his second wife, Cosima, the daughter of Franz Liszt.

A few months ago, my husband and I flew to Bayreuth, Germany, where we had tickets to the much-sought-after Ring Cycle by Wagner (it usually takes an average of l0 years to score a ticket). The elaborate, four-night musical theatre event takes place at the 1876 opera house that Wagner built specifically for performances of the Ring and it attracts a very cultured, sophisticated global audience.

We heard that Jews are some of the most avid Wagner fans, but the ones we met said they find Wagner’s anti-Semitism troubling. Like me, they ask themselves how such a musical and theatrical genius could have been such a vile person? Maybe the works he created embodied the beauty, grace, and humanity that eluded him in life.  Or perhaps there is no answer.

Until recently, Wagner fans and Wagner Society members made light of his anti-Semitism. From my personal experience, they deflected questions, or lightheartedly cited a few Jews he worked with, and if there were a big Wagner rug, the issue was swept under it.

But the day we arrived, I was shocked to find out that things have changed. We climbed the verdant hill to the famous Festspielhaus where the festival performances were first held under the watchful eye and direction of Wagner himself.

Below the theatre, in a large, two-tiered garden, is a very explicit exhibit about Wagner’s anti-Semitism. It features prominent metal panels with pictures of Jews who were not allowed to sing, play music, or direct in the Wagner theater in Bayreuth, and tragic stories about what eventually happened to them. Some escaped, some died in concentration camps, and all of them were barred from practicing their craft. In some instances they weren’t even Jewish, but were married to Jews, or they were one fourth Jewish, but it didn’t make a difference. Wagner considered Jews to be evil and anti-cultural and the Germans the bringers of light and culture.

Even more damning than the Wagner panels are the ones about Cosima. She established stringent rules after Wagner died, not allowing anyone of any Jewish persuasion to have anything to do with the opera except if he or she were a big star. Some members of Wagner’s family became friendly with Hitler and the Nazis and turned the festival into a Nazi showcase, which Hitler, an ardent Wagner fan, attended. It’s even suggested that the Wagner family’s writings and anti-Semitism helped to influence Hitler to discover the final solution to eliminate the Jews.

The exhibit was supposed to be temporary, but there has been such support that it is now permanent, so you can see it any time you visit Bayreuth.

I was overcome with a sense of how courageous the city of Bayreuth and the Wagner festival are for doing this.  Imagine if the Mall in Washington D.C., had an extensive exhibit about our slave-owning presidents, or innocent blacks who were murdered, or the decimation of Native Americans.

But the exhibit was not the only unexpected find in Bayreuth; the other occurred when we met Felix Gothart, the affable, knowledgeable leader of the Bayreuth Jewish community. He’s a tall, fit, gray-haired man, who was sporting a kippah, jeans, a black jacket with a brown V-neck sweater underneath, and black shades. He said the community has about 500 members, most of which arrived from Russia after the fall of Communism in l991. He proudly stated his Jewish creds: his grandfather was the leader of the Mizrahi (religious Zionist) party in Poland, and his mother was a distant relation to a Ger (Hasidic dynasty) rabbi. Both parents participated in the Warsaw uprising, and were survivors of concentration and death camps.

After World War II, Gothart continued, “About 350 DP’s (displaced persons) came here, and in the surrounding areas there were kibbutzim.”

Gothart’s father started a kibbutz, and also brought back Jewish activity after the war. By 1946 they were praying in the synagogue, which miraculously survived the war. The Nazis were afraid to burn down the famous 1748 Baroque opera house that is next door. In 1759 the opera house was sold to a Jewish family, who opened an adjacent synagogue there in 1760. When the German army refused to surrender at the end of the war, the American Air Force bombed most of the city, except for the synagogue and opera house. “So,” Gothart explained, “some people say the Opera House [now a UNESCO World Heritage site] protected the Synagogue and at the end of the war the Synagogue protected the Opera House. Today it’s the oldest working synagogue in Germany that’s still used as a synagogue.”

So who were the early Jews who lived in Bayreuth? In the l8th century, Princess Wilhemina of Prussia (she was the older sister of Frederick the Great) was married to the margrave (a nobleman) of the Brandenburg-Bayreuth region. The provincial area, at the time, was the boonies, and the multi-talented Wilhemina undertook the construction of massive baroque buildings and park projects to shmaltz it up and give it some cultural heft. She was both a composer and musician, and the crown jewel of her city makeover was the splendid baroque opera house, which was inaugurated in 1748.

According to Gothart, the first recorded Jewish presence in Bayreuth goes back to the mid l3th century, and during successive centuries there were periods of banning and grave restrictions on the Jews, and periods of relative calm. The Jewish community has archives that date from 1760 until l933. And then, tragically, it stopped. During Kristallnacht, Jewish buildings suffered terrible destruction and pillaging, and during the war a high percentage of the Jewish population was exterminated. And besides the miracle that the synagogue survived, Gothart recounted another miracle: the Nazis occupied Bayreuth, stole 28 Torahs and religious items, smashed the inside of the synagogue by hand, crept all over the roof and inside the synagogue, but never discovered the geniza.

Inside the synagogue, on the ground floor, Felix proudly pointed out a “Shabbos elevator for older people to get upstairs. They don’t have to touch any buttons. It was developed in Jerusalem. And Hashem was looking out for us. In opera times, the nobles sat upstairs and the stage and regular folks were downstairs, so we didn’t have to change that. The upstairs is for women and the downstairs is a small, modern sanctuary. It’s better to have a small synagogue that is full than a large one that is empty. But just in case, we have walls that expand so the room can be larger.”

The largest thing, to me, is Gothart’s vision for and leadership of the community. “Different rabbis came here from Israel, America, and Russia to present different kinds of Judaism to the Russians, who know very little about the religion,” he explained. He works as a volunteer, and says G-d helps him (in addition to his work in construction). He led us outside to the mikvah (ritual bath), explaining that he wanted rainwater for it. They dug down 70 meters and knew there was water, but how would they get it up? They ruled out a pump, made a hole to try to create pressure, and then dug another hole that was so perfect the water came up on its own.

The remodeled synagogue keeps much of what is old, and incorporates it into a sleek, modern design aesthetic. And Gothart’s vision does not stop outside of the synagogue. He walked us across the street to an l8th century building that was given to the Jewish community by the government with the stipulation that they have to restore it. The work has already begun, and when it opens it will have a cultural part (a museum, performance space, and small coffee shop), rooms where visitors can stay, a summer school/yeshiva for kids and students, and a space for students that will include a Skype connection for rabbis in other places to give talks. And how is Gothart raising the money? “Hashem will help. Without Hashem, we can’t do it.”

With obvious pride, Gothart said they are already celebrating Shabbat in the future cultural center, and the Russians have learned how to prepare the food. “They love doing the cooking…especially the older people. It is glatt kosher. And it’s like a family. Sometimes there are problems, but I tell them we have to keep together. When there are small problems, they go to the secretary of the community. For big problems, they come to me.”

We left the building and Gothart drove us to the Jewish cemetery, about l0 minutes away. It was like entering an enchanted forest of the dead carpeted in green plants, silent, atmospheric. Three stones stand as witnesses to those who died in both world wars, with the addition of an evocative, mystical quote from Ezekiel: “I blow my spirit into you, and you will be alive.”

The cemetery, which dates back to l786, is closed to the public, and Gothart said he only takes people there once a year, on November 9, to commemorate Kristallnacht. “The Nazis started removing headstones here, and then stopped. No one knows why. There are about l,000 stones.” He very simply, and movingly, explained that, “All the clearing and cleaning in the cemetery is done by hand. There are no machines inside the walls. Once a year, a machine comes outside the wall and takes what we have cleaned up in the cemetery. They reduce it to mulch, which is then returned to the cemetery. So nothing is removed. This place belongs to the dead. I don’t want people to come here to disturb them.”

The wall of the cemetery is made of commemorative stones for those who died in camps. “There are no headstones for them,” Gothart said, “because there are no bodies. The dead here have no descendants.”

In the old part of the cemetery, all the tombstones are similar, with no difference between rich and poor. Over time, the stones of the wealthy became more elaborate but now they are going back to the old way, where all are equal in death.

We walked past one headstone that Felix pointed out; it belongs to Josef Rubinstein. He was a great admirer of Wagner, and wrote to him to explain that he came from a wealthy Jewish family, was a pianist, transcribed musical scores, and wanted to work for the master. Not one to turn down the lure of someone independently wealthy who could work for him for free, the master agreed. Rubinstein became Wagner’s personal pianist and transcriber and, by some accounts, was treated poorly. Yet, when Rubenstein heard that Wagner had died, he killed himself. And, inexplicably, Cosima had his body brought to the Jewish cemetery.

“How is that possible, when she and Wagner were so anti-Semitic?” I asked Gothart. He wasn’t sure about Cosima, but he believed “Wagner was jealous of Jewish composers. He thought he was a genius and got no recognition, but they did.”

Before leaving the cemetery, we had to wash our hands in rainwater, which was kept in a plastic barrel. As Gothart poured the water over my hands with a plastic watering can, I inquired of him, “Why are you doing all of this for the Jewish community?”

“It’s like when you light a candle. The flame always goes up. By doing good things you hope, bit by bit, to go up, up, nearer to Hashem. Humans are not perfect, but what Hashem gave us is.”

Santa Fe-based Judith Fein, a former resident of San Diego, is an award-winning international travel journalist, author and speaker. Her website is: www.GlobalAdventure.us.


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