Today, I visit the site of the short-lived Theater of the Jewish Cultural Federation. I didn’t find this while walking through the park, as the title of my A Walk In The Park series suggests. Rather, I happened to be biking along Kommandantenstraße in northern Kreuzberg and noticed an inconspicuous stone marker in the middle of the Otto-Suhr-Siedlung. In the 1950s, this drab housing development sprang up from the rubble of a neighbourhood obliterated by war. The apartment blocks are set back from the street and surrounded by greenery. It feels oddly suburban. Not a trace of the dense, pre-war architecture that once stood here remains. On an overcast day amidst the Covid-19 crisis, the empty, residential street in central Berlin felt deeply melancholic.
In Berlin, you’re never far from a reminder of the immensity of the Holocaust, thanks to the Stolpersteine you find everywhere. But this stone – which I first mistook for an out-of-place headstone – evokes a very specific aspect of the state terror that culminated in genocide: the systematic exclusion of Jewish artists and performers from German cultural life.
Following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, virtually all Jews were fired from their positions at state cultural institutions. In the summer of that year, Kurt Singer, the former director of the Charlottenburg Opera (today the Deutsche Oper) and others founded the Kulturbund Deutscher Juden (Cultural Federation of German Jews) as an act of self-preservation. The authorities tolerated the organisation because in the early 1930s the regime wanted its persecution of Jews to remain as hidden from public view as possible. Shortly after its foundation, though, the federation was forced to remove the word “German” from its name. Subsequently, the Federation of Jewish Culture formed orchestras and theatre ensembles financed by fees paid by its initial 20,000 members (this number eventually grew to 70,000 nationwide). The Theater des Jüdischen Kulturbundes was its most important venue in Berlin – though it operated theatres in cities across Germany. From 1935 to 1941, operas, operettas, plays, and concerts, were performed here. Movies were shown, lectures were held. Only members of the federation were permitted to attend: Jews, people with some Jewish descent, or their non-Jewish spouses.
When, in 1935, the Federation of Jewish Culture took over, the quality of performances appears to have increased greatly – as this became the one of the very few places that Jewish actors, singers and musicians could perform in Berlin.
Amazingly, the theatre was untouched by Kristallnacht in 1938. But as the war began and the Nazis began to engineer the systematic elimination of Europe’s Jews, the writing was on the wall for Jewish artists. The very last performance held in the theatre was Hungarian composer Emmerich Kálmán’s popular operetta Countess Maritza – in 1939.
The granite memorial that stays on the site of the theatre today was created by the sculptor Susanne Ahner – a rare public work by a woman – and unveiled in 1990. The circle of white gravel around it is intended to evoke the light of a theatre spotlight. A metal plaque on the ground bears the following words (my translation):
from 1935-1941 was the
THEATRE OF THE JEWISH CULTURAL FEDERATION
Forced by the occupational ban
the Jews in Germany founded this
self-help organisation with its
own orchestras and ensembles for opera
and operetta, theatre and concerts.
The NAZI AUTHORITIES
misused the Cultural Federation for
of Jewish artists
and their audience,
which was permitted to only consist of Jews.
In 1941 the Culture Federation was
Nearly everyone who worked here
in concentration camps.
Cycling away from this reminder of the unspeakable persecution of human beings that took place in Berlin, it seems to me you can never memorialise enough. Nothing will adequately express the loss and horror. But we have to keep trying and shouldn’t let the specific stories of this period of German history fade into the murky past.