At a Nazi weapons development site, renowned musicians bring the works of oppressed Jews to life


Boris Romantschenko lived through four Nazi death camps. His death in Kharkiv, Ukraine last March – following a Russian strike on his apartment – made international headlines.

Romantschenko, 96, survived the Buchenwald, Dora and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. Less well known was his time in Peenemünde, where he was forced to help the Nazis build the V-2 rocket at a secret weapons development site on the island of Usedom along the Baltic Sea. When the mass production of rockets as terrorist weapons against the civilian population of Western Europe began in Peenemünde, Romantschenko was among the first group of 600 to 700 prisoners who had to manufacture the weapons as labor slaves in the great hall of the serial factory in Peenemünde while they were accommodated in a temporary camp in the basement of the building.

Last weekend, the New York Philharmonic took the stage to perform in Peenemünde, where the power station’s turbine hall had been converted into a concert hall some 20 years ago.

For Yulia Ziskel, a member of the first violin section of the Philharmonic Orchestra, thoughts of war, of anti-Semitic oppression — of performing in the same space where her Jewish brothers and sisters were forced to be cogs from the Nazi death machine – never strayed far. Ziskel herself is a Jewish refugee, having fled Russia as a teenager with her family.

“It got me thinking a lot. When I visited on a pre-tour in October, it stirred up a lot of emotions and I felt the strange energy of this place as soon as we walked through the door. Now, in these times, it’s probably stirring double because I’m here thinking, ‘Could history repeat itself?’ Ziskel told JNS. “So it’s a very scary time in that regard for me. Being Jewish, being of Russian descent, living in the United States for almost 30 years, it’s kind of mind-boggling. At the same time, I’m waking up every morning and my mom calls me and she’s like, ‘Aren’t we lucky to be in the States now?’ ”

“Partly Written on the Train”

Organizers of the Usedom Music Festival had tried for a decade to book the New York Philharmonic as the headliner ahead of their three-day residency last weekend. The festival takes place every year in Peenemünde, the concept being that such an ugly and diabolical piece of history can be transformed into a place of peace and hope. The hall can accommodate up to 1,200 people, who walk past rusting old gears, cold metal steps and past the remains of the power plant control station to get to their seats.

It’s easy to misunderstand the intent of the event, as enthusiastic classical music fans smile throughout the performance, sometimes applauding thunderously. The festival is not intended to cover up Nazi atrocities with the sounds of music. There’s no untwining between the two, and that’s exactly the point.

Anne-Sophie Mutter is one of the world’s best-known violinists and was featured soloist in Usedom on Saturday. She performed “The Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Anne-Sophie”, named after and presented as a kind of love letter by her future husband, the Jewish composer of German origin André Previn. Mutter’s first teacher was a Jewess who had to hide her faith during the Nazi era. Previn, meanwhile, fled the Holocaust with his family, finding refuge in the United States.

Anne-Sophie Mutter. Credit: courtesy.

In an interview with German national television (partly in response to a question submitted by JNS), Mutter revealed intimate details about this gift from the late Previn, who died in 2019.

“It’s in three movements, in a completely classic form. Yes, partly written on the train as it was returning to Berlin. It was his hometown from which he was expelled when he was 9 years old. Interestingly, he was warned by an SS officer who came in the evening to warn his father – a successful Jewish lawyer in Berlin – that it was now getting dangerous. The same evening, the family fled to Paris with only a suitcase, then to the United States.

“André grew up in Los Angeles and got a foothold in film music,” Mutter continued. “The Violin Concerto, written after 2000, was an engagement gift. It is linked to André’s childhood and to Germany because in the last movement it is based on one of his favorite children’s songs, “Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär”. When he showed me the score, I was madly moved because it’s also my favorite song for children. And he prefaced this concerto movement with a quote from TS Eliot, which also refers to his return to his native country, Germany, Berlin.

The quote from Eliot to which she refers is: “We will not stop exploring. And the end of all our exploration will be to get to where we started and get to know the place for the first time.

Thomas Hampson (left) rehearses at the Usedom Music Festival with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Jaap van Zweden. Credit: courtesy.

“It’s really unbelievable”

Thomas Hampson, considered today’s preeminent American baritone, shone into the spotlight during Sunday’s Philharmonic Orchestra performance. He sang selections by Austrian-Bohemian Jewish composer Gustav Mahler, whom Hampson had long studied.

Mahler, who converted to Catholicism in order to orient his career around the banning of Jewish conductors, and who later married a woman who, according to published accounts, hated Jews, once said that he was “thrice homeless, as a Bohemian among Austrians, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew all over the world. Long after his untimely death, his works, derisively called by a member of the German press to “talk[ing] German with a Yiddish accent,” were banned by the Nazis.

“As you sing Mahler’s music, you are never far from many personal thoughts, reflections and disappointments about human nature. I think that’s what Mahler often invites us to contemplate when we hear his songs. Yeah, you can say he’s an outsider, he feels disenfranchised, but all of his songs… he’s not a political person. He’s a personal person, and he always asks us to ask ourselves why we do what we do. And I think it’s very beautiful and powerful,” Hampson told JNS ahead of his Usedom performance.

Walking through the halls of Peenemünde with a war in Europe raging, this question posed by Mahler is not easy to answer. Romantschenko served as vice president of the Buchenwald-Dora International Committee for Holocaust Survivors for years, working “intensely on the memory of Nazi crimes,” according to the foundation. Upon his death, the committee shared a photo of Romantschenko from 2015, when he read the Buchenwald Oath in Russian and said, “Building a new world of peace and freedom is our ideal.

This may be ideal, but some things remain the same. The dichotomy of hope and despair was expressed last weekend in the music and atmosphere of Peenemünde.

“You have to ask, do people change? And as an artist, that’s probably the most important question I can ask. Because I’m not sure we can change much if someone doesn’t always ask. This is what Mahler always asks. And yes, if you sing Revelge or Der Tamboursg’sell, there is a victim involved. But what is a victim? Aggression, oppression, sometimes abject torture. Mostly a victim of fate. Someone else decided that this person’s life was worthless. It’s the heartbeat of most of his music,” Hampson said.

Even that tortured heartbeat finally got Sunday’s audience to their feet, giving the Philharmonic Orchestra a thunderous applause in the same building where the Nazis once plotted to destroy New York.

“I was in the audience for the concert here in October,” Ziskel said. “And I was also on tour during the day and saw how the energy of this place changed when the music started. It’s really amazing.

The Historical and Technical Museum in Peenemünde, which features exhibits documenting the Nazi weapons development program and its aftermath, will commemorate in its new, upcoming permanent exhibition Romantschenko’s memory. The Usedom Music Festival has dedicated the New York Philharmonic’s residency to Romantshenko and is appealing for donations to UNICEF Children’s Aid in Ukraine.

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