Israeli orchestra to perform work by Hitler's favourite composer

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The Independent Online

Those in favour say the man should be separated from his music. The man is Richard Wagner, Hitler's favourite composer, whose anti-Semitic writings inspired the Nazis. The music is Siegfried Idyll, one of his finest works.

For the first time in the history of Israel, an orchestra is to play the overture in public, breaking an informal ban on live performances of Wagner that began with the Holocaust and has existed ever since the foundation of the Jewish state in 1948.

The performance, by the Israel Symphony Orchestra, is not until October but the battle lines are already forming for a painful and passionate national debate. "I feel very, very strongly about this," said Dr Efraim Zuroff, veteran Nazi-hunter and director of Israel's Simon Wiesenthal Centre.

"They are showing an acute lack of sensitivity. The whole idea of establishing this country was to have a haven where the sensitivities of Holocaust survivors would be respected. These people don't deserve to be pained in this way."

This is not a first. In 1981, the larger and more prestigious Israel Philharmonic Orchestra began to play a passage from Tristan and Isolde during an encore, only to be booed by a crowd chanting "Shame". An usher leapt on to the stage and rolled up his sleeve to reveal a concentration camp identity number tattooed on his arm. Fist fights broke out in the audience between supporters and opponents, prompting a cellist to walk out.

Fifteen years later, the Philharmonic had another try, announcing a programme that included Wagner. Such was the outcry that it was forced to cancel. After that, the orchestra resolved to rehearse Wagner only in private while Holocaust survivors - there are 300,000 in Israel - remained alive.

Wagner's music is available in shops in Israel, and his works are occasionally played on the radio. But Ehud Gross, the director of the Israel Symphony Orchestra, is well aware that the decision to hold a live performance of the Siegfried Idyll, written by Wagner as a tribute to his wife after the birth of their son, Siegfried, would meet opposition.

Some orchestra members have reportedly declined to take part in the concert, which will be performed by an ensemble of 11 musicians. Mr Gross, who himself lost family in the Holocaust, has concluded that audiences should not be denied great and important music because it was exploited by an evil regime. He has also said publicly that, if anti-Semitism was the yardstick, then a similar taboo should apply to Beethoven - another Nazi favourite - Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninov and others.

He wants to disentangle the music from the composer's personality, and from history. Israel has managed this before; for years, the works of Richard Strauss, whose music was played at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, were also shunned, but they are now performed.

The opposition looks strong - Yad Vashem, Israel's museum of the Holocaust, has condemned the decision, as have several survivors of the Nazi death camps. But an unlikely supporter has also emerged: Jacques Stroumsa, a Greek Jew who was first violinist in the Auschwitz orchestra.

Mr Stroumsa, now 87, was sent to Auschwitz in 1943, one of 56,000 Jews dispatched to camps after the SS swept into his home town of Salonica. His wife, eight months pregnant, was sent to the gas chambers. So were his father and mother. But, being a qualified technical engineer and an accomplished amateur musician, he was allowed to live. As Jewish prisoners were herded off for work daily at 6.30am, members of the Auschwitz orchestra - many of them Russian prisoners of war - would play German military marches, as demanded by their Nazi jailers.

He believes Wagner's music, as opposed to the man, is "fantastic". "Perhaps Wagner did have an influence on these people [the Nazis], but I don't believe that Hitler chose the Final Solution because of Wagner," he said.

He believes settling this issue is part of history's healing process. "I believe music is a motor which drives us towards peace. This can contribute to making a better life and peace with ourselves and our enemies." But will it? Siegfried Idyll will be the test.