The Concertgebouw figures into the Holocaust in three ways: a fateful speech given there in May 1941, the dismissal of Jewish musicians, and limiting the music the orchestra was allowed to play.
Top Nazi Warns Jews and Any Who Help Them
A few months after the February 1941 strike to protest the first roundup of Jewish people, the Concertgebouw was the scene of a speech by the head Nazi official in the Netherlands, Arthur Seyss-Inquart. He gave a clear warning not only to the Jewish population, but all who might assist them. The message was reinforced in a printed pamphlet. In addition to disturbing the Jewish population, his warning made non-Jews fearful of helping their fellow citizens.
“And I would like to take this opportunity to say something about the Jewish question. We do not consider the Jews to be members of the Dutch nation. The Jews for us are not Dutch. They are an enemy with whom we cannot have a cease fire nor make peace. Do not expect me to set this down as a regulation except in police measures. We will hit the Jews where we can. And those who help them will be hit just as hard.”
Seys-Inquart was a fervent anti-Semite who inflicted persecution and ordered executions and deportations without wavering. He answered only to Hitler.Even after it was clear that the Nazis had lost, Seyss Inquart had to be persuaded to allow the Swedes and other foreign governments to drop food to the starving Dutch population. He was hanged after trial at Nuremberg.
Musicians Forced to Resign
Like all symphony orchestras, the Concertgebouw was required to fire its Jewish musicians by May 15, 1941, unless the winter season extended longer than that. According to one source, sixteen of the 88 musicians were forced to resign. They could not survive by taking on non-Jewish private students, although some were hired by a new Jewish Symphony Orchestra. Beginning in November 1941, it was allowed to perform only the works of Jewish composers, for exclusively Jewish audiences. It disbanded in the face of major deportations in July 1942.
Consider the Concertgebouw’s lead harpist Rosa Spier. After losing her job, she went into hiding but was discovered, shipped to Westerbork Transit Camp and then, fortunately, to Theresienstadt, one of the better concentration camps.
Perhaps because Hitler respected the Concertgebouw Orchestra and particularly their pro-Nazi chief conductor Willem Mengelberg, fourteen musicians (of 16 or 17, sources vary) survived, an extraordinary percentage in a country where the death rate for Jewish people was close to 75%. (This entry is based in part on the excellent work of Prof. Emile Wennekes of Utrecht University, The Netherlands.)
The musicians did not have a partial financial settlement of their lost wages until 1949.
Conductor Collaboration and Banned Jewish Music
Music by Jewish composers was banned, although it was a shifting target. On one ironic evening, the Concertgebouw and the segregated Jewish Orchestras both played Saint Saens – one because he wasn’t Jewish, the other that he was. Once he was declared a “full Jew,” the Concertgebouw took him off the program, along with Mendelssohn, Schoenberg, Debussy (who married a Jew) and others.
Chief conductor Megelberg (the Dutch born son of German parents) agreed to play only “non-degenerate”, i.e. non-Jewish, music, and to “Aryanize” the orchestra. After the war, he was convicted not of collaboration but a lesser offense, and sentenced never to conduct in the Netherlands again. His lawyers appealed and had the sentence reduced to six years, but he never lived to see it. In contrast, second conductor Eduard Van Beinum was generally thought to have complied with Nazi demands only when forced to, and occasionally stood up to them.
When you go to that beautiful hall and hear some of the great music of the world, remember.