Berlin pianist Willy Rosen plays, during the theatrical production 'Humor und Melodie', put on by the Westerbork Camp Theater Group under the direction of Max Ehrlich, Sept 1943. USHMM (34239), courtesy of Yad Vashem Photo Archives.
USHMM Photo Archives

Few things were easier for Willy Rosen than making a hit cabaret.  His secret?

Two comedians, one fat, one skinny.  Five pounds of sex appeal, a couple of catchy tunes.  Some old jokes and lots of new ones.  Three or four sets, red, green and white lights.  Must look unrehearsed, so needs lots of rehearsing – and, above all, no politics.

This recipe was to make Rosen one of the most successful cabaret artists of Weimar Germany.  It was also put into painful practice at the Dutch transit camp of Westerbork, where Rosen was one of the leaders of theatrical life.  Like so many of his colleagues, Rosen hoped that this would also be the recipe for avoiding the transports to the east; but like many others, he was proven wrong.

Born Willy Rosenbaum in 1894 in Magdeburg, he learned to play the piano as a boy, but began his working life in textiles.  It was after an injury in World War I that he first worked as a pianist and entertainer for the troops.  He found his first great success in the rich cabaret scene of Weimar Berlin, where he was a popular song-writer, pianist and entertainer; he also wrote the scores for films and operettas.  Famed as one of the best ‘complete performers’, his trademark cry as he sat down to perform at the piano was “text and music – by me!”

When the Nazis came to power Rosen was prohibited from performing, and he fled through Switzerland and Austria to Holland, where, in the resort town of Scheveningen, he developed the famous cabaret the ‘Theatre of Celebrities’.  Made up of well-known actors and actresses, many already familiar to Dutch audiences through Weimar films, the cabaret was a success, and it toured non-Nazi Europe while maintaining ties to Berlin.  Rosen also maintained close ties with the comedian Max Ehrlich, who was an important figure in the Kulturbund.  In 1937, the troupe finally returned to the Netherlands, where Rosen continued to follow his own advice as to entertainment, above all assiduously avoiding politics.  One of his programs assured the audience:

When you want to forget your worries, then come to us, the theatre without politics. (Without politics! For three years we have stuck to that strictly and we want to stay with it).

In 1941, Rosen and several of his actors joined the Jewish-only Hollandische Schauwburg’s 'Emigrant Cabaret Ensemble'.  An exiled friend from Berlin had been trying unsuccessfully to get him to safety in the United States.  With the funds of several successful benefit concerts, Rosen had been granted a visa to Cuba, and was in the process of receiving one for the USA.  But this plan was not to succeed: America’s entrance into the war ended the possibility of visas for German refugees, and in the Netherlands, the Nazi grip was tightening.  Rosen’s luck ran out in the spring of 1943, when the remaining Jewish artists in the city were arrested and taken to Westerbork.

Here, for the last time, Rosen assembled ‘the best cabaret in Holland’.  Along with long-time collaborators Max Ehrlich and Erich Ziegler, he wrote several original revues, featuring great stars of the German stage.  He included songs that he composed in Westerbork, with such texts as:

if you are unlucky, then life has no meaning; if you are unlucky, then you slip and fall down; that's why I beg you, fortune, to be true to me.

Before he was put on a transport to Theresienstadt, Rosen wrote a farewell poem. It included these lines:

From here I saw some transports travel away, and now – I’m being thrown to the old steel tracks.  Now I myself am getting on board the train with my backpack; just between us, I find it bad enough.

Along with his mother, Willy Rosen died in Auschwitz in the winter of 1944.

Sources

Boas, J., 1985. Boulevard des Misères: The Story of Transit Camp Westerbork., Hamden, Conn: Archon Books.  

Bergmeier, H.J.P., Eisler, D.E.J. & Lotz, D.R.E., 2001. Vorbei... Beyond Recall: Dokumentation jüdischen Musiklebens in Berlin 1933-1938/ A Record of Jewish musical life in Nazi Berlin 1933-1938., Hambergen: Bear Family Records.  

Jelavich, P., 2001. Cabaret in concentration camps. In Theatre and war, 1933-1945: performance in extremis. Balfour, Michael (Ed). New York: Berghahn Books.  

Rovit, R. & Goldfarb, A., 1999. Theatrical Performance during the Holocaust: Texts, Documents, Memoirs, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Stompor, S., 2001. Judisches Musik- und Theaterleben unter dem NS-Staat, Hannover: Europaisches Zentrum fur Judische Musik.