The Berlin Jüdischer Kulturbund

On 7 April 1933, Hitler’s regime began an official assault on Germany’s cultural life with the Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums (Law for the Reconstitution of the Civil Service). By means of the law’s Aryan paragraph, ‘civil servants who are not of Aryan ancestry’ were to be dismissed. This measure prevented non-Aryans – defined at that time as any person descended from a Jewish parent or grandparent—from holding positions in the public sphere, especially at cultural institutions such as state-run music conservatories, opera houses, concert halls and theatres. However, after a series of debates, Jews were allowed to continue as artists within their own separate organization: the Jüdischer Kulturbund (Jewish Culture League), originally called the Kulturbund Deutscher Juden (Culture League of German Jews).

Kurt Baumann, a young production assistant, developed the preliminary plan for the Kulturbund, to be set in Berlin, in the first months of 1933. In his memoirs, he explained:

My idea to found a Jewish cultural circle was based on very simple numbers; at the time, 175,000 Jews alone lived in Berlin, many other big cities had, percentage wise, similar concentrations. I figured that a city of 175,000 inhabitants could have their own theatre, opera, symphony orchestra, museum, lectures, and even Hochschule [Institute of Higher Education], and this with the economic proportion of a mid-sized city.

From the outset, he feared his plan would not be supported by Zionists, who would insist that the organization conduct its cultural activities in Yiddish or Hebrew, or by the majority of German Jews, who would respond to the suggestion of a pure Jewish cultural circle with the cry: ‘We’re not going voluntarily into the ghetto!’ Nevertheless, within fourteen days he worked out a detailed proposal and contacted the former director of Berlin’s Städtischen Oper (Municipal Opera House), Kurt Singer, whose assistant he had been from 1930-1932.

Singer had envisioned a similar organization and was the perfect choice to champion the Kulturbund. He had served as a military doctor in World War I and was known and respected in German national circles. Baumann and Singer revised the initial plan, which was not originally designed as a long-term venture, and recruited other Jewish leaders, such as Berlin’s chief rabbi Leo Baeck, conductor Joseph Rosenstock, and journalist Werner Levie. When Baumann approached theatre critic Julius Bab with the project, the latter incredulously asked: “Are we allowed to do this?” Indeed, it was not clear how the organization would win the Nazi government’s sponsorship.

Singer struggled to generate interest within various government offices, but was eventually invited to meet with Hans Hinkel. Hinkel had been appointed head of the Preußischen Theater-Ausschuß (Prussian Theatre Commission) by the new Prussian minister Hermann Göring immediately after Hitler’s ascension to power. He recognized several reasons to support the Kulturbund: the regime could exploit it as propaganda by citing it as supposed proof that Jews were not being mistreated; it could function as a cultural outlet and source of income for Jews which would help to quell social unrest; and, finally, the organization could help ensure the end of Jewish involvement in German culture. In April 1933, Hinkel began negotiating the operating terms for the creation of the Kulturbund with Singer. There were several stipulations: the Kulturbund was to be staffed only by Jewish artists and financed by the all-Jewish audiences through a monthly fee; only the Jewish press was allowed to report on Kulturbund events, further isolating Jewish activities from the racially accepted German population; League programmes were to be submitted to Hinkel for approval before performance. This latter requirement allowed the regime to promote a repertoire they saw as appropriate for a Jewish organization by censoring German culture and promoting Jewish culture. For Kulturbund leaders and members, this led to a debate about what constituted Jewishness in art that lasted for most of the organization’s tenure. In the middle of May 1933, however, satisfied with these conditions, the Kulturbund received the Nazi government’s support and one of the most paradoxical partnerships in German history began.

The Kulturbund had eight separate departments. Anneliese Landau gave regular speeches on music, which were illustrated by Kulturbund performers. She was part of the Kulturbund’s lecture department, which included Julius Bab, Arthur Eloesser, Max Osborn, Julius Guttmann, and Ernst Landsberger. Bab also directed the play department, which was associated with the dramaturgy department. Heinz Condell, Hans Sondheimer and Werner Levie supervised the décor and costume division, the technical department, and the management division respectively. Levie, who worked as economic editor of the Vossische Zeitung (a Berlin newspaper named after one of its early owners C. F. Voß) until 1933, also acted as Kulturbund secretary and would later assume a more prominent role, as Singer’s replacement in 1938.

Along with Singer, Joseph Rosenstock led the opera department, in which Baumann also worked. The concert department, linked with the opera division, was headed again by Rosenstock and Singer, but also by the concert director Michael Taube, who had been Bruno Walter’s assistant at the Municipal Opera in Berlin. Taube acted as conductor of the Kulturbund’s small orchestra until he immigrated to Palestine at the end of 1934. After his departure, Rosenstock as its conductor worked to expand the group. When he too left, for Tokyo, in 1936, Hans Wilhelm Steinberg (later William Steinberg) replaced him. After only three months, Steinberg traveled to Moscow and then Tel Aviv to conduct the newly founded Palestine Symphony Orchestra, established by the violinist Bronislaw Huberman and later know as the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. He was succeeded by Rudolf Schwarz, who had served as the main conductor under chief music director Josef Krips at the Badisches Landestheater in Karlsruhe from 1925 to1933. 

The Kulturbund’s management leased as its performance hall the Berliner Theater on Charlotenstrasse, in the northwest corner of Berlin, from the Berlin Rathaus (City Hall). After two years as the Kulturbund’s home, in 1935, the Kulturbund lost the theatre, unable to renew its lease. Kutlurbund operations then transferred to a slightly smaller space, the Herrnfeld-Theater on the Kommandantenstrasse. Kulturbund management also had a hall built next to the theatre for chamber concerts, which opened on 28 November 1937 and began showing films on 24 September 1939.

The Kulturbund was not entitled to the government subsidy enjoyed by accepted Aryan musical institutions. Instead, membership dues were to fund these performance spaces as well as the salaries of its staff of artists. Kulturbund leaders advertised for these positions throughout Berlin: at synagogues, cafes, and music schools that still allowed Jews. From a total of 2,000 submissions, management hired for its first season 35 actors and singers, 35 orchestral musicians, 22 chorus members, 10 female dancers, 25 technical staff, 26 box and cloakroom attendants, 10 administrative staff, and several manual workers. Approximately 200 or 10% of applicants found employment that first year, in addition to guest conductors, concert soloists and lecturers.

The average monthly wage for members of the opera and theatre ensemble was 200 RM, and for members of the orchestra, 180 RM. With its mounting expenses, the Kulturbund struggled economically. By October 1933, the Kulturbund had about 12,500 members. This number increased to around 20,000 during the winter, approximately 10% of the Jewish population. From 1934 to 1937, membership remained at about 18,500 with new members replacing those that emigrated.

After presenting at the door one’s ticket and identification badge proving Jewish descent, members could attend two cultural events per month—alternately an opera and their choice of a lecture in the fields of philosophy, art, religion or music in one month and, the next month, a drama and a concert. On 11 September 1941, the Kulturbund was officially dissolved. The Geheime Staatspolizei (Secret Police) cited Paragraph 1 of the Reich president’s order of 28 February 1933 as reason for the liquidation of the League—it was necessary for the protection of people and state.

By Lily E. Hirsch


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