The Life of Eugen Engel and his Opera “Grete Minde”

“The performance of Grete Minde represents all of the creativity that was destroyed by the Nazis” – Jan Agee (Granddaughter of Eugen Engel)

In the California home of Janice Agee stands a beautiful, darkened wooden upright piano: a silent artefact steeped in sadness, love, and care. It had been purchased some years earlier by her mother who, having fled the Nazi occupied Netherlands, anticipated that her father Eugen would join her, and pursue his musical interests in safety. Tragically, Eugen would never get to play the piano, nor make it to freedom. In early 1943, Eugen Engel was deported to Westerbork transit camp. He then arrived in a mass transport to the Sobibór death camp where he was murdered three days later. Remarkably, his daughter Eva (Lowen nee Löwenberger), had managed to carry her father's compositions to the US, but it was only after her death in 2006 that her children took on revisiting this incredible body of work in detail, as set aside in a trunk in Jan’s basement.  In addition to documents, letters, and manuscripts of smaller compositions, they found a large-format score and a piano reduction - the sheet music of the opera "Grete Minde".

Following Jan Agee’s initiative to install a local Stolperstein for her relatives, Anna Skryleva, the music director of the Theatre Magdeburg in Berlin, discovered Engel’s unseen opera, and was able to look through the piano excerpt. As a result, "Grete Minde" was performed for the first time in February 2022, almost 90 years after its completion and almost 80 years after the death of its creator. The following article illuminates the amazing story of how this private, family archive has informed cultural memory through public performance, whilst commemorating the life and works of its creator Eugen Engel. It also includes a recorded discussion between Eugen’s granddaughter Jan Agee, Ulrike Schröder of Theatre Magdeburg, and Hannah Wilson (Content Director, Music & the Holocaust).

This article is inspired by the extensive research into the biography of Eugen Engel by Ulrike Schröder.

Photo of Eugen Engel in front of the Beethoven-Haydn-Mozart Monument in the Großer Tiergarten, Berlin, Courtesy of Jan Agee.

The piano bought by Engel's daughter Ewa. Courtesy of Jan Agee

“I don't want to suffer injustice; I want justice and love!” – Grete, “Grete Minde” (Act I)

Life Before the War

Eugen Engel was born on 19th September 1875 in Widminnen (East Prussia, today Wydminy in the Warmia-Masuria Voivodship of Poland). He was the son of Jewish merchant and landowner Samuel Engel and his Jewish wife Berta, née Salinger, who both passed away before the outbreak of the war. He had 12 siblings who were born between 1857 and 1883. Widminnen was primarily a Protestant town, it housed a small number of Jewish families. In 1892, Eugen and many other members of the Engel family moved to Berlin; Eugen eventually became a merchant like his father, trading fabrics for women’s clothing.

On 18th June 1907 he married Lea Jacoby, a younger sister of his sister-in-law Ella, in Heilsberg, East Prussia. On 19th July 1910, their daughter Eva was born, and the family moved to Charlottenstraße in today's Mitte district, where Engel ran his business. Unfortunately, Lea died young at the age of 46, a loss that Eugen felt deeply. In addition to his business, Eugen was a lover of music. He enjoyed listening to it with his daughter and taking her to music stores and was friends with musicians and professionals such as Engelbert Humperdinck. Eugen began to compose his own music in his spare time, having had private lessons, some of which was performed in Berlin. His granddaughter Jan believes that he was primarily self-taught; he did not attend music school or study it academically. Inside the trunk, Jan also found written correspondence between Eugen and several highly regarded musicians, including conductors Bruno Walter and Leo Blech, as well as pianist Edwin Fischer. Eugen sought their advice on his musical endeavours and was considered by his peers to be musically cultured and technically skilled. It is believed that in 1914, he began to work almost solely on his opera, “Grete Minde” until around 1933.

“Grete Minde”

“Grete Minde” is based on a short novel with the same title by the influential 19th-century German writer Theodor Fontane, who had been compared to Charles Dickens. He wrote this particularly tragic love story following research into real events that took place in Tangermünde in the 17th century. In Fontane’s novel, Grete is belittled and rejected by her family, forcing her to leave the town with her friend Valin, with whom she later has a child. Valin unexpectedly passes and asks Grete to return to Tangermünde so the child can be taken care of. She is brutally refused aid by her family and her inheritance, and, unable to access her rights as a woman, proceeds to set the town aflame. She climbs to the top of the burning church tower with her child, who burn alive in front of everyone before the town is destroyed by the fire:

“The sun has gone out on the battlements, the day is dead, dead is the light, dead is the heat. Fire! The little hands are so stiff and cold you should warm them. Stars, come down. My child is freezing to death... Flame! Flame! Valtin, my Valtin, I come to you. Fire! Fire! Fire!

            (Act 3 of ‘Grete Minde’)

The story of Grete Minde is defined by the opera’s Director Olivia Fuchs, “an opera about love in the first place. Grete was loved and can love as almost the only character in the opera”. Set across three acts, it also reflects issues of feminism and masculinity, injustice and revenge, and comments on the bigotry of bourgeois society at the time; these themes were of concern to Fontane. Through the opera, her voice as an outsider is heard. While Ulrike Schröder of Theatre Magdeburg is rightfully hesitant to draw symbolic parallels between Grete’s story and Eugen Engel’s ongoing status as a persecuted Jew in war-torn Europe, it is indeed possible to do so when watches the opera knowing the experiences and fate of its composer.  

(Original cover and pages from Eugen Engel’s Opera “Grete Minde”, Courtesy of Jan Agee)

Eugen Engel worked with Hans Bodenstedt, who transformed Fontane’s story into a libretto and followed the original very closely. Engel praised Bodenstedt's libretto as "very effective", giving him a “well-built framework to explore the entire musical-dramatic spectrum from intimate song to dramatic dialogue, highly expressive aria and church singing to the varied choral scene”, to quote Schröder. Bodenstedt eventually became the publishing policy director of the Nazi publishing houses "Blut und Boden", "Zucht und Sitte" and "Zucht und Sitte", before working in radio in Hamburg after the war.

Nazi Occupation and Fate

Following the rise of National Socialism in Germany in 1933, Eugen found it increasingly difficult to pursue his musical pursuits as a Jew. By 1935, his daughter Eva had already immigrated to the Netherlands where she married her childhood friend Max Löwenberger. According to Schröder’s research and the letters uncovered in the trunk written to his contacts in Berlin, he spent these initial years trying to get his opera performed abroad, to no avail. In a letter to Bruno Walter dated 21st October 1936, Eugen wrote:

Dear Professor!

Through the kind intercession of Herr. Dr. [illegible], I am permitted to present you with the orchestral score of my opera "Gre- te Minde", and my daughter Mrs. Eva Loewenberger, who lives in Amsterdam, takes the liberty of providing you with the work.

Thank you very much, dear Professor, for your willingness to review it, and I am all the more grateful because I am denied the opportunity to present it to anyone here. A favourable judgement from you would certainly make me proud.

Regrettably, Walter’s response stated that he was unable to support the opera, despite Eugen’s demonstration of musical education and culture. Shortly before the outbreak of the war in September 1939, Eugen joined Eva in Amsterdam and moved into the same apartment building. Following the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in May 1940, Eugen was put on a waiting list for emigration to the United States, yet, while Eva and her family managed to leave for California in 1941, Eugen’s attempts to flee were unsuccessful. He was even permitted permission to enter Cuba, but before this plan could come to fruition the Nazis began their roundup of Dutch Jews and in March 1943, Eugen was sent to Westerbork transit and labour camp, from where prisoners were deported to death camps across the East. Amongst the letters uncovered in Eva’s trunk was a handwritten letter sent to his daughter via the Red Cross - the last words that Eugen would ever write - dated 20th March 1943: “"My dear children, I am alive and well and thinking of you very much. Best regards, your father Eugen Engel".

Three days later, Eugen was put onto a transport with around 1,250 other prisoners and deported to Sobibór death camp. On 26th March, he was likely murdered in the camp gas chambers. He was 67 years old.

Performance of “Grete Minde” and the Musical Legacy of Eugen Engel

In anticipation for her father’s arrival in the US, Eva Löwenberger, who later anglicised her name to Lowen, had invested in a second -hand upright piano so that Eugen could continue his passion for music. This, Jan Agee notes, would have been most important for her grandfather: to have a piano to play. Tragically, he never had this opportunity. Eugen’s siblings were also killed in the Holocaust, leaving behind a small extended family. Eva did not often talk about her father, too painful to confront, as Jan tells me: “She didn’t want to do any of the oral testimonies, or anything like that. It was just obviously a terrible time, and she didn’t want to relive it”. Upon her initial move to the states, her mother did try to draw attention to her father’s opera “Grete Minde”, but as immigrant herself with limited English language skills, she was unable to achieve this. Unfortunately, Eva passed away in 2006. The opera, along with Eugen’s other music pieces and precious correspondence, remained in a trunk in a basement, until her children Jan and Claude began to engage with it some years later.

Jan had always known there was an opera score hidden away, but was unaware of the impact it would later have. She began to show it to her contacts in the music department of the University of California in Davis, who assured her that the opera was of high quality and technique. It became clear to her that this music was worth preserving. In addition to the opera there were around twenty lieder (a German song that traditionally sets poetry to music performed by a single vocalist and piano accompaniment), some of which Jan had performed at a house party in 2013. Similarly, following a call for objects associated with pre-war Jewish life and the Holocaust from the Jewish Museum Berlin, Jan was contacted by the archival director, Aubrey Pomerance, who also recognised the significance of these items. Jan decided to keep the opera score of “Grete Minde” in the family for now but had large scale scans of it produced which could then be shared with interested parties.

Stumbling Stones laid in memory of Eugen Engel & family, Courtesy of Jan Agee.

In 2019, Jan and her family had a stolperstein, or “stumbling stone”, placed in the pavement outside of Eugen’s former home at Charlottenstrasse 74, his Berlin address, which was destroyed during the war. As part of this ceremony, Jan had contacted a local music school who agreed to perform some of Eugen’s music. Moreover, the family connected with Anna Skryleva, a conductor and general music director of the Theater Magdeburg who was sent Eugen’s music, which she played herself. In an interview for The Guardian, Anna stated: “I was immediately captured. It is replete with interesting harmonious expressions and stylistic phrases. I was struck by its touches of Wagner, Strauss, and Korngold, by the confidence of a layperson to write such an ambitious work.”

With a mission to bring Eugen Engel’s music to the stage, the theatre took on the challenge to prepare a live, operatic performance of “Grete Minde”. For the first time ever, this score was to be heard publicly, and by his own family. On 13th February 2022, following a delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic and almost 80 years after the death of its creator, the opera had its premiere at the Theater Magdeburg, featuring a costly ensemble of an organ, two harps, strings and brass, a full choir, and solo singers. The sold-out performance received rave reviews, with one critic describing it as being “superbly crafted, lush late romanticism…one sits in the semi-darkness of the Magdeburg Opera House and listens to sounds that – apart from the rehearsals – have never been heard live, not even by the composer himself. They are delicate, changing smoothly from exuberant strings to fragile cantilenas, with the great fire in the finale, the flames first lick the woodwinds before the fantastic choir takes over”.

Most importantly, the Eugen’s family were deeply moved by the performance, as part of their family history was brought to life. Jan reflects on how much she had wished her mother Eva could have heard it, and how this positive initiative might have encouraged her to talk more about her and her father’s experiences. For Jan, this moment was very special, not to mention the overwhelming public response to the story:

“It’s a very old-time story, so I had no idea what the production would be like, but it was actually very contemporary, so I was surprised. They made it very accessible for an audience today…and the issues in that story are very contemporary, someone was an outsider, a woman who was not given what was due to her. After the premiere, we went up on stage after the audience had left and that was a highlight for me too, and many of the performers came up to me and told me it was one of the most important pieces of work they had ever done. We knew as a family that it was important to us, but knowing it was important to others was very touching”.

Ultimately, the performance of Eugen Engel’s “Grete Minde” is symbolic of the millions of creative, talented, and accomplished Jewish individuals who lost their lives during the Holocaust. This revival of private, familial history is a beautiful ode to Eugen and his life, which had been full of music, family, and happiness prior to the rise of the Nazis. By sharing his music with the public, Jan, Claude, and the Theater Mageburg have ensured that he is commemorated in a particularly special way, and that his music can be continued to be performed by others. Likewise, as his music is performed in his native Germany, a country that he loved but which he was forced to leave, it invites an opportunity to repair and heal, following the horrors and damage caused by the Shoah. As Jan concludes:

“People have told me, you know, there’s some music that gets tied to the Holocaust and can only really be a one-time performance, because it’s directly related and tied to that kind of memory…the story behind Eugen is important, but actually the opera stands on its own, disconnected from his story: the opera deserves to be performed, and not just as a Holocaust remembrance piece”.

For more on Eugen Engel and “Grete Minde”, you can watch the discussion between Eugen’s granddaughter Jan Agee, Ulrike Schröder of Theatre Magdeburg, and Hannah Wilson below:

Written in memory of Eugen Engel and his family

The author sincerely thanks Jan Agee, Ulrike Schröder of the Theater Magdeburg and Dan Pine for their help and their contribution to this article.

Sources

“Grete Minde: Eugen Engel”, Performance Accompaniment (ed.) Ulrike Schröder, Theatre Magdeburg, Berlin, 2022.

Hannah Wilson, Interview with Jan Agee, 9th March 2022.

“A Voice from the Depths of Time”, Global Happenings, 16th February 2022: https://globalhappenings.com/entertainment/105375.html

Kate Connolly, “Holocaust victim’s opera stored for years in trunk gets premiere at last”, The Guardian, 14th February 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/feb/14/holocaust-victims-opera-stored-for-years-in-trunk-gets-premiere-at-last

‘Grete Minde’, Theater Magdeburg: https://www.theater-magdeburg.de/spielplan/musiktheater/sz-20212022/premieren-2122/grete-minde/

Dan Pine, “Rediscovered in a basement, Jewish composer’s prewar opera will now be staged in Germany”, The Jewish News of Northern California, 7th February 2022: jweekly.com/2022/02/07/rediscovered-in-a-basement-jewish-composers-prewar-opera-will-now-be-staged-in-germany/