One of the great comics of the pre-war Berlin cabaret world, the Dresden-born Jew Max Ehrlich built up an impressive stage and film career, acting and directing in dozens of movies and plays. He made records of songs and jokes, and had a best-selling book to his name. He was also a founding member of comedy and theatre ensembles in Germany, Switzerland and Holland. His career ended not on a Berlin stage, however, but in front of the loaded guns of Nazi guards. Deported from Holland to Auschwitz in 1944, he had the added misfortune of being recognised by a comedy-loving official, who demanded that the entertainer deliver his routine one last time. Then he, too, was murdered, like so many musicians and entertainers of his time.
Born on 25 November 1892, Max Ehrlich began his career as a stage actor in the 1920s, quickly building a reputation as a vital force on the Berlin cabaret scene. A popular parodist and poet, he performed with many other Jewish and leftist artists during the Weimar years. However, like most of his fellow performers, his work was largely apolitical or only subtly critical. Ehrlich also became a successful movie actor, with more than forty movie credits to his name by the time the Nazi take-over in 1933 abruptly ended his career. With most performance venues either shut down or prohibited to him, that year he decided to assess the scene in Austria. However, in Vienna as in Berlin, Nazis harassed him while he was on stage, ultimately making his act impossible. Reluctantly he moved through Switzerland on to Holland, where he was already well-known as a touring comedian and cabaret star. (German cabaret was popular in continental Europe during the inter-war years). After two years touring Amsterdam, Zurich and Bern with other émigré artists, however, homesickness and the hope that things would get better drove him back to Berlin. For four years, until 1939, Ehrlich was a leading organiser and performer in the Jüdische Kulturbund (Jewish Cultural League), the only venue open to him under Nazi law. Following his enormously successful formula from the pre-Nazi years, he managed to open up Café Leon on Kurfurstendamm, the central shopping and entertainment street of Berlin. The small café served as the cabaret theatre for the Kulturbund, where Ehrlich organised successful revues and cabarets for the rapidly diminishing Jewish community of Berlin.
As for so many others who had hoped to ‘wait out’ Nazism, it was the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938 that convinced Ehrlich that he had to leave, and in April 1939 he gave his farewell performance. The only permitted Jewish newspaper wrote: 'In troubled times, you have taught us that we must not forget the ability to laugh'.
Ehrlich decided to move back to Holland, where his friend and frequent collaborator Willy Rosen had set up an émigré cabaret group featuring many other artists who had fled the Nazis. Rosen, Ehrlich, and the pianist Erich Ziegler toured together extensively, mainly dividing their time between Amsterdam and the beach resort town of Scheveningen. Familiar to Dutch audiences from his earlier touring and acting career, and well-known to the large exiled German population, Ehrlich and his cabaret comrades were popular. However, Nazi control of the Netherlands was growing stronger, and Jews were being isolated and restricted.
In Amsterdam, Ehrlich was a founding member and performer in the Dutch version of the Kulturbund, the Hollandsche Schouwberg. Here, yet again, a cabaret group was assembled, attracting Nazi as well as Jewish audiences. Eventually Ehrlich and his fellow actors were themselves sent to the transit camp Westerbork, where he led an all-star cast including Willy Rosen, Erich Ziegler, Franz Engel and Camilla Spira in the ‘Buhne Lager Westerbork’ (the theatre group of the camp Westerbork).
By May 1943 the group received permission to organise a fully-fledged cabaret show. This first show, with original songs, jokes, sketches and dance routines, was such a hit that the camp commander Gemmeker gave the performers carte blanche to do whatever they wished. The group managed to write, produce and perform six original variety shows in the short one-and-a-half years it was together in the camp. At every performance, Gemmeker sat in the first row, laughing, tapping his foot, and applauding with enthusiasm. These successes, however, only delayed the inevitable. On 4 September 1944 Max Ehrlich was put on the last transport to Auschwitz, where eye witness reports tell of that final performance in front of the men who were to be his murderers.
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