The Composer Paul Ben-Chaim and his Journey from Germany to the Middle East

Ben-Chaim’s story is the story of a German Jew who experienced the brunt of the rupture led by the upheavals of fate in his time

פאול בן חיים בצעירותו, 1914

The composer Paul Ben-Chaim was born Paul Frankenburger in Munich in 1897, and died in Tel Aviv in 1984. Ben-Chaim was a graduate of the Munich Academy of Music in composition, conducting and piano (1920) and afterwards, served as assistant conductor to Maestro Bruno Walter at the Munich Opera. In 1924 he became conductor of the Augsburg Opera Orchestra, remaining in this position until 1931. In 1933 he emigrated to Eretz Israel. Ben-Chaim’s story is the story of a German Jew who experienced the brunt of the rupture led by the upheavals of fate in his time. An artist-composer who studied and worked in Germany until the Nazi rise to power, Ben-Chaim found himself without work, without a language, and with no framework in which he could continue his work as a composer and conductor.

Upon making aliyah, Ben-Chaim sought for a way to express himself, as well as to reflect the environment he encountered in Eretz Israel prior to the establishment of the state. While seeking a new sound, he encountered the singer of Yemenite descent, Bracha Tzfira, who from her Jerusalem childhood was familiar with Sephardic, Bukharan and Yemenite melodies, as well as Arab melodies. Ben-Chaim was impressed by the melodies that Tzfira introduced him to, while Tzfira asked him to notate them for her and accompany her on piano. Paul Ben-Chaim succeeded in integrating these melodies into his works, which he wrote in the language of classical music, the language of German post-Romanticism with which he was so familiar.

The manuscript of “Ahavat Hadassah”, first page, 1958

Paul Frankenburger changed his name to Paul Ben-Chaim, but his musical language and his intended audience was that of the concert hall. On immigrating to Eretz Israel, he was forced to play and teach piano, and to make do with a handful of musician acquaintances and a limited audience who attended his concerts. In 1936, the Israeli Philharmonic was established, and began recruiting exceptional Jewish musicians. Establishment of the orchestra and the immigration of the musicians, as well as the growth in the population of Eretz Israel expanded the opportunities for Paul Ben-Chaim to write music for larger ensembles, such as those for which he had composed in Germany.

After the establishment of the State, Ben-Chaim received international acclaim for his works, which were performed by leading musicians and composers such as Jascha Heifetz, Leonard Bernstein, Yehudi Menuchin and others. In 1957 he received the Israel Prize in Music.

It is interesting to note that Paul Ben-Chaim appointed his student, composer Ben Tzion Orgad (also German-born) as executor of his will, in which he requested that most of the works he composed in Germany prior to 1933, including many melodies set to the texts of the finest German poets: Goethe, Heine, Hofmannstahl, Eichendorff, Morgenstern and others, be destroyed.

Over the years, it appears that Ben-Chaim forgot what he had written in his will, since he asked to hear these works executed by the singer Cilla Grosmeyer, also German-born.

Paul Ben-Chaim never became proficient in the Hebrew language. The texts that he integrated into his work in Israel he received from the singer Bracha Tzfira or borrowed from scripture, with the exception of a few works such as “Kokhav Nafal,” a text written by Matti Katz, which was commissioned by the poet’s family. In honor of his 75th birthday, Ben-Chaim was invited to Munich, city of his birth, after having visited since 1933. The city of Munich organized a concert of his works, featuring “Esa Einai” (Psalm 121), four songs from his oriental compositions (based on songs of Bracha Tzfira, the song cycle “Kokhav Nafal,” and his Sonata for Violin). Towards the end of his visit in the city, he was injured in a traffic accident, from which he never fully recovered.

The Paul Ben-Chaim Archive at the Music Department of the National Library was deposited by the artist himself, in 1980. It is the only archive in which the works of a composer are divided into two series: MUS A55 contains his works written in Germany, and MUS B55 contains his works written in Eretz Israel and in the State of Israel.

As an example of the compositions of Paul Ben-Chaim and his blending of styles, two recordings are presented here of the liturgical poem “Ahavat Hadassah,” performed by the vocalist Geula Gil, and following it, a rendition by the Kol Israel Orchestra conducted by the composer (from the Kol Israel Record Collection; no precise date is stated) as well as the original sheet music notated by the composer (also from the Voice of Israel Record Collection).

Scholar Yehoash Hirshberg wrote about the life and works of Paul Ben-Chaim in Hebrew and in English, the first monograph about an Israeli composer ever published in Israel.

German Literature Abroad and Dutch Publisher Allert de Lange

Many authors sought political asylum and a place that would enable them to create in their genre

The catalogue of the German unit of Allert de Lange, 1939

On rising to power in January 1933, the Nazis immediately began implementing their ideas regarding “pure” German culture. Culture, according to the Nazis, including literature, left no room for the creativity of the works of humanists, democrats, Communists, and generally: Jews. Publishing works by Jews was completely prohibited, and beginning in the spring of 1933, supporters of the new regime gathered at many locations and burned all works that were not to their liking. Often, these works were the finest in German literary history.

​Writers suffered from the new situation from two aspects: not only did the Nazi regime pose a direct threat to their freedom and lives, but furthermore, the prohibition against their works obviated any possibility of earning a livelihood within the new political reality. German book stores were forced to destroy the undesired literature and publishers who had published books by Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Stefan Zweig, Else Lasker-Schüler, Joseph Roth and many others – sometimes with great success – were forced to adjust their sales policy to the dictates of the new era. Free and progressive literature suddenly became a rare commodity in German bookstores. The sale, purchase and even reading of such works became dangerous almost overnight.

Works included in the catalogue. Among the authors: Bertolt Brecht, Max Brod, Sigmund Freud

Many authors sought political asylum and a place that would enable them to create in their genre. Many tried to flee to neighboring countries, while others continued on their way to America, Eretz-Israel or other places, if the authorities allowed them to do so. Between 1933 and 1940, the community of exiled authors in the pastoral town of Sanary-sur-Mer in the south of France was perhaps the largest and most interesting group of authors during the fascist regime, including an impressive group of writers in the German language. After finding refuge, the authors sought ways of publishing their books. This was no simple matter: the main country where the German language was spoken was no longer an option, such that at first glance, all that remained was the limited possibility of Austria and Switzerland. Publisher Emil Oprecht operated in Zurich and publishers Herbert Reichner and Bermann-Fischer in Vienna. And yet, already beginning in 1933, a number of new publishers established themselves in Holland, in the city of Amsterdam: Querido and the German unit of well-established publisher Allert de Lange, which was based in Amsterdam.

The two Dutch publishers worked on a relatively large scale until 1940, the year Holland was occupied by the Nazis, and published dozens of titles by German authors who were not prepared to compromise with the Nazis or could no longer publish in their homelands because they were Jewish. The Querido Publishing House had a clear left-wing orientation, while Allert de Lange took care to maintain a more “bourgeois” profile, although during the existence of the German unit, this publisher broadened the circle of authors it published. Allert de Lange’s German unit had two chief editors, both German-born Jews: Walter Landauer (1902-1944) and Hermann Kesten (1900-1996). Until 1933, both had been staff editors with German publisher Gustav Kiepenheuer. Thanks to their tremendous experience, the two managed within a short time to achieve great success in the publication of the German authors. The list of writers is quite impressive: Bertolt Brecht, Max Brod, Joseph Roth, Shalom Asch, Stefan Zweig and Sigmund Freud were surely the most popular among them, and ensured that there would be many readers, though almost all of them were outside of Germany. The growing stream of Jewish refugees from Germany who found temporary asylum in Holland formed a local clientele for books printed in Holland. The list of books published in German by Allert de Lange from 1939 is most impressive and is testimony to the fact that the best of German literature found a suitable site for publication – in Holland, of all places.

The editions of the German unit at Allert de Lange publishers were tastefully designed. For example, the editions of Joseph Roth’s last book, The Legend of the Holy Drinker (Die Legende vom heiligen Trinker) is striking in its simple and elegant design. Paradoxically, the Nazi ideologues also purchased the books of the Dutch publisher, as can be seen in the copy of the book in the National Library’s collection: it bears the stamp and item serial number of the library of the Third Reich Institute for New German History (Reichsinstitut für die Geschichte des neuen Deutschland) in Berlin.

The front page of Roth’s novel, bearing the stamp of the Nazi institution in Berlin
After the German invasion of Holland in May 1940, the publisher’s German unit was closed, as was the parallel company, Querido. The book warehouses were partially destroyed and the staff was forced to flee or be arrested. One of the chief editors, Walter Landauer, was murdered during the Holocaust.
For many years, the German “exilic literature” has been considered the most interesting German literature of the 20th century, and has attracted the attention of many scholars. The books produced during those years and under the special circumstances that prevailed at the time, are testimony to the free and democratic spirit that was crudely cast out of Germany by the Nazis from 1933 to 1945, but which continued to exist and thrive outside of its borders.

The Book That Survived Kristallnacht and Made It to the Land of Israel

A battered copy of “In the Heart of the Seas,” rescued from anti-Semitic riots in Germany, was returned to its author, S.Y. Agnon, with a letter telling the incredible story of its survival

The day after Kristallnacht, November 11, 1938

In the cultured, sophisticated environment of Germany’s Weimar Republic in the 1920s and early 1930s, Jews made up an integral part of German society, experiencing the best that the country had to offer. When the Nazi Party took control of Germany in 1933, life as the Jewish community knew it was quickly brought to an end.

On November 3rd, 1938, a young Jewish man named Herschel Grynszpan, in an apparent reaction to his family’s deportation from their home in Germany to Poland, shot a German diplomat in Paris where he was living at the time.

The Palestine Post, November 8th, 1938

The death of the diplomat sparked rage in the Nazi party, which decided to use this incident as an excuse to carry out a widespread pogrom against the Jews of Germany.  Testimonies that came forth following the events told of how the press was instructed to push the story and to exaggerate the details of the incident to inspire anger among the public while the Nazis prepared for a carefully orchestrated night of violence against the Jews.

November 9th, 1938. Kristallnacht. Some 90 Jews were murdered, more than 30,000 were arrested. Over 7,000 Jewish businesses, so carefully grown and cultivated, were trashed, looted, and burned to the ground along with more than 1400 beloved synagogues.

On that fateful night, Felix Pinczower, a resident of Berlin at the time, found himself in the streets, amid a maelstrom of anti-Semitic violence. He was pushed into a large crowd and witnessed a mob looting a Jewish book store. The vandals had shattered the store windows and were systematically throwing the books out into the street for the pages to be torn out and stomped on before being discarded into a large trash heap.

As he watched the violence unfold, Piczower noticed a copy of “In the Heart of the Seas,” a book by the famed author, S. Y. Agnon, in the original Hebrew, lying on the ground. The book tells the story of a group of Hasidim on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This particular book was spared the fate met by thousands of other volumes which were destroyed that night. This copy of “In the Heart of the Seas,” with its simple white cover, was saved by Felix Pinczower on the terrible night of bloodshed and cruelty which shattered Germany’s Jewish community.

The cover of the rescued copy of “In the Heart of the Seas,” by S.Y. Agnon, from the personal archive of S.Y. Agnon at the National Library.

As the mob around the book store was broken up, Pinczower was arrested along with thousands of others who were rounded up on Kristallnacht. He was taken to a concentration camp where he stayed for six long weeks. Pinczower was eventually released from the camp once his official request to leave Germany was approved.

On May 8th, 1939, he sent the rescued book along with a descriptive letter of the violence he had experienced to S.Y. Agnon, the book’s author, after immigrating to the Land of Israel and establishing his new home in Tel Aviv.

In his heartfelt letter, Pinczower described how, upon witnessing the scene at the Jewish bookstore, he had become consumed with rage.  Just as he was about to take action, something that could have cost him his life, a gust of wind picked up and a small, simple-looking book landed at his feet. He quickly picked it up, brushed off the cover, and took it home.

“The little book eluded my memory,” wrote Pinczower.  “Only when my belongings was being packed beneath the eyes of the customs clerks, did it reemerge. ‘Do you want to take this dirty book with you?’ the customs man asked. ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘It’s an interesting book that contains a special story.’ He nodded and examined it again. Suddenly, he had an idea. I saw how his face was contorting into a devilish smile. He uttered not a word, but flipped through the book, page by page, checking it against the light, apparently with the thought that foreign currency was hidden among its pages. And then, when the inspection yielded nothing, he returned the book to me. I expressed my preference to place the book in my carry-on luggage, rather than stowing it in the baggage compartment, so that I might read it on the voyage.”

The letter sent to S.Y. Agnon from Felix Pinczower on May 8, 1939, from Agnon’s personal archive at the NLI

It was only once he had boarded the ship to take him to safety that Pinczower finally had the opportunity to properly examine and read the book. He was amazed at what he found between the stained covers: the story of a group of Hassidim who set out on a sea voyage lasting several months before finally arriving at their destination – the Land of Israel.

“Was it not a direct sign from heaven that this, of all books, fell into my hands, truly in the literal sense of the expression? I do not believe in coincidence in life,” wrote Pinczower.

“Is it not true that today, as well, ships set sail and make their way over months at sea in order to bring refugees to Eretz Israel? People waiting in anticipation for the land of their longing, with the same sentiment.”

The book became Pinczower’s companion, a constant reminder of what awaited him on the other side of his journey. Once he had arrived safely in Mandatory Palestine and settled into his new home, Pinczower felt the time had come for the book to return to its author and to tell the story of its incredible journey.

He concluded his letter with a simple request of Agnon, “to integrate the book into your library as an anecdotal item – a book that has its own story, like that of any human being.”

“If only this book, which came out of Zion and returned to Zion, might serve as a symbol of the ingathering of our dispersed writings, which are held in unworthy hands.”

Today, the letter and book sent by Felix Pinczower to S.Y. Agnon, can be found in the personal archive of S.Y. Agnon, housed at the National Library of Israel.

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These Currency Bills Were Used in the Theresienstadt Ghetto

The alternative currencies set up by the Nazis in ghettos and concentration camps across Europe served to establish a false sense of "normalcy".


A bill (formally, a "receipt") from the Theresienstadt Ghetto, representing 100 Czechoslovakian crowns, the National Library of Israel collections.

When the Nazis came to power in Germany in January 1933, they began persecuting all opponents of the new regime, with the Jews of Germany automatically included in that category. Within just a few weeks of the National-Socialist political victory, thousands were arrested: social-democrats, communists, other members of the opposition, and Jews. These people were imprisoned in jails and concentration camps that had been established at an earlier stage. Among the first camps were Dachau, Ravensbrück, Buchenwald and Oranienburg-Sachsenhausen. At the Oranienburg-Sachsenhausen Camp, located near Berlin, the Nazis for the first time minted currency for use within the camp – bills that had no value beyond its fences. This arrangement was replicated in a few other concentration camps and ghettos, first in Germany, and subsequently in other occupied European countries.

Bills ("receipts") from the Theresienstadt Ghetto: The two upper bills show signs of use. From the National Library collections.
Bills (“receipts”) from the Theresienstadt Ghetto: The two upper bills show signs of use. From the National Library collections.

There were several reasons behind the production of these special bills – in most cases at a low denomination. First, all camp prisoners – and later, all ghetto residents – were forced to convert their money and some of their property into the currency of the camp or ghetto where they found themselves imprisoned. In this manner, the Nazis could immediately place their hands on the personal property of prisoners and use it for their own purposes. Secondly, owners of the currency were unable to purchase anything with local currency outside the borders of the camps or ghettos. This was important in the interest of preventing escape: The moment prisoners succeeded in fleeing the camps, they had no means of acquiring food or clothes, posing significant obstacles to escape plans. In addition, the conversion of ordinary currency into alternate bills gave the prisoners a sense of being disconnected and marginalized from the general society. Moreover: the bills for the various camps were not uniform. Each camp had different modes of payment and there were also camps where bills or other alternate means of payment were never issued. It is no secret that the Nazis well knew how to use psychological means of this type to humiliate their victims.

Bills of a high nominal value. These show no signs of use. In this image we see the back side of the bills, featuring an illustration of Moses with the tablets of the covenant. Tellingly, "Thou shalt not kill" and the other ethical commandments are hidden from view.
Bills of a high nominal value. These show no signs of use. In this image we see the back side of the bills, featuring an illustration of Moses with the tablets of the covenant. Tellingly, “Thou shalt not kill” and the other ethical commandments are hidden from view.

Some camps invested in the design of the currency and even printed double-sided bills. Examples include Oranienburg-Sachsenhausen, Westerbork (in Holland) but also the Lodz Ghetto (which also minted coins) and Theresienstadt (Terezin). Naturally, in the ghettos, all of the prisoners were Jews, and ironically, this was reflected in the bills. The bills from the Lodz Ghetto depicted a Star of David. The same symbol appears on bills printed for use in the Theresienstadt Ghetto in Czechoslovakia (most of which was occupied by the Nazis prior to the outbreak of WWII). The denomination of the bills was not the German mark, but rather Czechoslovakian crowns (koruna). The Nazis issued and printed bills, formally called “receipts” (Quittungen), which were attributed different values: one, two five, ten, twenty and even one hundred crowns. It is known that these bills were printed in relatively large quantities – sometimes even millions of copies – but there are many “receipts” that show no signs of use whatsoever, mainly those with a high nominal value.

Apparently, large quantities of these bills never entered into circulation. In any case, the local bills of high denominations had no real use, since in the ghetto, there were no high-value goods available that prisoners could purchase. These bills feature an illustration of Moses holding the ten commandments. Tellingly, the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is hidden from view – a subtle, and likely intentional effort on the part of a Jewish artist to express a measure of protest at what was taking place across Europe.

Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of the National Library's Judaica Collection, reviews bills from the Theresienstadt Ghetto donated to the Library by Mrs. Ruth Brass in memory of her late father, Lionel Schalit.
Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of the National Library’s Judaica Collection, reviews bills from the Theresienstadt Ghetto donated to the Library by Mrs. Ruth Brass in memory of her late father, Lionel Schalit.

There was even an active bank in Theresienstadt which was responsible for the bills, and these bore the signature of the local “Jewish committee”. It seems that the bank, the bills and the “wages” received by many prisoners during imprisonment in the ghetto had an additional role: they gave the impression of “normalcy,” of an orderly and routine everyday life that the Nazis indeed tried to present to the official representatives of the Red Cross who visited Theresienstadt. A number of these bills from the Theresienstadt Ghetto are preserved today in the Archives Department of the National Library of Israel. The Library recently expanded its collection with an additional six bills in excellent condition. The currency was donated by Ruth Brass in honor of her father, the late Lionel Schalit, a prominent Zionist and community activist and a leader in the European Maccabi Movement.

We have examples of all the various nominal values; some of them show signs of wear, but most seem completely new. These bills serve to document one of the chilling realities of the Holocaust – the efforts invested in hiding the evils of the Nazi regime behind a façade of order and reason. These bills are symbols of an imaginary “normalcy” that never existed, during a period of persecution and eradication.


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