“Vienna of the Sewers”: A School for Dictators

In 1907 a young man from a small provincial town in Austria arrived in Vienna, the European art capitol of the era, with hopes of enrolling in the art academy. His rejection led him to roam the streets of “the other Vienna,” which many historians viewed to be a “school for the future dictator.”

Adolf Hitler’s Party Membership Card. Though in Mein Kampf he claimed that he was the seventh member to join the Nazi party, this card proves that he was in fact the 555th

In 1907 a young man from a small provincial town in Austria arrived in Vienna, the European art capitol of the era, with hopes of enrolling in the art academy. His rejection led him roam the streets of “the other Vienna,” which many historians viewed to be a “school for the future dictator.”

The young Adolf Hitler

The Vienna Hitler met with was not the same Vienna familiar to art lovers. The neighborhood where the impoverished young man lived was not one of the glorious cultural districts that had produced cultural and artistic greats like Gustav Klimt, Stefan Zweig and Arthur Schnitzler. The Vienna where Hitler lived was known as the Vienna of the sewers: a city where thousands of penniless young people wandered in search of a paltry income. It was a Vienna of poor men struggling to live in crumbling apartments or pay-by-the-day government subsidized public housing. This was a school for the future dictator: in Vienna, the multinational capitol of a mighty empire, Hitler encountered an array of cultures and “races.” He perfected the poisonous hatred of foreigners he had brought with him from his provincial upbringing. From his visit to the multilingual parliament he developed a hatred of democracy which he viewed as a nonfunctional system of government. He saw Vienna as a place where the glorious German race had deteriorated by mixing with inferior races, chief among them of course, the hated Jews.

Adolf Hitler, The Vienna State Opera House, first decade of the twentieth century

His failure to gain entry to the art academy and the general failure that characterized his life was a blow to his pride. From a deep loathing of the miserable situation in which he found himself, Hitler was drawn toward German nationalism, which enabled young Austrians like him to see themselves as part of something greater than just themselves. They were the superior German race that will once again have the upper hand and rule over others. During those days when he was barely eking out a living from selling postcards with his drawings to passersby, he entertained himself with fantasies of the restoration of Greater Germany (which included Austria) and the part he would play in it.

The outbreak of World War I (known as The Great War for that generation) offered the young man an escape from the suffocating capitol. A year earlier he had crossed the border to Munich and in 1914 joined the German army. For most of the war he was running along the French/German front, a post he dutifully fulfilled at great personal risk. Word of the German defeat reached him in a hospital where he was recovering from a gas attack.

Hitler celebrates with the crowds in Munich at the outbreak of the First World War

After the war, while looking for a job, he found his true calling: inspiring crowds to hatred and violence. As more and more crises plagued his new-old homeland Germany, the party he had founded rose higher and higher. In 1933, the man who declared himself Führer (the leader) of the Nazi party was appointed Chancellor of Germany.

Adolf Hitler’s Party Membership Card. Though in Mein Kampf he claimed that he was the seventh member to join the Nazi party, this card proves that he was in fact the 555th

The kind of popular politics that characterized Hitler was the politics of shrill and venomous attacks. They characterized his professional career as a dictator and led him on 1 September 1939 to form a temporary alliance with the Soviet Union and divide between the two powers neighboring Poland. After the West’s appeasement with Germany in Munich the previous year, Hitler believed that the occupation of Poland would also pass without much of a response. He was mistaken. The invasion of Poland, Britain and France’s close ally, sparked the most terrible war humanity had ever known. It was during this war that the most systematic and brutal genocide in the annals of history was perpetrated: the Holocaust of European and North African Jewry.

Adolf Hitler passed six directionless yet intense years in Vienna. In his autobiography from1924 he wrote, “Vienna was and still is for me the most difficult school but also the most profound I have attended.”

Historians have been grappling for generations with the question of whether history is created by great people or by great events? Either way, many historians, philosophers, and ordinary people believed that had a rather spoiled young man had been accepted to the academy of art in Vienna back in 1907, the world might have gained another mediocre painter but also would have avoided the most bloody and terrible war of all time.

Stolen by the Nazis: A Book’s Rediscovery in Jerusalem

The long journey of a book of Leviticus that was hidden in a Vienna basement during the Nazi era, before eventually making its way to the National Library of Israel’s Conservation and Restoration Lab…

We recently came across a unique copy of the book Mesilat Yesharim in the collections of the National Library of Israel. The book had been given as a gift to a bar mitzvah boy in 1936. Tragically, the gift’s recipient and his family perished in the Holocaust some years later. The Nazis looted many Jewish libraries in Austria on Kristallnacht and in the period that followed. Among them were the Jewish Community Library in Vienna (the IKG library), and the Jewish Theological Seminary Library (ITLA), private libraries, bookstores, and publishing houses.

Most of the books were sent to Berlin to the huge library of looted books in the Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, RSHA). Part of this library was destroyed in the bombing of the German capital, other parts were discovered after the war. We do not know the exact route this bar mitzvah book took, but in the 1950s, thanks to the persistent efforts of the National Library, and with the assistance of the Ministry of Religions and the consent of Vienna’s remaining Jewish community, many books, including this one, were brought to the National Library of Israel. A label affixed by the Library informs that the book was donated by the Jews of Vienna in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

“Donated by the Jewish Community of Vienna in memory of the victims of the Holocaust” – a label affixed to books stolen during the Holocaust and later discovered in Vienna

Some weeks later, we discovered another interesting book that had once had a Jewish owner in pre-Holocaust Vienna. According to old Library records from 1956, the book, The Pentateuch: Book of Leviticus – With Onkelos Translation & Commentary by Rashi, was sent to the Library as part of the work of the “Diaspora Treasures” project—an enterprise that brought books from Europe to Israel after the Holocaust.

We couldn’t see any label on the book at first, so it wasn’t clear that this copy had, in fact, been looted by the Nazis.

Pentateuch, Leviticus, 1797/98, inside front cover, with a barely visible label underneath the paper

Suspecting that this was indeed a book that had survived the Holocaust, I brought it to Hagar Millman, a conservator at the National Library of Israel’s Conservation and Restoration Laboratory. “As soon as the book arrived at the lab, and in light of the possibility that it had survived the Holocaust, I immediately put our special equipment to work to determine what was underneath the inside cover page” Millman says. “It’s hard to describe my excitement when I discovered the label hidden underneath the page. I knew immediately that this was a special item that had undergone a tortuous journey before finally reaching the National Library, and that it must have come with a fascinating story”.

The label is revealed

Before treating the book, a written report on its condition was prepared and the item was also photographed so that we could compare it before and after restoration. The removal of the paper covering the label and all the adhesive residue was an extremely delicate process that took several hours and required special tools—a thin spatula, tweezers and a scalpel, controlled humidity and reversible adhesives.

Hagar Millman revealing the hidden label

On the book’s back cover we found another important label that had also been partially hidden by a white sticker and a fabric binding on the spine (the book had been rebound at some point so that a fabric binding partially covered the label).

The partially hidden label of the Institute of Oriental Studies on the back cover, prior to the restoration work

“Here too, very delicate work was required, until I was able to uncover the entire label, which made it possible to trace the item’s history” says Millman.

The label emerges from under a striped cloth cover, the remains of which are seen on the left
The outside cover of the book with the label of the Institute of Oriental Studies, once covered by a sticker and a later rebinding

The “donation” label of the Vienna Jewish community that had been partially covered shows definitively that the book had been sent to Israel from Austria. But this was only half the story.

During the war, many books were transferred to Austria from the central library of the Advanced School of the NSDAP, established by the main ideologist of the Nazi movement, Alfred Rosenberg. The books were looted from all over Europe, not only from the Austrian Jewish community. A signature and stamp on the front pages of the book and the label glued to the back cover and recently revealed in the lab led us to the book’s origins.

According to the frontispiece, the book was printed in Vienna in 1798. The signature at the top of this page belonged to a man named Sheftel Bientz who was probably one of the book’s first owners. On the same page there was also a stamp of the Viennese branch of Agudath Israel. This was an interesting twist, as the secretary of that organization in Vienna was the person who gifted the copy of Mesilat Yesharim to the bar mitzvah boy back in 1936, writing the dedication contained within as well. It is possible that both books passed through his hands.

The book’s frontispiece with the signature at the top of the page and the stamp of the Vienna branch of Agudath Israel

The label on the back of the book reads: Orientalisches Institut – Universität Wien (“Institute of Oriental Studies – University of Vienna”) and below it appears the word Leihgabe, meaning loan, indicating that the book was not originally part of the university library.

How did a book belonging to an ultra-orthodox organization find its way to the University of Vienna?

Kurt Schubert was an Austrian student who opposed the Nazis and their actions, but for obvious reasons he wasn’t able to voice his opinion publicly. Due to his asthma, he had been released from military service and used the war years to pursue academic studies. Schubert enrolled at the University of Vienna, where he studied under Professor Viktor Christian, an Assyriologist, who was also a member of the SS and among whose research activities was the exhuming of skeletons of Jews for the purpose of racial and hereditary testing.

As part of the effort to spread Nazi ideology among German academics, SS commander Heinrich Himmler founded the Ahnenerbe organization in 1935. University researchers serving in the organization were tasked with discovering the roots of the German people and scientifically proving the superiority of the Aryan race. Ahnenerbe transferred books looted from Jewish and other libraries to Professor Christian and asked him to catalog them in the hope that they would help researchers in their study of the soon-to-be extinct Jewish race. As more books continued to arrive from Austria, Germany, and Poland, Schubert and other students assisted their professor in his work.

In lieu of military service, Schubert was made an air raid warden. While on duty, he discovered a basement in the Jewish Center of Vienna where many books from the community libraries were stored. Arguing that they were a fire hazard, he obtained Professor Christian’s consent to transfer the books to the Institute of Oriental Studies at the University of Vienna. Thus Schubert saved about 20,000 books and when the war ended he returned them to what remained of Vienna’s Jewish community. These and others books eventually made their way to Israel, accompanied by Schubert himself who was invited to visit the new state.

The Pentateuch we discovered was probably kept in that very basement in Vienna. It was transferred to the University of Vienna, affixed with a university label and used for antisemitic academic research. Thanks to Schubert and the Vienna Jewish community, today it is available for viewing and research at the National Library of Israel.

Who Are You Calling a “Shluh”?!

In modern-day Israel, the word "shluh" is sometimes used as an offensive term to describe a person of disheveled or messy appearance. The word in fact hails from Morocco, where it referred negatively to a certain ethnic group, and was used disparagingly by city dwellers to describe uncultured village folk...

Members of a local tribe in the Atlas Mountains, 1955. Source: Tropenmuseum

The idea for this article originated several years ago when I asked my grandmother how many languages ​​she spoke. The exact number was hard to pin down since she spoke several Arabic dialects, along with French and Spanish, but I was interested in one in particular—Shluhit in Hebrew, or Shilha in English—or as it was originally called, Tashelhit. Grandmother Ladisia told me that she had learned it in order to communicate with her mother-in-law who only spoke Shilha. The name of the language immediately brought to mind the derogatory word shluh, used in Israel to describe someone of disheveled or messy appearance.

In a previous article, we dealt with the insulting and false characterization applied to residents of the city of Chelm in Poland. In this article we will delve into the story of the Shilha people, and the origins of the offensive term shluh. The word was originally imported from Morocco, where it was often used to malign an entire community, in similar fashion to what happened to the people of Chelm in Poland and also the Ḥourani in Syria.

Jews from the Atlas Mountain region in the early 20th century, Jewish Encyclopedia

Shilha or Tashelhit is just one of several Berber languages spoken in Morocco. The Shilha people (Shluhim in Hebrew), a Berber subgroup, live in the southwest of Morocco, where they are scattered across approximately one thousand villages that are connected through trade relations. This area also had the largest number of Jews in Morocco living in proximity to the Berbers.

The earliest record of Jews and Berbers living in proximity in Morocco dates back to the 3rd century CE, but according to the Jewish oral tradition of southern Morocco, Jews arrived in the area as early as the First Temple period, some 3000 years ago. This tradition apparently is an attempt to dispel the theory that the region’s Jews are descended from Berbers who converted to Judaism sometime in the first centuries of the Common Era. The region’s Jews instead see themselves as descendants of King David’s soldiers, who pursued the Philistines as far as North Africa, according to the local tradition, under the command of David’s general Yoav (Joab) ben Zeruiah.

As a result of the geographical proximity, the Jews and the Shilha developed informal yet close relations. It is thus no coincidence that the local Jews learned to speak Tashelhit. To this day, the Jews who lived in these communities can remember many of the proverbs, songs and customs of their Berber neighbors. The vast majority of these Jews would end up immigrating to Israel in the great immigration wave of the early 1950s, before Morocco gained its independence.

The mostly rural Shilha made a living from agriculture. The Jews, on the other hand, were considered dhimmi according to Islamic Sharia law, meaning a protected class that was barred from owning land. Therefore Jews primarily worked as merchants who would travel in small groups from their village to the surrounding areas, selling their wares and offering services. Some also financed the small farming initiatives of their Berber neighbors by buying them seeds. At harvest time, the Jewish investors were entitled to three quarters of the agricultural yield.

For over forty years, Prof. Joseph (Yossi) Chetrit conducted countless interviews with Moroccan Jews and their Berber neighbors. In an article on the simultaneously intimate yet distant relationship between the two communities, he writes that even after many decades, the Jews’ Shilha neighbors remember dozens of Hebrew expressions, such as prutim (money) and the beverage known as Mahia – a Jewish-Moroccan brandy. During the long period when they lived in proximity to each other, the Jews were commemorated as shrewd merchants in a number of Berber sayings, such as: “Jews in the market are like salt in the dough”.

An outdoor market in Morocco, the Bitmuna Collection


A female member of the Shilha, from southern Morocco. Source: Collectie Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen

But the Jews and their Shilha neighbors shared more than just economic relations. The Berbers visited the same Jewish gravesites the Jews flocked to during traditional hilulah celebrations commemorating the passing of Jewish holy figures. Jewish healers frequently received their Shilha neighbors who were not afraid to make use of their mystical charms, amulets and potions.

The Jews and Shilha also shared common customs and would dance and sing together at public ceremonies. While the Jews of the region avoided taking part in Berber customs related to the Muslim faith, both groups were well acquainted with each other’s calendars. Besides greeting their Jewish neighbors with the words “happy holiday” (hag sameah) or “easy fast” (tsom kal), the multitude of holidays and festivals created many economic opportunities. Before the Sabbath and ahead of Jewish holidays, the Shilha would sell agricultural products to Jews as well as the reeds needed to build the sukkah, while the Jewish women marketed their seamstress skills to their Muslim neighbors as they prepared for their own festivals.

Cooperation between Jews and Muslims was especially noticeable in the days leading up to the Mimouna celebration. During the Passover holiday, Jews would bring offerings to their Muslim acquaintances; including matzoh, pies, and sometimes a meat stew, and in return, the Muslims brought the Jews milk, butter, honey, eggs and flour, the ingredients necessary for the preparation of the Mimouna delicacies.

Photograph of a young Jewish woman from the Atlas Mountain region on the cover of the newspaper L’Avenir Illustré, with the headline: “Our Research of the Malaḥim,” March 19, 1931. Click here to read the article

So how did a group as diverse and productive as the Shilha come to be associated with a disparaging epithet meaning a disheveled person who cannot be trusted? This offensive term that referred to rural Muslims and Jews alike was brought to Israel by immigrants from Morocco.

In 1931, the French-language Jewish newspaper L’Avenir Illustré (“The Illustrated Future”) published an article by Charles Abehsera of the city of Rabat in its Jeune Israel (“Young Israel”) section. Abehsera wrote about the rural Jewish migrants flooding his city, referring to one of them as a “shluh.” In the article, Abehsera described the individual as an old Jewish man making a living from handouts and tourists who paid him a small sum to take his picture. Another thing that bothered Abehsera was the fact that this “shluh” accepted alms on Shabbat, in violation of Jewish religious law.

Abehsera, a young representative of the Western Moroccan Jews, distanced himself from the “shluh”, whom he viewed as a dirty and undesirable individual who spoke neither Arabic nor French, but only the Berber language. The “Young Israel” section of L’Avenir Illustré was read by the Jewish youth in Morocco who typically received a French education in the Jewish Alliance schools. These young boys and girls spoke French and identified with European Western values more than with traditional Moroccan values​.

Abehsera certainly did not invent the term “shluh,” but he used it to differentiate himself and his community from the newcomers who were moving into the city from the rural areas. Incidentally, the word “Berber” also stems from a pejorative term. The Berbers call themselves “Amaziye’im” (“Imaziye’in” meaning “freemen”). However, the word Berber derives from the ancient Greek word Barbaros (βάρβαρος), which the Greeks used to refer to anyone who did not speak Greek.


“The Tourists in the Mellah of Rabat,” click on the image to read the article

Regardless of the young Abehsera’s views and the desire of many of Morocco’s urban Jews to differentiate themselves from the Berber-speaking Jews, it is important to understand that until the Jews left Morocco, half of the country’s population (Muslim and Jewish) spoke Berber as a first or second language. After Morocco’s independence and the introduction of a state education system, this number dropped to about 30 percent. Most of the Berber-speaking Jews spoke the Tashelhit dialect, and for some (for example the people of Tifnit in the Souss Valley region) Tashelhit was their mother tongue at least until the French occupation. The French protectorate’s road-building efforts connected the villages to the larger cities, which led to the migration of rural populations to urban centers. The slanderous label was an outcome of the city folk’s encounter with the villagers.

The complex relationship between the Jews and their Shilha neighbors is an important part of the story of Moroccan immigration to Israel, just as it is part of Morocco’s history. The two groups not only lived side by side in the same villages for perhaps thousands of years, but also shared beliefs and customs, such as veneration of local saints, folk medicine and a whole repertoire of Berber song, dance, folk tales and sayings. Therefore, the dismissal of Shilha culture and the disdain towards it — which began already in Morocco — serve to undermine a significant element of North African Jewish culture.

Despite the complex and delicate relations that existed between the neighboring populations, the Jews and Berbers have come to embrace their common past. The Jews’ departure from Morocco severely impacted the Berber and Shilha rural economy for years. Before the establishment of formal relations between Israel and Morocco, nostalgia for these bygone relations led to the idealization of Jewish life in the villages and towns in Morocco in the past. Today, with travel to Morocco now possible, Israelis of Moroccan origin can see for themselves the living conditions in the villages and renew the ties forged over the generations between their ancestors and the Amaziye’in.


Thanks to Prof. Joseph (Yossi) Chetrit and Dr. David Guedj for their help in preparing this article.


Further Reading:

Joseph Yossi Chetrit, Intimacy, Cooperation and Ambivalence: Social, Economic and Cultural Interaction between Jews and Berbers in Morocco, European Judaism, Volume 52, No. 2, 2019: pp. 18-30

Joseph Yossi Chetrit, “Judeo-Berber in Morocco” in: Languages in Jewish Communities, Past and Present, Edited by Benjamin Hary & Sarah Bunin Benor (De Gruyter, 2018)

David Guedj, “‘Jeune Israel’: Multiple Modernities of Jewish Childhood and Youth in Morocco in the First Half of the Twentieth Century”, Jewish Quarterly Review, Volume 112, Number 2, 2022, pp. 316-343

דוד גדג’, דיוקנאות, ארץ־ישראל והקהילות היהודיות במרוקו: המסרים החזותיים בעיתון

L’Avenir Illustré

 מרכז יד בן-צבי


The Opera That Survived the Ghetto: The Story of “The Kaiser of Atlantis”

Under a perpetual shadow of death, as train after train was sent to Auschwitz, Viktor Ullmann and Peter Kien, imprisoned in the Theresienstadt Ghetto, composed a searing opera satirizing the awful reality in Europe. Both were murdered, but a suitcase filled with Ullmann's works survived to tell the story of the human spirit’s triumph over death


Self-portrait of Peter Kien and a photograph of Viktor Ullmann, source: Wikipedia

In 1943, as the Nazi regime presided over its network of concentration and death camps, as Jews were sent to their deaths on train after train, two prisoners in the Theresienstadt Ghetto secretly composed an opera decrying what was happening in Europe. The two were Viktor Ullmann, a rising Austrian composer of Polish-Jewish origin, and Peter Kien, a promising young painter, poet and playwright. Their opera was never performed in this “model” ghetto, which to cover up its sinister purpose, housed a fully operational theater and a full schedule of productions. The opera’s composers and cast were all murdered eventually, but miraculously the libretto and music survived, and in the 1970s the opera was even produced on stage. How did this miracle happen?

Ghetto currency from the Theresienstadt Ghetto, designed by Peter Kien. Courtesy of Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Shturman Family Archive. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel, see here as well.

Sent together to Auschwitz

Viktor Ullmann was born on January 1, 1898 in Teschen (Czech Republic), an area that was then part of to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ulllmann’s parents had converted to Christianity before he was born, enabling his father to pursue a military career. When Viktor was 11 years old, the family moved to Vienna, where he continued his studies in music theory and piano. Viktor was discharged from the army in 1918 after a short period of military service during World War I, and went to study law and musical composition. A year later he left for Prague, where he devoted himself to music. He conducted a choir and worked as a rehearsal pianist. This was how he made a living as he wandered across Europe before returning permanently to Prague in 1933. After the Nazi occupation in 1939, he managed to smuggle two of his children to England on the kindertransport, although both died there at a young age. Ullmann was deported to Theresienstadt in September 1942 along with his third wife and their young son. He was reunited there with his eldest son who had already arrived. Some of Ullmann’s works from this period have been preserved.

Not long after arriving in the ghetto, Ullmann became one of the central figures in the musical scene that developed in Theresienstadt. He wrote music reviews, organized concerts and wrote musical compositions, 16 of which have been preserved and four that have apparently been lost forever. In the ghetto, Ullmann began to integrate Jewish motifs into his music. Some claim his works show a musical identity that combines all his national identities—Jewish, German and Czech. Ullmann kept his musical works and writings in a suitcase which he gave to the ghetto librarian, Professor Emil Utitz, before his deportation to Auschwitz. Utitz, who survived the war, moved to England, and thus saved Ullmann’s works.

Viktor Ullmann in a drawing by Peter Kien, courtesy of Jewish-Theatre.com

Peter Kien was born in 1919, coincidentally also on January 1. Kien was born to a Jewish family living in Varnsdorf, on the Czech-German border. The family moved to Brno, now in the Czech Republic, in 1929. His artistic talent was noticeable from a young age. At 14, his paintings were already being displayed at exhibitions. Graduating from high school with honors and special recognition for his talent in painting and writing, he immediately began his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. In 1939, he was expelled due to the Nazi racial laws, after which he began teaching art in the Jewish community. He tried to immigrate to Mandatory Palestine but did not receive the coveted certificate due to a heart condition. In 1940, he married Ilse Stransky, who was four years his senior. His attempt to immigrate with his family to the United States and Turkey also failed.

In December 1941, he was deported to Theresienstadt where he was assigned the job of assistant director of the technical drawing department. Unsatisfied with the technical work, Kien risked his life by stealing office stationary which he used for his art. Most of the paintings he left are painted on both sides of the page. He gave his paintings to Helga Wolfstein, a fellow artist with whom he was having an extramarital affair in the ghetto. Helga kept the suitcase containing the approximately 500 paintings and drawings in the ghetto clinic’s department of infectious diseases, where her mother worked. After the war, she took the suitcase back to her hometown of Brno, where it was confiscated by the communist authorities. The works are now in the memorial museum in Terezin.

Kien and Ullmann were deported together on the transport that left Theresienstadt on October 16 and arrived in Auschwitz two days later.


“The Kaiser of Atlantis”: A timeless protest from the depths of the ghetto

In Theresienstadt, Kien and Ullmann wrote an opera called The Kaiser of Atlantis (or The Emperor of Atlantis). Kien wrote the libretto and Ullmann composed the music. The opera has only one act and just four scenes, but every detail is meaningful and the deeper one looks, the more layers of meaning one finds. The words and music were written on the backs of papers containing prisoner lists and prisoner requests, which were apparently stolen at great personal risk from the ghetto offices. The opera begins with all the singers coming on stage with suitcases. The cry “Hallo! Hallo! Achtung! Achtung!” comes over a loudspeaker, evoking the announcements in the camps, everyone is assigned a role and each person then leaves to go and dress accordingly. In this scene one might recognize the erasure of identity that happened in the camps, the arbitrariness of determining people’s fates based solely on their origin, or perhaps the idea that evil exists in every person. We can only assume that this is exactly the message the opera’s creators were aiming for.

The story is set in an imaginary Atlantis, where Emperor Überall (loosely translated – “Emperor Above-All”, a name that recalls the Nazi anthem “Deutschland über alles”) elects to wage a total war—everyone against everyone. The Angel of Death then decides to go on strike because of humanity’s attempt to usurp his job, decreeing that no one will die. The executions ordered by the emperor fail. A soldier and a young woman fight and wound each other almost to the death, but somehow fall in love at the same time. In the end, all the characters ask for death, even the emperor, who explains to Death itself that people cannot live without it.

Portrait of Ilse Stransky, part of a two sided work by Peter Kien. Courtesy of the Museum of Holocaust Art, Yad Vashem

In the face of the unbearable overcrowding, epidemics of dysentery and typhus, hunger and forced labor, the opera’s sarcastic tone and biting criticism of the tyrant—of any tyrant from any period of time and place – flowed forth effortlessly. The opera ends with the Angel of Death agreeing to end his strike. He slays the emperor first, followed by all the other characters, who die while singing that the name of Death must not be taken in vain. Death prevails, but perhaps the people who asked for death and accepted it proudly and with dignity are also the victors. It is heartbreaking to think that none of the opera’s writers or performers survived. If their final wish was to die with dignity, one can only hope that at least this was granted them.


A creative spark remained even in the darkest gloom

Terezin, the small garrison town designed to house about 7,000 people, was the only ghetto in Central Europe and at its peak housed about 59,000 Jews. The Theresienstadt Ghetto became known as a “model ghetto” because the Nazis used it for the purpose of propaganda. A delegation from the Red Cross was brought there to show how good conditions were for the Jews, and to debunk the rumors of mass extermination. In practice, it was a ghetto that the SS ran like a concentration camp. About 155,000 Jews passed through Theresienstadt, 35,440 of them perished there, and another 88,000 were sent on to the death camps.

Ullmann and Kien decided against all odds to stage this opera in the ghetto, or as Ullmann wrote in one of his surviving letters: “No matter what, we did not sit and cry by the river of Babylon, our pursuit of art is as our desire to live.” That was indeed the case. In the overcrowded conditions of the ghetto, surrounded by hunger, death, disease and forced labor, creativity did not cease for a moment. Nothing stopped the creative desire even in the midst of the darkest gloom.

A shoemaker, drawing by Peter Kien, courtesy of Jewish-Theatre.com

Like the story of its creators, the story of the staging of the opera in the ghetto did not end well. Rehearsals began in May 1944, with a limited number of singers and musicians. In August 1944, SS officers present at a rehearsal of the opera announced then and there that it would never be performed. On October 16, Viktor Ullmann and Peter Kien were sent to Auschwitz. Ullmann was immediately sent to the gas chambers. It is not clear if Kien was sent as well, or whether he died later of an illness.

Yet, sometimes, what seems like the end is not. A copy of the opera, which was never performed in the ghetto, ended up in the hands of British orchestra director Kerry Woodward. At his initiative and encouragement, the opera was staged for the first time in 1975, 31 years after the murder of its creators. Since then it has been performed around the world and continues to warn against tyrants, war and absolute human evil.