By Michael Bernstein
Seventy years ago, Leonard Bernstein began a conducting tour of Europe, marking a critical development point for him as a musician and a human — and for a world reeling from war.
May, 1948: Leonard Bernstein Arrives in Shell-Shocked Germany
Leonard Bernstein arrived in Munich, Germany, in May 1948 as a 29-year-old American conductor, still practically unknown in Europe. Lenny was devastated to discover a city still so utterly “shell-shocked,” three years (almost to the day) after Germany’s surrender.
Carlos Mosely, who would later manage the New York Philharmonic, was then working for the Military Government of the American occupational force. He had arranged for Lenny to conduct the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra, whose Jewish members had been purged, deported or executed by the Nazis since 1933.
The orchestra musicians were in quite bad shape and there were still die-hard Nazis among them. On May 8th, Lenny wrote to his mentor, Serge Koussevitzky:
Munich is a mess. Nazism everywhere, a sick economy, people working for a few cigarettes a day, Jews rotting in camps, miserable as get out, and the city in ruins.
After an oboist fainted during a rehearsal, the orchestra went on strike to demand more food rations (although one wonders if the strike had more to do with their being asked to play under the baton of an American Jew).
While Lenny waited for the strike to be settled, he asked around if there were any musicians among the Jewish holocaust survivors still in Germany. He was told of an orchestra made up of of ex-concentration camp prisoners, who were then awaiting emigration and being held in the Displaced Persons’ camps surrounding Munich.
Lenny made arrangements to hold a concert with The Represenzentanc Orkester fun der Szeerit Hapleitah (the orchestra representing the surviving remainder). He wrote to his secretary, Helen Coates, on May 5th:
“There has been much trouble and fuss over this, but I insisted. I may have to hire the orchestra myself, but it’s worth it.
Meanwhile, rehearsals for the Munich concert were back on. On the eve of the May 9th concert, Lenny wrote to Koussevitzky:
“I had expected great hostility from the orchestra…[b]ut they seem to love me, and play with great Lust. One violinist told me this morning at the rehearsal that in all Germany there were maybe two conductors who could play Schumann as well as I, and they’re both over 80 years old. That was my biggest compliment of all time!”
Three days later, he wrote to Coates:
“The Munich concert was the greatest success to date. Especially, because I had three obstacles to overcome – youth, Americanism & Jewishness. And what a riotous success! There’s nothing more satisfying than an opera house full of Germans screaming with excitement…
It means so much for the American military government, since music is the German’s last stand in their ‘master-race’ claim, and for the first time it’s been exploded in Munich.”
(Photos: Letters from Leonard Bernstein in 1948 to Serge Koussevitzky and Helen Coates. [Correspondence written by Leonard Bernstein used by permission, courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.])
May 10, 1948: Bernstein Leads the Displaced Persons Orchestra in Concerts at Feldafing and Landsberg
The concerts on May 10th with the Displaced Persons Orchestra might not have been triumphal from a musical standpoint — the instruments were nearly as worn down as the players — but it left Lenny, the musicians, and the listeners emotionally overjoyed and inspired.
“I was received by parades of kids with flowers, and the greatest honors,” Lenny wrote to Coates. “I conducted… Freischütz of all things and cried my heart out.”
And the overture to Weber’s opera was only the opening number on the program, which also included the Minuet and Farandole from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne, some arias from Tosca and Rigoletto and closed with Lenny playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, conducting from the piano.
In the orchestra were two sisters: pianist Fania and “Folkzingerin” Henia Durmashkin. Their brother, the Lithuanian prodigy composer-conductor-pianist, Wolf Durmashkin, was appointed conductor of the Vilna Symphony at age 25 (sound familiar?).
Wolf organized many of Vilnius’s Jewish musicians into a ghetto orchestra and choir performing classics and music from contemporary ghetto composers. He became a central, heroic figure of ghetto resistance. Tragically, Wolf was executed in a concentration camp shortly before it was liberated by Russian forces. His sisters were deported to one of Dachau’s satellite camps in Bavaria.
Lenny accompanied Henia’s singing of Kalanyot and Jeruszalaim, both patriotic Jewish folk songs of the burgeoning state of Israel (which would be officially declared a state a few days after the concert).
(Photos: Program of the Feldafing Displaced Persons concert, May 10, 1948, signed by Leonard Bernstein. Donated by Henia Durmashkin to the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. Program photos courtesy of Henia’s daughter, Rita Lerner.)
Fania and Henia Durmashkin eventually emigrated to and started families in the United States of America.
2018: Remembering Bernstein, Displaced Persons Today
On May 10, 2018, the Wolf Durmashkin Composition Award was presented during a ceremonial concert in Landsberg am Lech, Germany, where Lenny had performed with Fania and Henia 70 years before. Wolf’s grandchildren (Fania and Henia’s children) created the contemporary-composer’s competition and award in honor of him.
The anniversary concert, produced by journalist Karla Schönebeck and artist Wolfgang Hauck, featured some of the same works performed at the historic 1948 concert, this time performed by a chamber orchestra made up of members of the Bavarian Philharmonic, conducted by Mark Mast.
The three prize-winning pieces were also debuted: third-place Otto Wanke’s Vergiss, wer du bist (Forget, who you are); Rose Miranda Hall’s Mein Schatten (My Shadow); and the competition’s victor, Israeli composer Bracha Bdil’s Hayom (Today). The latter two pieces were sung by the talented Israeli tenor and cantor Yoéd Sorek.
Sorek also improvised on the unofficial national anthem of Israel, Jerusalem of Gold, with piano-phenom Guy Mintus. The 26-year-old Mintus is Israeli born (with Iraqi, Moroccan and Polish ancestry) and straddles the musical worlds of classical, jazz and world music in his own compositions and improvised performances.
Mintus brought down the house at the Stadttheater Landsberg with his fantastic improvisational interpretation of Rhapsody in Blue. The piece had been rearranged for the chamber orchestra, which had been downsized to 17-instruments, reflecting the DP orchestra Lenny had conducted 70 years before. Gershwin’s masterpiece was one of Lenny’s show pieces, and both audience and musicians felt his spirit pervading the performance.
The anniversary-concert program also included a screening of a 2016 short film, Mr. Bernstein. The autobiographical screenplay, written by New Zealander Deb Filler, is about how hearing Lenny conduct the Displaced Persons Orchestra in Landsberg was an emotional turning point for her holocaust-survivor father, followed up by her own emotional encounter with “Mr. Bernstein” decades later.
Upon hearing the Jewish-American conductor playing a piece composed by Gershwin, being performed by concentration-camp survivors, Deb’s father realized that there was hope for the Jews’ future, and that he could make something valuable grow out of his own shattered existence.
(Mr. Bernstein Trailer from director Francine Zuckerman on Vimeo.)
For Lenny himself, the 1948 concerts would be unforgettable experiences. The postscript of his letter to Helen Coates instructs:
You will receive by mail a package containing a real concentration camp costume which they gave to me. Be particularly careful of it—it’s a great possession.
The concerts played a role in helping Lenny overcome his own prejudices against Germany. They also reinforced Lenny’s belief in humanity’s aptitude for reconciliation and renewal. And, that first encounter with Nazism’s fallout, paved the way for Lenny’s subsequent career triumphs in Vienna, Salzburg, Schleswig-Holstein, and Berlin.
About this author
In 2001, Leonard Bernstein’s nephew, Michael, moved to Vienna from New York City, where he had been the Administrator for the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA). He is now a freelance writer, editor, and translator. Read his article on Leonard Bernstein and Vienna in Metropole.
About this content
Correspondence written by Leonard Bernstein used by permission, courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc. See more of Bernstein’s letters in the Library of Congress Bernstein Collection.