Connecting Through Music in Israel and Germany

Young musicians from the two countries have been reviving the music of composers persecuted by the Nazis, forging friendships and even falling in love

Yonatan Dror

Fifty years ago, when Germany and Israel first established diplomatic relations, the grandparents of most of these young musicians might have found it hard to imagine a concert like this. But for the German and Israeli artists playing side by side in the Jerusalem-Weimar Young Symphonic Orchestra, it all seems perfectly natural.

“Yes, it’s a way to bridge our shared history,” says Shaya Ginzburg, 21, a viola player from Jerusalem. “But actually, we are mostly focused on the music — and aren’t exactly looking back much. We connect through making music.”

The orchestra was founded in 2011 and is made up of Israelis and Germans in their twenties from the Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem and the University of Music Franz Liszt in Weimar. The idea behind the project, says Michael Wolpe, one of its founders, was to bring together promising musicians to play, together, music of forgotten Jewish composers: Those who were banned or had their works burned by the Nazis, as well as those who were murdered in the Holocaust.

Some of these composers’ works were only found after the reunification of Germany in the 1990s, when the music archives belonging to the famed Weimar music festival — which had been shut down by the Nazis in 1934 — were themselves re-discovered in a hangar near the Buchenwald concentration camp.

The young musicians meet every other year for a week of intensive rehearsals in either Germany or Israel, and then play a series of concerts in both countries. This season took the orchestra to Berlin, Weimar and Wolfsburg, and in Israel they held concerts last week in Rishon Letzion, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

The orchestra is led by Dresden Philharmonic chief conductor Michael Sanderling, the youngest son of conductor Kurt Sanderling, who was forced to flee Nazi Germany because he was Jewish.

“Of course, we recognize the weight of history and the significance of what we are doing,” says Ginzburg, changing out of cutoff jean shorts and into formal black in the narrow hallways under the stage before the orchestra’s final performance Sunday night, at the Tel Aviv Museum. “But what gets us excited,” he adds, as two flutists prance by, dancing with each other as they get in some last minute practice, “is being chosen for the project, meeting other great musicians, and getting to work with a world class conductor.”

Now in its third season, and needing to attract audiences, the orchestra is straying somewhat, by Wolpe’s own admission, from its original mission. The program this year was more varied. It featured a symphony by Jewish composer Kurt Weill, who was forced to leave Germany after the Nazis took over, but also included a premiere of a work by the young Israeli composer Ziv Cojocaru, as well as more popular works by Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky.

“Wasn’t Shostakovich Jewish?” wonders an Israeli violinist putting on red lipstick in a nearby full length mirror before the concert. “I didn’t know Weill was,” says a violoncellist walking by, brushing her teeth. “I need the mirror,” says a clarinetist.

A conscript in the Israeli Army and a seventh year student at the Jerusalem Academy for Music and Dance, Ginzburg, who started music lessons at age five, has been part of the orchestra since its beginning — joining all the tours to Weimar, and easily forging friendships.

Yonatan Dror

“We hang out a lot, in between rehearsals and during meals,” he says. “After the evening rehearsal, we might head out to the bar together, or play a game of soccer.” This year, despite the tensions in Jerusalem, Ginzburg led a little impromptu tour for his German friends around the Old City. “They were nervous, but didn’t want to miss the opportunity, and I felt I, as a solider and a local, could help protect them,” he says.

Anat Pagis from Beit Shemesh found more than just friends through her involvement with this project. The 21-year-old first violinist, for whom this year also marks her third time participating in the program, met her boyfriend in the orchestra: Marco Vogel, a bass trombonist from Annaberg-Buchholz, who, following Pagis, has now moved to Beit Shemesh. The two of them playing together in the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.

While Germany might have lost a bass trombonist, it gained a bassoon player — Samuel Gitman from Netivot, who moved to Leipzig with Marie Christine Becker, a 25-year-old German oboe player and a member of the orchestra, who, along the way, has learned to speak near-perfect Hebrew.

Of course, growing up in Tiefenbach, near Frankfurt, Becker “knew history” and wondered before coming to this country for the first time “how it would be for me, as a German.” But she immediately fell in love with Israel — and almost as quickly with the 26 year old Israeli bassoonist.

“I can’t say we have a lot of discussions about our shared history in the orchestra,” admits Becker. “It’s a lot more about music. That is where we find each other.”

Outside of rehearsals and concerts and the shared downtime, the orchestra has been taken on various tours relating to the history of Jews, Germany and the Holocaust, such as to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar — to mixed results.

Neither of those two visits, said one flutist from Weimar, who asked that her name not be used, resulted in bringing the group closer, or getting them to talk about the Holocaust. “I felt the organizers were trying to push these joint visits on us, and to get us to connect on these issues and discuss them, but it was not something we felt we wanted to do,” she said.

“It seems,” added Pagis, “that the young Germans didn’t want a guilt trip.” The Israelis, for that matter, she adds, “didn’t want to give anyone any guilt trip either. We have other ways to relate and connect now.”