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Jews (Berliner Cabaret #AtoZChallenge)

J (AtoZ Challenge 2019)

The relationship between Germany and her Jewish citizens was never a simple one. The XIX century was particularly critical. In the moment Jews became more integrated, they also started to emerge and become more obvious, at least in the eyes of the non-Jewish population. A series of contingent reasons concentrated Jewish activities in the creative fields, particularly those involving words: literature and theatre. In the decades that straddled the XIX and the XX century, theatre was still considered a disreputable employment, unsuited for reputable citizens… which Jews apparently weren’t. A numbe rof Jews so found a profession in this field, with the unexpected side-effect that they became commentators of the German experience , and influencers of her cultural life.

Bertolt Brecht, German poet, playwright, and theatrical reformer whose epic theatre departed from the conventions of theatrical illusion and developed the drama as a social and ideological forum for leftist causes.
Bertolt Brecht

But being a Jewish performer brought with it an unforeseen ‘problem’. Jokes about regional types were very common. There was a lot of joking about the different German ‘tribes’, especially Prussians, Bavarians, Saxons and Austrians. For a few decades joking about Jews, using Jewish dialect and stereotypes was considered just like the joking going on this other regionalisms.
But after WWI anti-Semitism became more vocal and more violent, and the Jewish community started to get worried. Jokes about Jews became then not just bad taste, but outright dangerous, to the point that the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith, the larger organization that defended the right of German Jews, started to protest against Jewish comedians who told Jewish jokes on stage.

Many cabaret entertainers were Jewish, but their audience were predominantly Gentile. Comedy naturally relies on the exaggeration of stereotypical characteristics, like mode of expression, body forms, cultural flaws. This kind of joke was harmless in a Jewish context becasuse it sounded like an inside joke. But when told in front of a Gentile audience – especially in a climate of rising anti-Semitism – it took up an altogether darker twist.

An opposition arose to the use of a lower-class, non-high German dialect, that typecast Jews as being not fully integrated into German culture and society. Cabaretists were asked to maintain an image of Jewishness that was patriotically German, morally decent and financially modest. The use of Yiddish expressions was frowned upon and considered vulgar when used in non-Jewish contexts. In a massive protest the Central Association staged on April 22, 1926, they passed a strongly worded resolution stating that no honourable Jews should support this form of entertainment.

Jews (Berliner Cabaret #AtoZChallenge) "In interwar year #Germany many #cabaret performers were #Jews, but they performed in front of Gentile audience. This created unexpected issues #history Share on X

It’s hard to say whether the attitude of comedians really made a difference in the end. When the Nazi came into power, they immediately started to oppress Jews. Already in 1933 the Reich Cultural Chamber was founded. Anyone seeking to be active in the fields of literature, visual arts, theatre, music, films, press and radio was required to become a member – but membership was regularly denied to anyone considered ‘non-Aryan’ or ‘politically suspected’ (Jews fell into both categories, since they were normally considered leftists).
Eventually, Jewish performers were permitted to act exclusively at events sponsored by the Cultural League of German Jews (also founded in 1933) were no Gentile audience or press were admitted. The only ‘Aryans’ who could assist to those shows were official observers, often from the Gestapo, even if at that point cabaret was basically defunct since  the show consisted chiefly of classical music and dramas.

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CJN Canadian Jewish News – The Inspiring Women of the Weimar Cabaret
Jewish Museum Berlin – Berlin Transit

Peter Jelavich, Berlin Cabaret. Harvard University Press, Harvard, 1993


  • Liz A.
    Posted April 11, 2019 at 02:24

    Chilling. It’s sad how something that was meant as fun could be turned against them.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 16, 2019 at 07:56

      That is true. I’ve read a lot more about cabaret in concentration camps than I wrot in here. It is indeed chilling.

    Posted April 11, 2019 at 02:25

    Many thanks for this, Sarah, and for your whole blog series. This piece is timely, given the appalling rise of Left-Wing Anti-Semitism in this century, as if there weren’t enough of the older Right-Wing variety!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 16, 2019 at 07:58

      Writing about the Weimar Republic this year as well as last year has taught me so much about ourseves today. Sometimes I even wonder: am I seriously reading about 100 years ago? Because it sounds so much like today.

  • Birgit
    Posted April 11, 2019 at 04:08

    I had to look some of the people up. It’s such a shame and that the Jewish people were horrifically treated. I don’t understand why the Jewish population were hunted not only in Germany but in Russia and in many other countries

    • Post Author
      Posted April 16, 2019 at 08:02

      The history of Jewish people in Europe is very complex. I suppose that in most places, Jews were seen as outsider and so potentically dangerous to the ‘integrity’ of culture and population.
      Now that I’v ewritten it down, it chills me even more. It sounds like soemthing I’ve heard on TV only yesterday…

  • Kristin
    Posted April 11, 2019 at 04:12

    Frightening how ready people are to hate.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 16, 2019 at 08:05

      I know. Apparently, we can conjure up endless reasons why we should mistrust or even hate someone. Conjusring up why we should love them or only respect them seems a lot harder.

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 14, 2019 at 18:29

    Cultures created a situation of society where Jewish people migrated towards the arts and entertainment fields, and then turned around and blamed them for it, and then banned them… it makes one feel depressed. And also, it seems chillingly easy for someone to do it again…

    The Multicolored Diary

    • Post Author
      Posted April 16, 2019 at 08:08

      That is exactly that. And when people feel vulnerable (like Germans, but I say European in general did after the devastation of WWI) it’s easy to become defensive and mistrusting. Then any reason is good to start hating someone.

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 15, 2019 at 18:00

    This really proves German Jews weren’t nearly as accepted and well-integrated into society as many of them believed they were prior to the Nazis. They may have had legal emancipation, been by and large non-Orthodox, and were active participants in German life (instead of speaking Yiddish, wearing out of place clothes, and clustering in Jewish neighbourhoods), but actual public attitudes told a much different story.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 16, 2019 at 08:28

      You are probably right.
      But I just have to look around me to see how easy it is to find an enemy to hate. There have been many anti-Semitic episodes in Europe lately. I don’t believe for a moment that those Jews are not totally integreted in the nations they live in. They don’t need to integrate: they ARE part of those nations. But Jews were ‘the others’ for centuries in Europe, and when haters start hating, they end up falling back on Jews again, becasue well, they must still be ‘the others’, no?
      It’s easy. It’s lazy. It’s handy.
      What does this tells us about us humans?

  • Aditi Kapur
    Posted April 28, 2019 at 16:32

    There’s so much of information! Glad to connect:)

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