One of the bitter ironies of history is that Hitler and the Nazis loved music but it did nothing to soothe the savage breast of Nazi Germany. A second irony is that the high culture of Western Europe, including its heritage of classical music, featured the compositions and performances of a great many Jewish musicians.
The irony suffuses the romantic tale that Carol Jean Delmar tells in “Serenade: A Memoir of Music and Love From Vienna and Prague to Los Angeles” (Willow Lane Press, $27.99). Her parents, Franz and Franziska, met and fell in love in 1927 when they danced to the strains of Strauss’ “The Radetzky March” in a Viennese cafe. They were dancing on the edge of a volcano, of course, and one of the poignant aspects of Delmar’s book is that she allows us to enter the elegant but doomed world of Viennese Jewry that so soon would suffer a catastrophe.
Young Franz pursued a career as an opera singer — his first audition piece is “O du mein holder Abendstern” from a Wagner opera. By then, the Nazis were already on the ascent in Germany and Austria. “Franz tried not to think about politics,” Delmar explains. “[H]e immersed himself in his music instead.” In 1936, while the Nazis consolidated their power in Germany, the handsome performer appeared on the professional opera stage in Vienna to encouraging notices: “A first-rate Figaro in the Mozartian tradition,” one critic enthused.
Another comfort was his courtship of beautiful Franziska, a story that is told in charming and sometimes passionate detail. “Last night I dreamt that my heart was creeping away from me, and when I asked where it was going, it said that it was leaving me because it could not bear to be away from you,” Franz had written to Franziska on her 16th birthday. “So you see, my little Franziska, my heart is forsaking me.” As they grew closer, the romance offered its own little world into which they could retreat: “[W]hen Franz and Franziska were together,” Delmar writes, “they felt safe.
Neither love nor music, however, were sufficient to shelter these young lovers. Theater managers began to cancel the appearances of the young Jewish virtuoso, and the curtain calls at one performance in Prague were cut off when a few Nazi sympathizers in the audience stood up and started giving the Nazi salute in a gesture of rebuke to the Jewish singer on the stage: “Heil Hitler!”
Prague was a place of temporary refuge for the young couple when the Nazis took power in Austria in 1938. “What was Hitler going to do next?” Franziska fretted. “What was he capable of?” Franz tried to reassure her: “But Hitler must realize that he can’t just walk into Czechoslovakia like he did in Austria without any opposition.” Music, again was the safe subject: “Try to concentrate on your singing,” Franziska said. “And let me do most of the worrying.”
In 1938, when Nazi Germany began the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, Franz and Franziska found themselves with German passports, “each stamped with a big red ‘J’ on the front page,” as Delmar explains, “to label their Jewishness.” They managed to reach Zurich, Milan and then Marseille, Panama and Cuba, where they puzzled over where they might be granted asylum: Shanghai? Cuba? Eventually, with the astute advice of a HIAS agent and a convenient supply of American dollars, they bribed their way out of a Cuba refugee camp and then successfully navigated their way through the treacherous passport formalities of both the United States and Nazi Germany. “We’re always one step ahead of disaster,” Franziska quipped.
On Oct. 9, 1939, their ship docked at last in Miami, and Franz and Franziska were en route to their ultimate stopping place in Los Angeles. They were a highly cosmopolitan and well-traveled young couple, but the diner on Biscayne Boulevard posed an entirely unanticipated challenge — Franziska didn’t quite know what to do when they were served a carton of cornflakes and a pitcher of cream and provided with a bowl and a spoon. “You’re supposed to throw them into the bowl, put cream and sugar on top of them, and then eat with a spoon,” Franz instructed. “Oh,” Franziska replied. “So this is American food.”
“Serenade” reminds us that the great events of history happen to flesh-and-blood human beings, a fact that Delmar understands and honors in her beautifully written and illustrated book. (Indeed, the snapshots, postcards, clippings and documents that adorn “Serenade” are among its greatest pleasures and most illuminating features.) She understands the exalting role that music played in the lives of her parents, which amount to a saga of love and survival, but she also appreciates that a bowl of cornflakes can be a symbol of liberation.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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