The Jewish Symphony Orchestra

As part of its Aryanization campaign, the German occupier decreed that all Jewish orchestra musicians be dismissed. If not for this measure, the Netherlands would never have known a Jewish Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra consisted of 73 musicians, and it performed for eight months. Half of the musicians survived the war.

The Jewish Symphony Orchestra was established as a direct result of Aryanization. However, the orchestra was not established by the Jews but by the Dutch Department of Public Information and Arts [DVK]. Tasked by the Germans with organizing the dismissal of the Jews, the DVK was able to transfer them into a Jewish orchestra. No one could foresee at that point that this was just a temporary solution for ‘the Jewish issue’, created by the occupier.

Rapturous reception of the opening concert 
On 16 November 1941, the Jewish Symphony Orchestra gave its first concert. As the enthusiastic review in Het Joodsche Weekblad, the only official communication medium of Jewish Netherlands during the occupation, reports: 

Announcement "No Jews in Dutch Orchestras" (source: NIOD/WWII Image Bank)
Announcement "No Jews in Dutch Orchestras" (source: NIOD/WWII Image Bank)

"Before a sold-out audience in the Jewish Theater Hall, the Jewish Symphony Orchestra gave its first opening performance on Sunday afternoon, 16 November. The program of this performance, introducing the audience for the first time to the nature and quality of this newly-formed ensemble, was devoted entirely to Mendelssohn's music, thus to the art of the greatest and noblest figure among Jewish composers. [...] In just a few weeks of preparation, and with musicians that were recruited from virtually all Dutch orchestras, the conductor Albert van Raalte has managed to create an ensemble of surprising homogeneity."

The illusion of protection
It is not known exactly how many Jewish musicians there were at the outbreak of the war. We do know that, in 1940, there were 75 ‘full Jewish’ musicians employed by Dutch symphony orchestras. The radio orchestras also counted a large number, and an even greater number of Jewish musicians worked in the entertainment sector. After their dismissal and replacement by Aryan musicians, they had to make a living somehow. Protests by orchestra boards and conductors against their dismissal proved futile. Hundreds of musicians sought to obtain a place in the Jewish Symphony Orchestra.

Following a formal recital, 73 musicians were fortunate enough to be admitted to the orchestra. More than half came from the symphony and radio orchestras, the rest came from the entertainment world or straight from the conservatory. The official character of the orchestra reinforced the sense that they now enjoyed a certain protection, even if only temporarily. They would discover later that they were just as defenseless as their fellow Jews.

Jewish music for a Jewish audience
The orchestra was unique in the history of the Netherlands. It consisted entirely of Jewish music, the repertoire concentrated exclusively on music by Jewish composers, and they were permitted to perform for a Jewish audience only. The costs were borne by the Van Leer Foundation. Upon departing for America in June 1943, the Jewish industrialist Bernard van Leer had donated 150,000 guilders (the equivalent of over 68,000 euros) to this fund, intended for Jewish cultural goals. The orchestra did not have much room to maneuver. In actual fact, the Germans were fully in control.

Jewish Symfony Orchestra conducted by Albert van Raalte, Hollandsche Schouwburg, Amsterdam, 1941-1942 (source: Jewish Historical Museum)
Jewish Symfony Orchestra conducted by Albert van Raalte, Hollandsche Schouwburg, Amsterdam, 1941-1942 (source: Jewish Historical Museum)
Deportations shatter the illusion
In the eight months of its existence, the orchestra was to give 25 concerts. All were performed in the Jewish Theater Hall, formerly Hollandsche Schouwburg, in Amsterdam, and virtually all of them were sold out. The orchestra was forced to stop all activities when the deportations started in July 1942.

Half of the orchestra survives the war
Half of the orchestra musicians survived the war, which matches the number of Jewish survivors from the eight Dutch symphony orchestras. This is a considerable number, compared to the fact that just a quarter of all Dutch Jews survived the war. Around 20 percent of the Jewish orchestra musicians were married to a non-Jewish partner, which afforded them a slight degree of protection. Six musicians, including five members of the Concert Hall Orchestra, were added to a list of ‘protected’ Dutch Jews. They survived the war in Theresienstadt, which was a camp for so-called Verdienstjuden. The rest had survived in hiding or returned from the concentration camps. Thirty-seven musicians from the Jewish Symphony Orchestra did not survive the war.

Author: Pauline Micheels