Ensemble brings 1930s Jewish music to the stage

Semer Ensemble

The Semer Ensemble has revived recordings made by Jewish artists in Berlin in the 1930s, creating fresh interpretations of songs thought to be lost after Kristallnacht.

A super-group made up of stars from the contemporary klezmer and Yiddish musical worlds, the ensemble is touring North America in November, with stops in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

The group’s repertoire includes music originally recorded


by Hirsch Lewin, a Jewish bookstore owner, for his Semer label from 1933 to ’38. During those years, the Nazis decreed that Jewish artists were permitted to perform only in Jewish settings. On Kristallnacht – Nov. 9, 1938 – Nazi hooligans destroyed some 4,500 of the master recordings.

More than 50 years later, musicologist Rainer Lotz tracked down original vinyl copies of the Semer recordings and miraculously restored almost the entire catalogue.

The Semer Ensemble’s Alan Bern was familiar with the archival recordings – most of which had been re-released in 2002, in an 11-disc box set called Vorbei – Beyond Recall – when the Berlin Jewish Museum asked him to create a live program based on them in 2012.

To put together the ensemble, Bern – an American composer, pianist and accordionist who lives in Berlin – recruited seven Berlin-based musicians.

“Berlin has become an international centre for new Jewish music, which includes many non-Jewish, as well as Jewish, musicians. The Semer label represented a Berlin that had been wiped out by the Nazis, so it only seemed right to use as many Berlin-based musicians as possible for this project,” Bern said in an email interview.

The Semer label recorded an array of musical styles – including Yiddish folk and theatre songs, klezmer, Berlin cabaret and cantorial music – so the musicians decided to include at least one selection from each of the genres in their shows.

For their North American tour, the Semer Ensemble will perform songs from their album, Rescued Treasure, accompanied by supertitle translations. Describing their performances, Bern said, “We talk a little about the songs and the people who originally performed or composed them, but just enough to help the audience connected emotionally with the music. We work with historical sources, but in the end, our concerts are musical experiences, not lectures or documentary presentations.”


The Ashkenaz Festival is presenting the Semer Ensemble’s Toronto show, in association with Holocaust Education Week, which runs from Nov. 2 to 9. The festival’s artistic director, Eric Stein, said the music the ensemble performs reflects a musical tradition that was deeply integrated in Germany and influenced by the culture around it, but is distinctly Jewish. He added that the ensemble’s new interpretations of the music show that it’s part of a continuum, that there’s a historical legacy to the music that enriches us all.

Shining a light on pre-Holocaust musical traditions, the concert pushes the spotlight away from thinking of Holocaust remembrance as something that focuses on the Holocaust itself, and instead looks at the rich culture that existed before that, Stein said. “It takes the act of Holocaust remembrance and the act of concert going and combines them into something unique.”

Through the concert, Ashkenaz is also linking the past with the future. The festival is working with various Toronto agencies to provide Holocaust survivors and students with free tickets for the show, in order to share the music with future generations and to give survivors a chance to listen to music they may not have heard for decades. n

Tickets for the Semer Ensemble’s Toronto concert, which will take place at the Toronto Centre for the Arts on Nov. 8, can be purchased at the box office, or through Ticketmaster. Tickets for the Ottawa show at the Southminster United Church on Nov. 9, are available at artspace613.org. Tickets for the Montreal concert, which will be held at the Shaar Hashomayim synagogue on Nov. 15, are available at shaarhashomayim.org. For more information, call 416-979-9955, or visit ashkenaz.ca.