Breaking The Wagner Taboo

Behind closed doors, the musicians of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra gather to indulge in a forbidden pleasure: playing the music of Richard Wagner. But they don't dare play it in public. The work of the German maestro is strictly taboo in Israel, where he remains one of the most potent symbols of anti-Semitism. For many Israelis, Wagner's music is inextricably linked with Hitler's Nazi regime, which took inspiration from his racist ideology and infused its pageantry with his compositions. Now the IPO's smaller rival, the Israel Symphony Orchestra, is seeking to break the taboo. It recently announced plans to play Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll" during an October performance in its home city of Rishon LeZiyyon, sparking a flurry of protest. "The whole idea of establishing this country was to have a haven where the sensitivities of Holocaust survivors would be respected," says Efraim Zuroff, director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "These people don't deserve to be pained in this way."

Israel, home to 300,000 survivors of the Nazi death camps, is still struggling to come to terms with the symbols of the Holocaust. Over the protests of many legislators, German President Johannes Rau in February addressed the Knesset in German--the first time that language was heard from the rostrum of the Israeli Parliament. Next month, 38 years after its English-language publication, Hannah Arendt's classic but controversial study of totalitarianism, "Eichmann in Jerusalem," will finally appear in Hebrew. But to many Israelis, Wagner's music is far more unsettling than an apologetic speech by the German president or the negative portrayal of Israel's founding fathers in Arendt's book. "We can't embrace their culture," says Israeli historian Tom Segev. "That's a deeper kind of forgiveness. We can have political and diplomatic relations with Germany, but we can't forgive them."

The Israel Symphony Orchestra isn't the first to try to perform Wagner. In 1966 the Philharmonic called off a planned performance after angry protests. In 1981 conductor Zubin Mehta tried to slip a Wagner composition into an encore at the Philharmonic, only to be jeered by the audience. As the crowd chanted "Shame," an usher leapt onto the stage and rolled up his sleeve to display the concentration-camp identity number tattooed on his arm. The Philharmonic decided then that, though it might rehearse Wagner privately, it would never again perform his music in public while Holocaust survivors were still alive. "We should respect the feelings of anyone who has been through that hell," says Philharmonic secretary-general Avi Shoshani. "We'll wait another 10 or 15 years." Yad Vashem officials have condemned the Symphony's planned performance of Wagner, and some Holocaust survivors have already made protest calls.

Even within the Symphony there is dissent over playing Wagner. Some musicians have said they will not participate in the October performance. But Symphony leaders argue that Wagner has an important place in the classical-music canon. They claim they are disentangling Wagner's art from the burden of history. Though they concede Wagner was an anti-Semite, Symphony officials say their performance will reclaim his music from the Nazis. "If we agree the essence of Wagner is Nazi, we let the Nazi Party win, because that's exactly what they wanted," says Gil Shohat, composer-in-residence at the Symphony.

If anyone ought to be anguished by the Symphony's decision to play Wagner, it's Jacques Stroumsa. A Greek Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1943, Stroumsa was first violin in the concentration-camp orchestra, which was forced to play German military music as other Jews were herded to the crematoria. His wife, eight months pregnant, and his parents died in the camp. Now 87, Stroumsa lives in Jerusalem and argues passionately that Wagner should be played in Israel. "It's a way of making peace with ourselves," he says. By coming to terms with their feelings about their Nazi persecutors, Israelis will be able to conquer their fears of their Arab enemies and live in peace, he says. "It is impossible to exist in this world without contact with your enemies." In his tiny apartment, Stroumsa picks up the violin he bought in Paris two months after his liberation from Auschwitz and bows the mournful strains of a Yiddish lament called "I Believe." Stroumsa may believe in listening to Wagner. But does the rest of the country?