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In 'Winter Journey,' a son pushes his father to reflect on his past in Nazi Germany


Thursday, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra will perform Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 4 and show a film, "Winter Journey." The film's a mix of memoir, documentary and re-creation to show the story of two musicians who played in a Jewish Kulturbund orchestra. The film stars Bruno Ganz in his last performance. He plays a member of that orchestra recollecting those times.


BRUNO GANZ: (As George Goldsmith) I'm George Goldsmith. I'm a boring, old man.

MARTIN GOLDSMITH: Who used to be a musician.

GANZ: (As George Goldsmith) ...Who used to be a musician.

GOLDSMITH: And who used to be Gunther Goldschmidt.

GANZ: (As George Goldsmith) Uh-huh.

GOLDSMITH: That's what I'd like to talk about.

SIMON: And the voice of the son trying to bring out his family's story is Martin Goldsmith. The true story is taken from his book "The Inextinguishable Symphony." And Martin Goldsmith, a host on Sirius XM, who was once our colleague here at NPR, joins us now. Marty, thanks so much for being with us.

GOLDSMITH: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: First, tell us about this extraordinary orchestra that included your parents, the Jewish orchestra in Nazi Germany.

GOLDSMITH: These were artists who, after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, were summarily booted out of their positions with German opera companies, orchestras and theater companies. And in the late spring and early summer of 1933, these now-displaced Jewish artists came together to create this Kulturbund, this cultural association, reasoning that if they could no longer make art for their fellow Germans, they could make art for their fellow German Jews. Dr. Joseph Goebbels at the Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, as it was called, quickly realized that he could use this organization, this Kulturbund as a propaganda tool. When other countries around the world began to object to stories of the way the Jews were treated in Germany, Goebbels could feign surprise and say, look, the Jews have their own orchestra. They have their own opera company. Surely, all of these stories you are hearing are fake.

SIMON: And this was happening at the same time that other Jews were already beginning to disappear.

GOLDSMITH: Certainly, that was the case towards the end of the 1930s. But during all of this, the Kulturbund continued to perform heroically.

SIMON: Marty, when you were growing up, what were you told about what had happened to your grandparents and relatives in Germany?

GOLDSMITH: Not a thing. But my older brother Peter and I were obviously aware that at Thanksgiving, we had no grandmothers or grandfathers or aunts or uncles. It was a subject that just didn't come up at the dinner table. There was no reason for it to. My brother once summoned the courage to ask my father, where are our aunts and uncles and grandparents? And my father replied, they died in the war. That was the extent of the explanation when the actual truth was so much more horrific than that.

SIMON: You spent some time in this film playing you, questioning and sometimes being upset with your father, who died in 2009. Was that difficult?

GOLDSMITH: It was, and it wasn't. I mean, my father, when he found out, when he first saw these grisly newsreels coming out of Germany and he realized that his whole family had been murdered in the camps, he, in my opinion, decided to do penance by giving up music, giving up the thing he loved. And that made him unhappy with his life. And there is a scene in the film in which my frustration with my father having thrown away the art that he so loved and which was so much a part of his life, that frustration and pity and sorrow and anger sort of boiled over.

SIMON: I got to tell you, Marty, it's hard to see that scene. You know that you love your father, and yet, you know, you can see the wounds in his heart almost opening in front of you when you say that.

GOLDSMITH: Yes. As I say, it was both not so hard and very hard to do - not so hard because I could summon these feelings which are still smoldering, I suppose, somewhere within me. But I simultaneously have so much pity and love and respect for this man, who was able to live the next 50, 60 years of his life knowing that he had put music aside.

SIMON: I don't have to tell you that there are still anti-Semitic attacks or displays in America of one kind or another almost every week. And just this week, Whoopi Goldberg, a beloved American media figure, said, quote, "the Holocaust isn't about race. This is white people doing it to white people." She immediately apologized. What haven't we learned? Or what did we learn and forget?

GOLDSMITH: It pains me to say this, but in many ways, we've learned nothing. In many ways, we've learned nothing when it comes to racism. Also, in this week's news, we see a number of United States senators saying, in effect, that the only way a Black woman could be appointed to the Supreme Court is if she were the beneficiary of some kind of affirmative action, a more blatant expression of racism I really can't imagine. Many things have been prettied up and beautified, and many rules of social conduct have been established. And we see that beneath the decorations and the polite expressions - beneath all of that, the same ancient prejudices and hatreds remain, whether the objects are Jews or African Americans. We have learned a lot, and yet we have learned nothing.

SIMON: Tell us about the Nielsen Symphony No. 4 that the Buffalo Philharmonic's going to play.

GOLDSMITH: It's an extraordinary piece, Scott. It was composed in 1916 at the height of the grand folly known as World War I. Carl Nielsen, living up in Denmark, was appalled by what he heard and read about the carnage of the first world war. But as horrified and as appalled as Nielsen was, he was ultimately an optimistic man and, at the head of the score, wrote that even if somehow the human race managed to destroy itself through warfare, life would eventually return to the Earth, perhaps in the form of plant life or bird life or animal life. Nielsen wrote, music is life and, like life, inextinguishable.

The Kulturbund orchestra in Berlin in the spring of 1941, just before my parents managed to escape, rehearsed the Nielsen Fourth for a performance in the coming autumn season. Of course, the autumn season never arrived because on September 11, 1941, the Kulturbund was dissolved. And everybody who had not made it out by then were sent to the camps.

But the title "Inextinguishable Symphony" speaks to the courage and valor of the members of the Kulturbund, who continued doing their best to provide some kind of solace to their fellow Jews from 1933 all the way up until 1941. Hearing this glorious, glorious music, the story of those brave, indistinguishable artists in their minds - I'm very much looking forward to this first multimedia presentation.

SIMON: Martin Goldsmith is the voice of the film "Winter Journey," which will be shown this Thursday as part of a performance with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Marty, thanks so much for being with us.

GOLDSMITH: It's been a great pleasure, Scott. Thank you.


Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.