In 1998 my little brother embarked upon his Grade 5 TCL violin exam. One of his pieces was an arrangement of the ‘Tango-Ballad’ from Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Die Dreigroschenoper. We invested in a CD of Die Dreigroschenoper, the 1958 recording from the Afifo Studio, Tempelhof Berlin, with Lotte Lenya. In retrospect, the ‘Tango-Ballad’ was a louche choice of arrangement for the exam board to put in the syllabus: in this Act II duet, ‘Die Zuhälterballade‘ (The Procurer’s Ballad) between Macheath and Jenny, they recall their happy days in the bordello they called home. We listened to the entire Dreigroschenoper many, many times and the ‘Anstatt-Dass Song’ and ‘Kanonensong’ were particular favourites, and our mother’s penchant for ‘wider reading’ meant that various biographies of Weill and Lenya were brought into the house. For some reason Brecht didn’t really feature, perhaps because the finer points of the text were perhaps too louche for a 15 and 9 year old. In The New Grove Dictionary of Opera Stephen Hinton notes that,
Writing to his publisher about the ‘Zuhälterballade’, for instance, Weill observed: ‘The charm of the piece rests precisely in the fact that a rather risqué text … is set to music in a gentle, pleasant way.’ The pervading tone is thoroughly ironic, a deliberately unsettling mixture of sentimentality and caustic social criticism.
We were fascinated by the performances on the 1958 recording, especially how the rasping, wheezing, gasping, raw grating timbres, and wayward tuning coalesced into a musical experience that was sincere and powerful. Now I appreciate more that it is also very often tender and sweet. There seemed to be much more going on here than just singing and playing. It was a musical world entirely different to anything we had experienced, and it was intoxicating.
A couple of years later,rummaging through the discount CD crates at The Warehouse, we found a true bargain: excerpts from Die Dreigroschenoper recorded 1928-1931, with Lenya, and Kurt Gerson. Scratchy and plaintive,these Weimar-era recordings are an evocative relic of the time before the ‘Catastrophe’. At some point we branched out into excerpts from Mahagonny, but with the exception of the ‘Alabama Song‘ and its pessimistic ‘I tell you we must die’ refrain it didn’t stick in the same way as Die Dreigroschenoper
Tonight, I happened to hear, on Youtube a recording of Kurt Gerson singing ‘Die Moritat von Mackie Messer’ (with Japanese subtitles!). The short video concludes with a photograph of Gerron, pipe held firmly between his teeth, and looking spherical, and happy. In the photograph, Gerron’s direct and jocular gaze, his stance, his slightly tilted hat, has a similar immediacy to that of his singing. We get the sense of a semi-posed photograph taken by a friend. I realised that I knew nothing about Gerson. Born Kurt Gerron in Berlin in 1897, Gerson was a singer, actor and film director, and he created the role of Tiger Brown in Die Dreigroschenoper at Berlin’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm.
Searching OxfordMusicOnline for Gerson/Gerron produced only two results, the first being Hinton’s article on Dreigroschenoper, and the second Tim Ashley’s short entry ‘Cabaret’ in the Oxford Companion to Music:
Among the great cabaret performers may be mentioned Yvette Guilbert, Claire Waldoff, Trude Hesterberg, Marlene Dietrich, and Kurt Gerron.[Trude Hesterburg (Hesterberg) sings the role of Frau Peachum in the 1958 Dreigroschenoper recording.]
Gerron, who was born into a German Jewish family in Berlin on 11 May 1897, studied medicine before serving – and being seriously wounded – in the 1914-1918 war. After the war he completed his medical studies, but then chose to be become an actor. He worked on stage and screen, including with Max Reinhardt, before also starting to direct films. As I’ve said, he created the role of Tiger Brown, and then in 1930 he appeared as Kiepert in Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel) with Marlene Dietrich. Between 1925 and 1932, Gerron was involved in more than 24 films. After 1933, Gerron and his family left Germany, settling in Paris and then Amsterdam. He continued to work as a cabaret artist in the Netherlands, performing with German colleagues. Once Gerron had mastered Dutch, his reputation and talent meant he also worked with Dutch artists. Despite offers from the USA, Gerron remained in the Netherlands, and when the German occupation began, the Jewish Gerron was interned in Westerbork, before being deported to Theresienstadt/Terezín, which by 1944 was controlled by the Waffen-SS.
At the behest of the camp authorities, Gerron became involved in the cultural activities of Theresienstadt, compelled to participate in performances of the revue Karussell, singing ‘Mackie Messer’. In June 1944, representatives of the Danish and International Red Cross visited Theresienstadt, a cynical move on the part of the Nazis to quash the growing rumours of extermination facilities and brutal concentration camp regimes by presenting a picture of Theresienstadt as a sort of holiday facility for Jewish families. A full account of this horrible deception is available here. In fact, as early as 1942, Reinhard Heydrich had announced that Theresienstadt was a facility that would be used for propaganda purposes, a model which could be shown to provide care for families and the elderly. Following the Red Cross deputation in 1944, the camp authorities forced Gerron to direct a propaganda film about Theresienstadt to show that the ‘residents’ were happy and healthy. The film was made between in August and September 1944. Soon afterwards, Gerron, along with all the ‘cast’ of the film, musicians Coco Schumann and Martin Roman, as well as the band, the ‘Ghetto Swingers’ were loaded onto the final transport of prisoners from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz. Gerron and his wife were sent to the gas chambers, where they were killed on 28 October, 1944.* Apart from Schumann and Roman, all the other ‘performers’ in the film were also murdered.
Only fragments of the Theresienstadt film survive. Of the approximately 18,402 prisoners whom the SS deported to Auschwitz between 28 September and 28 October 1944, around 1,574 survived. Just over 11,000 remained in Theresienstadt, but the number of inmates was fluid between October 1944 and the liberation in 1945, as prisoners were moved around in the chaotic final months of the War.
When I read various accounts of Gerron’s life and death, it felt inconceivable, that the life of a man as talented as Kurt Gerron ended in this unspeakable manner; it is impossible to reconcile the surviving images and recordings of Gerron with the fate that was forced upon him. The enormous scale of misery, death and murder of the Holocaust very often exceeds our capacity to imagine individual people, as the statistics are so overwhelming, but the story of Kurt Gerron serves as a reminder that each individual death was a separate tragedy; for Gerron his work as a singer, an actor and a director allows an important part of to survive. When we found that CD of Dreigroschenoper excerpts, we also found a document and a legacy.
*This date is given in Richard Evans’s The Third Reich at War (2008), p. 302. Other sources vary, citing disparate dates as late as 15 November.