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National Geographic's 'A Small Light' gives a glimpse of Jewish musical life in 1940s Amsterdam

 scene from National Geographic's "A Small Light "
National Geographic
scene from A Small Light from National Geographic

If you’ve been watching A Small Light on Disney+ then you’ve been taking in the sights of World War II Amsterdam. The limited series shows the time through the eyes of Miep Gies, who hid her Jewish employer Otto Frank as well as his family and friends, including diarist Anne Frank.

Much of the series takes place late in the war itself, but a flashback to 1941 shows a little piece of music history in occupied Amsterdam.

Note that spoilers are ahead for "A Small Light," but the events that take place in the series are well-known.

At the start of episode 6 Miep and her husband Jan join the Frank family for a night at the orchestra. Before they enter, Otto Frank gives them false papers, so that they can identify as Jewish to attend the concert. This is because they were attending the Joodsch Symphonie Orkest (Jewish Symphony Orchestra), which had actually been founded by the NSB during the occupation. Concerts would have historically been led by Albert van Raalte in the Hollandsche Schouwburg, pictured below.

 front view of Hollandsche Schouwburg
Henk Toorman
wikimedia commons
front view of Hollandsche Schouwburg

As Anne and her sister Margot explain on the show, Jewish musicians were forced out of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra shortly after the occupation of Amsterdam.

Performances both on the radio and in person took a short break after the Nazis arrived in Amsterdam 1940. But then they briefly continued, albeit with a ban on music by Jewish composers. However, within less than a year Jewish performers were also ousted into dire economic conditions. 1/5 of the Royal Concertgebouw was replaced by the following season.

This was not the only restriction placed on music. A wide focus on “aryanization” affected orchestras and dance bands alike. Efforts to remove elements of Black music from dance clubs largely failed, but the prohibition of any audience expression outside of light clapping remained. Eventually, music by English, Polish, Russian, and American composers was also no longer allowed.

For some months, Albert van Raalte was able to lead just over 70 players with performances that only Jews were allowed to attend. Once an opera conductor, van Raalte had been leading orchestra performances on Dutch Radio since the previous world war.

Jewish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Albert van Raalte
Joods Historisch Museum
Jewish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Albert van Raalte

The Joodsch Symphonie Orkest was only allowed to play music by Jewish composers, and the show featured a performance of the violin concerto by Felix Mendelssohn. While the Mendelssohn family had converted to Christianity, the composer himself, who had been so celebrated in the previous century, was still subjected to a vicious anti-Semitic smear campaign. That particular concerto did open the orchestra's 1941 season, as seen in the program.

 orchestra program 1941 Amsterdam featuring music by Felix Mendelssohn
Europeana collection

While it’s unlikely Julie Svěcená was portraying any historic violinist on A Small Light (she is credited as "first violinist"), it is known that Gustav Mahler’s niece Alma Rosé also performed that same concerto at Auschwitz shortly before she died as a prisoner there.

Alma Rosé was one of many prominent Jewish musicians who played and composed up until they died in concentration camps. Her story also includes time spent touring with a women’s orchestra. Read more about her in The Strad.

By the middle of 1942, the Joodsch Symphonie Orkest was disbanded. As portrayed on the show, the Hollandsche Schouwburg itself became the assembly point for transports.

Precisely half of the Joodsch Symphonie Orkest survived the war - a cruel percentage, yet more than many other professions. But survival still included illness, starvation, and in the loss of property, including instruments. While all Concertgebouw musicians were immediately reinstated on the exact day of the Third Reich’s collapse, it took years for settlements for their lost wages to be reached.

The Concertgebouw Orchestra also removed Willem Mengelberg from the post of Chief Conductor in 1945 - a job he had held for half a century. For his collaboration with occupying Nazis, he was banned from ever again conducting in The Netherlands. And finally in 2018, on the fourth night of Chanukah, the Concertgebouw hosted its first concert of Jewish Music since the war.

A Small Light is available for streaming now on Disney+.

Colleen is the Music Director and host for LPM Classical. Email Colleen at colleen@lpm.org.