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While composer Richard Wagner designed his music to move and challenge the listener, for many Israelis the images conjured up by Tristan and Isolde or his other works are not of the operas themselves, but of the horrors of the Nazi death camps.
Indeed, the debate over Wagner's influence on Hitler and whether his music should be performed in Israel is ongoing, and one that South African Supreme Court judge and author Christopher Nicholson will address in a lecture on whether Wagner's music "incited the Holocaust" to launch his book Richard and Adolph next Monday at the Jerusalem International Book Fair.
Playing Wagner's music in Israel is highly controversial, and one of the chapters in the book looks in-depth into the question of Israel's relationship with Wagner and his music. There has been an unofficial ban on public presentations of Wagner for the past 50 years. When Daniel Barenboim conducted a performance of Wagner's work in July, 2001 at the Israel Festival many in the audience protested. while others rose to give the conductor a standing ovation.
The Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra does not play Wagner's music. Orchestra spokeswoman Dalia Merhoz explained that "as the national orchestra of Israel, we have made a decision not to open the deep and painful wounds of those who survived the Holocaust. For them, Wagner was played while their families marched into gas chambers."
"Though some believe that playing Wagner is a sign that the Jewish people have survived, for the Philharmonic, we respect the role that his music has played in our peoples' greatest tragedy."
Nicholson, whose books is being published by the Israeli-based Gefen Publishing, will tackle that controversy when he speaks on the whether Wagner's music "incited the Holocaust."
"One sentence that Wagner wrote shocked me deeply," said Nicholson. "Wagner wrote that one day the German people would not shrink from their sacred duty to find a 'great solution to the Jewish problem.' From there, I wanted to know how much Hitler was driven by Wagner and his sentiments," said Nicholson.
Nicholson spent 15 years researching Wagner and Hitler's connection to the composer, his music and his political ideas. He also studied Wagner's operas in depth to understand and expose the anti-Semitism within these works. Additionally, he traveled to and from Germany, attending Wagner festivals in Bavaria to complete the extensive background research necessary to build the argument that Wagner not only helped to provoke the Holocaust, but believed that ultimately it would happen.
Murray Greenfield, who co-founded Gefen Publishing with his wife Hana, said that the book was a natural choice for the company and that the subject attracted them both on a personal level. Greenfield rescued European Jews from the Nazis during the Holocaust by smuggling them into pre-state Palestine via ships, and his wife Hana is a Holocaust survivor.
"Nicholson did an unbelievably good job researching this book," said Greenfield. "It spoke to me and my wife and will speak to many of our generation especially those who lived through the Holocaust.
Nicholson's book cements the connection between Wagner and the Holocaust. People must know of this relationship."
Nicholson's research explores Hitler's fascination not only with Wagner's music but with his politics as well."Adolf Hitler became the fervent disciple and fan of Wagner," said Nicholson. "He read everything that Wagner wrote. He even believed he was the spiritual son of Wagner. Hitler's life mission was to carry out what Wagner suggested and hoped for: finding a final solution for the Jews."
Nicholson said that his love of music led him to a deep appreciation of Wagner's works. As he explored the operas and writings of the composer, their obvious anti-Semitism attracted his attention. In his famous Ring Cycle, the evil Nibelungen are Jewish stereotypes, Nicholson said. "One of the characters is the female version of The Wandering Jew," he explained, noting that she eventually dies symbolizing Wagner's hope for the eventual demise of the Jews.
Prior to becoming a judge, Nicholson worked as a human rights lawyer fighting to end apartheid in South Africa. He explained that anti-Semitism, a form of racism, has always been a subject of interest to him. Having the opportunity to reveal the extent of Wagner's influence on Hitler became an important project for him.
"It is necessary for people to know how much Hitler was influenced by Wagner," he said. "That way, they can make informed decisions about attending his operas and listening to his music. In the end, whether Israeli orchestras perform Wagner or whether individuals listen to him is a personal choice. But, certainly, public funds should not be used for putting on Wagner operas."
Greenfield also strongly believes that Wagner should not be played in Israel. Both he and his wife feel passionately that Wagner should not be played in public in Israel and believe that Nicholson's book works to give the full range of details on Wagner's influence on Hitler.