Dialogue to Commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day

Dr. Yehuda Nir, Dr. Gottfried Wagner

The great grandson of composer Richard Wagner, Dr. Gottfried Wagner, and a survivor of the Holocaust, Dr. Yehuda Nir, will hold a dialogue to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day at Sarah Lawrence College on Thursday, April 19, 2001 at 5:30 p.m. in Titsworth Lecture Hall. The theme of their presentation will be "Richard Wagner's Presence in Israel," a topic of controversy in Israel and Jewish communities around the world. The program is free and open to the public. For more information please call (914) 395-2411.

Drs. Nir and Wagner will address Richard Wagner's music, his views about Jews, and how Hitler and other Nazi leaders used him and his music. The two have held many dialogues about the Wagner legacy in Germany, about opera, about the antisemitism in Wagnerian operas, and how Wagner's ideas and his art influenced the Nazi genocide. The program at Sarah Lawrence will evaluate how the Israeli musical establishment and the Israeli population have decided to deal with Wagner and his legacy.

"This dialogue has implications for how we understand German cultural history as well as how we should evaluate the aesthetic value of art which comes to play a role in history," says Deborah Hertz, professor of history at Sarah Lawrence and organizer of the program. "Can we separate artistic experiences from the use of that art in politics? Are Wagner's operas themselves, apart from Hitler's admiration of them, problematic?" queries Hertz who team-teaches a course entitled "Jews and Other Germans in Literature and Life from the Enlightenment to the Present" with Roland Dollinger, a member of the College's German faculty.

According to Hertz, the discussion on April 19 comes a time when the unofficial boycott of Wagner in Israel may be coming to an end. Since the founding of Israel in 1948, there has been an undeclared boycott on performing Wagner. When in 1981, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, under Zubin Mehta, attempted to perform a prelude from Wagner's opera "Tristan and Islolde," there were calls of "shame" from the audience.

This past October, the Rishon Lezion Symphony Orchestra performed two pieces by Wagner and a piece by Richard Strauss, another German composer who some critics argue was also antisemitic. Holocaust survivors affiliated with the Simon Wiesenthal Center appealed to stop the performance, but Israeli Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel rejected the appeal, siding with the orchestra, that playing Wagner and Strauss' music is a matter of the freedom of expression.

Dr. Gottfried H. Wagner was born in Bayreuth, Germany in 1947, the great grandson of Richard Wagner and the great-great grandson of composer-piano virtuoso Franz Liszt. He is a lecturer, director of stage, video and radio, as well as a music historian and writer. His publications concentrate on antisemitism, German culture and politics, the after-effects of the Holocaust on generations born after 1945, and the necessity of a dialogue between children of Nazi victims and Nazi perpetrators. His work has been translated and published in 11 languages. He is a founder of the "Post-Holocaust Dialogue Group" and the recipient of numerous awards.

Dr. Yehuda Nir, a practicing child psychiatrist, was born in 1930 in Lwow, Poland. His father having been murdered by the Nazis, Dr. Nir survived the war with forged identity documents. Immigrating to Palestine, he joined the Israeli Army and fought in the War of Independence. Dr. Nir arrived in the United States to train in psychiatry and today holds positions at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where he has been head of Child Psychiatry, Cornell Medical College, and New York University. He is on the executive board of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors. Dr. Nir is author of "The Lost Childhood," the story of his hidden childhood in Poland during World War Two.

This lecture is made possible by a grant from the Donald C. Samuel Fund for Economics and Politics.