Nazi threat led to an L.A. ‘Windfall’

Kirsch is the author, most recently, of "The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God.

To prepare us for the ironies in “A Windfall of Musicians: Hitler’s Emigres and Exiles in Southern California,” Dorothy Lamb Crawford first calls our attention to the intellectual pretensions of the Nazi elite.

Adolf Hitler and his inner circle may have been thugs and murderers, but they imagined themselves to be the saviors of high civilization.

Hitler, of course, was a failed artist and a devoted fan of Wagner. Josef Goebbels was the author of an unpublished novel. Once in power, they turned their ungentle attention to the intelligentsia of Germany.


“It’s all over with Germany,” declared cellist Emanuel Feuermann, the youngest professor at the Berlin Conservatory, “all over with Europe.”

To spare themselves, artists, writers and composers -- both Jews and non-Jews -- began to flee the continent in search of a safe haven. Because the movie industry had started making “talkies” a few years earlier, Southern California turned out to be such a place.

Studio work was available for men (and a few women) previously showcased in the theaters and concert halls of Europe. What had been regarded as a cultural desert suddenly flowered with transplanted musicians.

“For most European composers,” writes Crawford, “Hollywood fully justified the title of Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 poem about Los Angeles, ‘On Thinking About Hell.’ ” Yet, she reminds us, L.A. saved their lives as well as their livelihoods.

Many refugees were victimized by the Nazis because of their Jewishness, while others were targeted because their art was regarded as unacceptably avant-garde. Igor Stravinsky was outraged when he was suspected of Jewish origins, but his real crime in the eyes of the Nazis was that he produced “degenerate Bolshevik art.”

Eventually, the roster of exiled musicians in Southern California ranged from Kurt Weill, composer of the “The Threepenny Opera,” to Arnold Schoenberg, inventor of the 12-tone system.


“A Windfall of Musicians” is both a history of their exile and a collective biography that is remarkably intimate in spite of its ambitious scope.

For classicists as well as motion picture composers, L.A. was a culture shock. Vicki Baum, former professor at the Vienna Academy of Music and author of “Grand Hotel,” confessed she “stayed drunk for weeks with this sun and air and the beauty of the hills.”

But Werner Klemperer was aghast: “My God, my God,” he remarked, “I didn’t know that such a lack of intellectuality existed.” And Arnold Schoenberg was reduced to giving private music lessons. “From him,” cracked Oscar Levant, one of his more famous students, “I learned that modernism is not merely a matter of hitting the keys with your elbows and seeing what happens.”

Still, Crawford points out, the musical emigres were more successful in adjusting to Southern California than the writers who shared their exile.

Brecht and Thomas Mann fled their homes in Santa Monica and the Pacific Palisades as soon as World War II ended, but many of the musicians stayed for the rest of their careers. Crawford suggests that “the universality of their creative language” made it easier for them to live and work here, and “[i]n so doing, the European musicians helped bring Southern California’s musical culture to maturity.”

Indeed, the fact that Los Angeles lacked a strong classical music tradition is yet another reason why the exiled musicians found a warm welcome. Crawford tells the remarkable story of Hugo Strelitzer, who after his release from an SS prison, ended up on the faculty of Los Angeles City College and founded “the first state- and city-supported opera workshop in America.”


Strelitzer’s supporters included the Chandler family, who were “eager to compete with the East Coast (and San Francisco) in cultural development” and put their newspaper behind the effort.

Crawford’s book will have the greatest appeal for readers with a special interest in music, but it is also an important contribution to the history of Southern California.

Indeed, the legacy of these survivors continues to shape the cultural landscape to this day.

Herbert Zipper, for example, was a survivor of Dachau and Buchenwald. He reached Los Angeles in 1946 and spent the rest of his life establishing music programs in both magnet and private schools, ranging from the 32nd Street Magnet to Crossroads. An auditorium at the Colburn School of Performing Arts bears his name. “It was in defiance of the barbarism at Dachau,” explained Zipper, “that I truly became a human being.”