Richard Tauber: “How Can I Be a Jew?”

Richard Tauber: “How Can I Be a Jew?”

A few days ago, I wrote about a June 24, 1932 antisemitic incident at the University of Vienna that Viktor Kornmehl tried to quell. Only a few months later, on October 26,1932, another incident brought Viktor back into the international Jewish press. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA):


Despite Nazi guarantees that peace and order would be maintained, new excesses against Jewish students took place at Vienna University this afternoon.

A Jewish physician, Dr. Moses Shendl, was seriously injured and had to be taken to a hospital after the police administered first aid.

Several Nazis were arrested. A Jewish student delegation, including Doctors Kornmehl and Alexander Teich were received by the University authorities this afternoon to whom they submitted their complaints against the terrorization which has been going on at the University in the last fortnight been heard in the United States with the Metropolitan Opera Company, was the target of a hostile demonstration by Nazis in Graz during and following a concert.

Tauber, who states he is an honorary chamberlain to the Pope, was attacked by the Nazis as a Jew.

“Germany Awake! Perish Judaea!” Hitlerites shouted during the concert. Later, as Tauber was walking through a park, a throng of Hitlerites stopped him and demanded proof that he is not a Jew.

“Leave me in peace. I am not a Jew. I am an artist with no political affiliations. I am an honorary chamberlain to the Pope. How can I be a Jew?” Tauber asserted.

Jewish Daily BulletinI blogged about this incident before in a post called In Praise of Meandering.  In trying to solve some puzzling elements of the story, I ended up exploring the life of Arnold Schoenberg who converted from Judaism and then converted back once he realized the Nazis considered him Jewish anyway.

But there is no meandering during a blogging challenge!

I was resolved to figure out the article’s cryptic elements this time: Who was Tauber, suddenly dropped into this narrative with only a last name? And what do the references to the Metropolitan Opera Company and Graz have to do with the problems at the University of Vienna?

It turned out, the JTA archives had conflated two short articles published in The Jewish Daily Bulletin on the same date. The one about the Jewish students ends with the phrase “in the last fortnight.”

The second one starts:

Richard Tauber, well known Austrian tenor who has been heard in the United States with the Metropolitan Opera Company, was the target of a hostile demonstration by Nazis in Graz during and following a concert.

It then continues to the end of the accidentally conflated piece, i.e., “‘I am honorary chamberlain to the Pope. ‘How can I be a Jew,’ Tauber asserted.”

Now things made sense, even though I hadn’t heard of Tauber (embarrassing as it is  for a person with a 100% Viennese heritage, I’m not very well educated in classical music). From Wikipedia:

Richard Tauber (16 May 1891 – 8 January 1948) was an Austrian tenor acclaimed as one of the greatest singers of the 20th century. Some critics commented that “his heart felt every word he sang.”

I never did find the Graz incident, but I learned that Richard Tauber’s father was half Jewish, which was good enough — or bad enough — for the Nazis (though Judaism, is in fact, matrilineal, i.e., if your mother is Jewish you are Jewish, no matter what your father is).

Richard Tauber died a natural death but I find his rhetorical question sad and a little naive. As Arnold Schoenberg discovered, converting to another religion or denying your heritage was useless.  The Nazis decided who was Jewish.

It’s impossible to judge what I would have done under similar circumstances. But it’s not impossible to admire Viktor Kornmehl and Sigmund Freud, who embraced their Jewish heritage (if not, in Freud’s case, religion), Nazis be damned.

Speaking of Freud, the long promised post about an (almost) meeting between him and Viktor Kornmehl will finally appear tomorrow.

This is day 24 of the Family History Writing Challenge. I need more sleep.

12 Responses to Richard Tauber: “How Can I Be a Jew?”

  1. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to live with such hate – I can barely handle a smidgen of an implied anti-Semitic slight –
    Diane J. Schmidt recently posted..What is the point of something illogical? (Photos)My Profile

  2. Daniel O'Hara says:

    Richard Tauber was illegitimate. His mother was Catholic, and he was baptised as a Catholic – he never knew any other religion. She was solely responsible for his care until he was 6. His father, who took over his care when he was nearly 7, was indeed from a Jewish family, but had himself converted to Catholicism as a young man. Early on, he even hoped that Richard might become a priest! Tauber was in no sense antisemitic – many of his closest friends and associates were Jewish. But as he had never experienced a Jewish upbringing, he never considered himself a Jew. He knew, of course, that his paternal grandfather was Jewish, and he had uncles and cousins who were Jewish: but as was – like his mother – a cradle catholic, and as his father had become a catholic before he was born, he had no immediate contact with his Jewish background.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Thank you very much for this information. My point was not that Richard Tauber was in any way antisemitic; I just meant that it didn’t matter how he defined himself (or experienced his own life) but, rather, that the Nazis were in control of defining other people’s religions, based on very little.

  3. Daniel O'Hara says:

    The Graz incident to which you refer was on October 23, 1932.
    It was reported in the Vienna Neue Freie Presse on 24 October, on page 5:

  4. Surchr says:

    This is fascinating stuff. Especially Dan O’s 12:18 p.m. comment. Thanx much!

  5. Aurelia Young says:

    Hi Edie

    Congratulations on informative and amusing blog.

    As you mention Richard Tauber I thought you or one of your readers might be interested in my quest to find out if my father sculpted the singer.

    My father was a Jewish sculptor, born Oskar Neumann, in Osijek Croatia in 1906. He studied in Vienna when he was 18 and sculpted many of the leading singers of the day including Domenico Borghese and Leo Slezak. Arnold Schoenberg advised him to leave Vienna after a year so he went to Brussels and changed his name to Némon. He was summoned back to Vienna to sculpt Sigmund Freud in 1931. Némon also sculpted many of Freud’s disciples including Sandor Ferenczi, Ernest Jones, Paul Federn, Princess Marie Bonaparte and Rene Laforgue.

    I’m emailing you because I have just read a 1927 press report about Nemon’s 1927 medallion of Charles Lindbergh which also says that Nemon sculpted Richard Tauber and Tino Pattiera. Many of my father’s papers have been lost during his many moves from country to country. His mother, brother and grandmother were murdered in the Holocaust.
    I was in Washington last month for the installation of Nemon’s bust of Churchill in the Capitol.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Aurelia, thank you so much for sending me this information about your father. What a fascinating man and a fascinating story! I would love for more people to read it, so I am going to contact you privately to see if you would write a longer post about him — and perhaps send some pictures!

  6. Minos Voutsinos says:

    Tauber dit not die a natural death. He died from a lung cancer in 1946. His last performance was the same year, when he asked to replace Anton Dermota in his role of Don Ottavio. He sang the whole performance with practically only one lung. As Daniel ‘O Hara mentionned, he was not an antisemite or anti-jewish, he was only annoyed by the fact to be chased from the Nazis because of his origins. In some matter, it was better for his post-mortem reputation. He could have made the same error as many artists did : collaborate with the Nazi Regime. The fact, that he emigrated to England and that he contributed to the British movement by supporting the struggle against Nazi Germany, made him twice as much admirable for his fans.

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