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WHY I WON’T CELEBRATE RICHARD WAGNER’S BIRTHDAY

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By Margaret McMullan

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The Montréal Review, June 2019

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In 1850 Richard Wagner wrote an article about the composer, Giacomo Meyerbeer for NZM magazine under the pseudonym of K. Freethought.

In “Judaism in Music,” Wagner wrote that Meyerbeer’s Jewish “commercial” approach to opera was not art. He claimed that his own vision was the real art. According to Wagner, the only way a Jewish musician could possibly create real art and redeem himself was to convert to Christianity, and even then, it was too late.

Wagner wrote that Jews were unable to create great music because they could not speak European languages properly and that Jewish speech took the character of an “intolerably jumbled blabber,” a “creaking, squeaking, buzzing sound,” incapable of expressing true passion, debarring them from any possibility of creating song or music. “Although the peculiarities of the Jewish mode of speaking and singing come out the most glaringly in the commoner class of Jew, who has remained faithful to his fathers’ stock, and though the cultured son of Jewry takes untold pains to strip them off, nevertheless they show an impertinent obstinacy in cleaving to him.”

Wagner claimed he wrote the essay to, “explain to ourselves the involuntary repellence possessed for us by the nature and personality of the Jews, so as to vindicate that instinctive dislike which we plainly recognize as stronger and more overpowering than our conscious zeal to rid ourselves thereof.”

Wagner’s article did not cause a stir. But it did prompt the decline of Meyerbeer’s popularity, and Wagner’s anti-Semitic attacks were a milestone in the growth of German anti-Semitism. Adolph Hitler’s favorite composer was Wagner.

After Meyerbeer’s death, Wagner expanded his essay and published the 1868 version under his own name, reaching more readers. One of those readers was my great-great uncle, József Engel de Jánosi in Pécs, Hungary.

Jozsef had wanted to be a musician himself. He studied music at the Viennese Conservatorium, and, once, he played for Franz Liszt, who rose from his seat and kissed József on the forehead. For a week, József did not wash his forehead.

Eventually, József went back to Pécs to work with his father in the family’s lumber business.

When he read Wagner’s article, József wrote his own response, which eventually became the book Richard Wagner’s Judaism in Music. A Defense. In his book, József chastises Wagner for his attack on Jews. He says he writes against the musician Richard Wagner, not as the musical József Engel but rather as the Jew József Engel against the Christian Richard Wagner. Basically, his message to Wagner is, you make great music, but keep your politics and your hatred of Jews out of your art.

József’s book was published and republished between 1869 and 1882. He received many letters. One came from Richard Wagner.

József and Wagner became pen-pals, and, later, they became friends, even as Wagner continued his anti-Semitic rants. József traveled frequently from Hungary to Bayreuth, Germany where Wagner lived. Family lore has it that when Wagner greeted József saying in German, “Herr Engel, did you come from heaven to see me?” József replied, “No, Herr Wagner, I came from Pécs.” Wagner appreciated a surname which marked József as a Jew, but which also meant angel: Engel.

On July 31, 1882, József ’s wife Rózika gave birth to their firstborn in Pécs. József did not name his son after his fathers, or for his friend, the Russian novelist, Turgenev. József named him Richárd after Wagner.

Maybe József thought he was building a bridge of tolerance. Maybe he was getting back at Wagner, or making a point—the Jew- hater is now connected to the Jew. Or maybe József was simply trying to protect his son with a Christian name. Already, in a culture of fear, distrust, shaming and an us vs them tribalism, Hungarians and other Europeans were spreading rumors about the strange and mysterious ceremonies of Jews. Wasn’t it true that Jews needed Christian blood for their ceremonies?

Even as hatred towards Jews spread, József and Wagner continued their friendship, and, after Wagner died, the angel from Pécs continued to visit Wagner’s widow, Cosima, in Bayreuth, bringing her the best fruit grown on the Jánosi estate.

József was eighty-two when he read in the papers that his book about Wagnerwas among the 25,000 books publically burned in Leipzig, Germany, where Wagner was born in the Jewish Quarter. Maybe József was proud his work was alongside books by Einstein, Freud, Hertzl, Zweig, and the nineteenth century Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, whom Wagner had railed against. In 1822, Heine wrote, “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.”

After József died, the United States entered the war in 1941. By then, the German government decided on a final solution to the “Jewish question.” Adolf Eichmann was chief of the SS appointed to “liquidate European Jewry.” He was 35 years old, and in charge of “actions” in Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. By 1944, Eichmann was to rid the newly occupied Hungary of all remaining Jews.

On March 19, 1944, it was a chilly, sunny Sunday in Pécs when József’s son, Richárd was at home preparing to meet his sixteen-year-old nephew, Peter for lunch.

Right up the street, Peter was in his apartment listening to his favorite aria “In Fernem Land” from Act III of Richard Wagner’s “Lohengrin.”

Outside, Peter saw SS officers riding their motorcycles on the right side of the road. Hungarians drove on the left. Pécs belonged to the Germans now.

Peter walked with his father to Richárd’s house.

A black car with swastikas on the doors pulled up.

Peter could hear the click of boot heels on cobblestones as three men in black uniforms with red swastikas on their armbands pushed his uncle Richárd into the back seat of the car. They shut the doors and drove away.

After they saw Richárd’s arrest, Peter and his family went into hiding and eventually fled to the United States.

The SS and Hungarian Arrow Cross held Richárd at the barracks near the train station. Weeks later, they loaded him into a cattle car with hundreds of other Jewish Hungarian citizens and sent them to Austria.

Richárd arrived in Mauthausen Camp on April 25, 1944.

He died five days later.

While the Nazis occupied Pécs, they found Wagner’s letters József had saved and locked in a safe. The Nazis burned them along with everything else.

It is strange now and almost beautiful to discover my great-great uncle’s friendship with Wagner. Why were they friends, really? Howwere they friends? Were they trying to forge a new friendship in their broken times, connecting through music and intellect? As far as I know, Wagner never apologized for his anti-Semitic rants and József never made excuses for them. Is it then irony or fate that puts Holocaust Remembrance Day and Wagner’s birthday in the same month?

May 2 is Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day in which I will remember József’s son Richárd and all the other angels murdered in the Holocaust.

May 22 is Wagner’s birthday. I might think of him. Briefly. 

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Margaret McMullan is the author of eight award-winning books including the novel, In My Mother’s House and the anthology, Every Father’s Daughter. Her work has appeared in USA Today, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Montreal Review, The Chicago Tribune, The Millions, and Glamour among othersShe received a NEA Fellowship and a Fulbright in Hungary to research her new book, Where the Angels Lived: One Family’s Story of Loss, Exile, and Return.


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