Rescued treasure: Jewish music almost forgotten

Semer 2
The Semer Ensemble will perform a treasury of Jewish music recovered after Nazi destruction on November 9, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, as part of the Concerts by the Canal evening series at Southminster United Church. Photo: Courtesy of Roland Graham

by Roland Graham

Nazi paramilitaries carried out their infamous Kristallnacht (night of broken glass) on November 9, 1938. It was a vicious pogrom against German Jews that left hundreds dead and a community irreparably scarred.

Among the casualties was the life work of Hirsch Lewin, a one-time forced labourer who ran a Hebrew bookstore and later record label in the heart of Berlin’s Scheunenviertel (immigrant centre) in the 1930s.

When the Nazis came to power, Jewish musicians were forbidden from playing in non-Jewish settings, forcing their work underground. Lewin’s Semer label recorded for five years the brightest Jewish musicians of the day in a bid to preserve their legacy for posterity. When the Nazis attacked, they demolished it all. Over 4,500 recordings and 250 metal plates were destroyed, and with them the memory of the Semer label was lost forever.

That is, lost until Dr. Rainer E. Lotz, decorated German author, jazz historian and record collector spent the decade from 1992 to 2001 travelling the world in search of surviving excerpts of Lewin’s output. Miraculously, Dr. Lotz was able to reconstruct almost the entirety of the collection by tracking duplicates preserved in private collections of the recorded musician’s descendants the world over.

In 2012, the Berlin Jewish Museum commissioned Jewish music luminary Alan Bern, composer/arranger, pianist, accordionist, educator, cultural activist and philosopher to honour the Semer collection with new interpretations based on the recovered recordings.

Bern formed a world-class ensemble of Jewish musicians from both sides of the Atlantic to make the project a reality. It was named Semer Ensemble in honour of Hirsch Lewin’s legacy. The group has given authentic voice to a repertoire and the musicians who created it that might otherwise have been forgotten.

It’s as though some of the broken shards of that violent night in 1938 have been reassembled to form a window through which to glimpse the remarkable scene of Jewish music in 1920s Berlin.

Berlin cabaret, Russian folk songs, Yiddish theatre hits, operatic arias and cantorial music are just a small sample of the repertoire preserved by Lewin’s label and recreated by the modern-day Semer Ensemble.

To date, Semer has played in Canada only once before, in a single sold-out performance in Toronto’s Ashkenaz Festival in September 2016. Prior engagements were limited to Berlin where the group formed.

They are returning by popular demand for a three-city Canadian tour this fall. Their sole Ottawa performance will take place at Southminster United Church as a special concert in the church’s Concerts by the Canal (CBTC) evening concert series.

Semer’s appearance in Ottawa is remarkable and especially significant for the city’s Jewish and German communities because it will be given on the very anniversary of Kristallnacht, November 9.

Perhaps the evening will be even more special because the man who made preserving this cultural legacy possible, Dr. Rainer E. Lotz, will be among the special guests in attendance, courtesy of the Embassy of Germany in Ottawa. The embassy will additionally host a post-concert reception.

Tickets for general admission are $30 and $15 for students and are available through (search “Semer Ottawa”). Southminster United Church in partnership with artspace613, the RideauStone Arts Centre and the Embassy of Germany in Ottawa are presenting this CBTC-exclusive event.

Roland Graham is artistic director of the Concerts by the Canal series that is taking place at Southminster United Church.


Concert: “Rescued Treasure: A Treasury of Jewish Music Almost Forgotten”
When: Thurs., November 9, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Southminster United Church
Tickets: Adults $30 / students $15
On sale: (search “Semer Ottawa”)
Details: Presented in partnership with artspace613, the RideauStone Arts Centre and the Embassy of Germany

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