By Sigurd Neubauer
Franz Lehár (1870–1948) stands out as one of the most beloved operetta composers of all time. Yet, in our wide-ranging interview with Dr. Stefan Frey, a renowned scholar on the Hungarian composer, we also discuss the Nazi era. In the first part of our interview, we discuss Lehár’s life and legacy. Frey is the author of three books on Lehár.
To capture the kind of man Lehár was, Frey provides the following anecdote:
“At the university during the 1880s, Lehár was once confronted by students requesting that he either join the German or the Czech student groups. He responded by telling them that he was neutral; ‘I am Hungarian,'” Frey relays, adding that “Lehár didn’t like to make decisions.”
Frey is specifically referring to World War II and how the composer chose to proceed at the time given that his wife, Sophie (née Paschkis), was Jewish but had converted to Catholicism in 1938.
The following year, the Lehárs left Vienna for their summer villa in Bad Ischl as they no longer felt safe following Nazi-Germany’s Anschluss of Austria in 1938.
“Many of the antisemites in Vienna didn’t like Mrs. Lehár,” Frey says.
“Lehár couldn’t decide whether to immigrate as he was afraid that something could happen to his wife, but he had no real plans.”
The famous composer “had offers to come to America because of his popularity for a concert tour but Lehár did not go,” the scholar adds.
Lehár couldn’t decide whether to immigrate as he was afraid that something could happen to his wife, but he had no real plans
Louis Treumann and Fritz Löhner-Beda were killed in the Holocaust. Photo credit: Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Center
On why the composer did not leave Austria, Frey explains that he believes that Lehár “was a very soft character, maybe even a bit feminine. He didn’t have strong opinions either.”
At the same time, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), liked Lehár’s music and was well-acquainted with it from his student days in Vienna, the scholar explains.
According to Lehár’s photographer, who Frey interviewed for his research, he had seen a personal letter from Hitler stating that the composer’s wife was protected directly by dictator. Frey, however, never saw the letter, he tells me.
On how Hitler decided to protect Mrs. Lehár, Frey says that the Viennese Nazis wanted to arrest her, but Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945), chief propagandist for the Nazi Party, spoke directly to the dictator about how the local Nazis were after her.
“In the Merry Widow, Hitler saw himself as a Danilo style-carachter. During their student days in Vienna, Hitler and Goebbels attended classical music concerts every evening. Hitler was a theater maniac,” Frey says.
One of the many ironies related to the intersection between Lehár, his Jewish colleagues, and the Nazi era, was that the role of Count Danilo Danilovitsch in the Merry Widow was specifically created for the Jewish singer Louis Treumann (1872-1943) who even premiered it in 1905.
Treumann was later deported to the Theresienstadt (Terezin) ghetto where he was killed.
Fritz Löhner-Beda (1883-1942), the librettist of the Land of Smiles, was another Jewish colleague – and close friend of Lehár who had also been responsible for the operetta’s success – was killed in Auschwitz.
“Löhner-Beda was a very successful lyricist for Lehár’s music,” Frey says. The librettist had also been a prominent member of a Jewish activist group fighting the Nazis from the 1920s and onwards.
The two even spoke right before he was arrested.
“Lehár knew what was happening to the Jews – he even helped Victor Léon, his librettist from the Merry Widow – who stayed at his Vienna villa until his death in 1940. The composer also tried to save Treumann and Löhner-Beda, but didn’t do enough,” Frey says while adding that “some speculate that he could have saved their lives had he written directly to Hitler or Goebbels, which he did not do. But this is, of course, only speculation,” Frey says.
But Lehár did help his wife’s brother and only sibling with fleeing to the United States in 1941. “It cost him 25,000 Goldmark. The brother-in-law traveled by train from Budapest to Rotterdam, Frey says. Mrs. Lehár “had, of course, many relatives who were killed in the Holocaust, including her parents’ siblings.”
Following the war, Lehár was interviewed in 1946 by the son of celebrated German author Thomas Mann (1875-1955), Klaus Mann, for Stars and Strips. When asked about why he didn’t do enough to save his Jewish colleagues, Lehár broke down and cried when confronted about Löhner-Beda, Frey relays.
Lehár also pushed back against Mann when asked why Hitler had liked his music, responding that “everyone liked it.”
On how Lehár reckoned with his World War II legacy, Frey says that he believes that the composer felt guilty after the war. “Lehár refused to work with other librettists after Fritz Löhner-Beda – as all of his librettists had been Jewish – he didn’t want to work with a young German guy,” the scholar concludes.
Lehár knew what was happening to the Jews – he even helped Victor Léon, his librettist – who stayed in his villa until his death in 1940 - but felt guilty after the war for not having done enough to save his other colleagues