It’s 1944 and the war is entering its fifth January. Fifty two months since the Allies declared war on Germany. Three and a half years since Hitler’s troops marched into Paris. It must have seemed like a lifetime, especially for civilians wherever they were, deprived of their everyday freedoms, subject to shortages, rationing, bureaucracy, uncertainty and dangers of all kinds. By now the grinding monotony of war was making itself felt everywhere and, for far too many, terror, unbelievable suffering and the abuse of their basic human rights meant existing in a waking nightmare.
Christmas has come and gone and Riri and Fonfon write home with a rather cheerful account of a break in their routine. They were allotted a holiday from midday on Christmas Eve to January 3rd, which seems quite surprisingly long, considering the pressure of wartime production. On the 24th they attended an early “midnight mass” at 10 pm, presumably in order to respect their curfew.
The mass was celebrated at the beautiful baroque Hofkirche, now the Catholic cathedral of Dresden.
They returned for something of a blow-out with their comrades in the camp. The camp kitchen had supplied each man with “a raisin cake weighing one kilo” and in addition they managed to rustle up bread and cured meats, “pudding”, beer, cakes and three litres of red wine “which has left our wallets a bit thin …. you know what we mean” they say, alluding discreetly to the black market. It sounds like quite a feast. There is still apparently no real shortage of food, despite the strains of rationing. In the Reich, workers who were fortunate enough not to be classed as slave labourers were allotted more generous rations than ordinary civilians and, as was the case everywhere, extra food and luxuries were available for cash or barter if you knew where to look.
The Hofkirche must have impressed the brothers, compared with the village church in Villevocance, but what they chiefly remark upon is the splendid music they heard, played on the famous Silbermann organ.
The church was built between 1738 and 1751 by order of Augustus III as his private chapel, with a convenient bridge to the palace. Wily Augustus had converted to Catholicism in order to accept the crown of Poland, in addition to his many other titles, but was savvy enough to allow the burghers of his Lutheran city to build the equally magnificent Frauenkirche at the same time.
Both of them are jewels of the baroque and both have organs by the great 18th century organ builder Gottfried Silbermann.
The Hofkirche organ was his last commission, and the instrument was inaugurated on the 1st of December 1736 with a concert by Johann Sebastian Bach, which is rather ironic since Bach disliked the bright tuning preferred by Silbermann and was very critical of his organs. The Lutheran Dresdners, on the other hand, loved it and flocked to hear the music played both for masses and concerts. It is nice to think that Riri and Fonfon had the opportunity to experience their Christmas mass in such splendid surroundings and to appreciate the magnificent music. Despite everything, amid the horrors of a peverted notion of German identity and culture, aspects of her true artistic and musical heritage were still alive and celebrated.
During their holiday Riri and Fonfon also went to see an operetta “Die oder Keine” at the Zentral Theater. Built in 1898 in neo baroque style the Central Theatre was located in an imposing complex of commercial buildings, passages and restaurants. It was one of the largest theatres in Dresden, with a 2,000-seat auditorium, a wine bar, billiard room and a beer hall for 1,000 people.
The film “Die oder Keine”, released in 1932, was exactly the type of inter-war escapism which was anathema to the ideology of the Reich. Starring Gitta Alpár, a celebrated Hungarian coloratura soprano, it is a Ruritanian fantasy, replete with elegant, shingled ladies wearing low-backed sequinned frocks and gentlemen in immaculate evening dress doing nothing very much at all. In this opening sequence Gitta drives insouciantly through the middle of Berlin with her little dog riding shotgun beside her. They appear to sail through the Brandenburg Gate and the Potsdammerplatz, at that time the most congested junction in Europe, with the greatest of ease. Then she bursts into song, neither she nor the dog turning a hair in the breeze as they zip past cyclists, pedestrians and other vehicles. Finally they draw up at a traffic light and the clip ends here. But in the movie the dog escapes (possibly alarmed by Gitta’s driving technique as much as by her singing) and a handsome prince, who happens to have been lurking nearby, restores him to his mistress … I leave you to imagine the rest of the story.
During the Nazi period, the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda funded theatre productions and film-making, considerably tightening their control over what was performed and screened. Many works were overtly propagandist but as the war progressed it soon became clear that it was better to provide cheering light entertainment. The live performance that Riri and Fonfon saw was probably put on by a visiting company from Berlin, common practice during the war years. Pure escapism, which must have been just the thing to bolster their spirits that lonely Christmas, 1,200 km away from home.
Staying for a moment with Gitta Alpár: the daughter of a Jewish cantor, she was born in Budapest and trained at the Liszt Academy. She made her debut at the Budapest State Opera House in 1923 and subsequently performed in Vienna, Berlin and all the world’s great opera houses.
In 1931 she married the German actor Gustav Frölich, whose breakthrough role was Freder Fredersen in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but in 1935 was forced to divorce him because of her Jewish ancestry. She fled Germany and after stints in Austria, England and Argentina, finally settled in the USA. Her career was over however, because of her heavy accent and a singing style which was considered overly dramatic in the New World. She earned her living as a singing teacher and died in California in 1991.
The Zentral Theater did not survive the 1945 bombing raids and was finally demolished in 1950.
Unless otherwise stated, all images from Wikipedia commons. Wherever possible I have traced and credited the image authors. Any omissions are unintentional.
4 thoughts on “Riri and Fonfon 10”
Another delightful account of the lives of real people at this time,
actually a time that now includes my own early existence. Researched and illustrated in the most professional way!
Thank you Peter. It’s good for us all to realise that this isn’t Ancient History.
Great to see them back!