In 1938, a Young Composer On His Way to World Renown, Was Forced Into Hiding

Apr 23, 2017

Despite being a Polish Jew, 17-year-old aspiring composer Joseph Beer won admission in 1925 to the prestigious Hochschule fur Musik in Vienna, which had a quota for both Jews and Poles. He was also allowed to skip the first four years of the curriculum to study composition in master classes, and went on to graduate with highest honors.

It was 1930, two years before Hitler became chancellor of Germany.

In that interval, Beer made the acquaintance of the foremost operetta librettist in Vienna, Dr. Fritz Lohner-Beda. Their collaboration resulted in Der Prinz Von Schiras, which premiered at the Zurich Opera House to critical acclaim, and toured the major cities of Europe including the Theater An Der Wien. It was also recorded and received widespread radio coverage.

Beer was a rising star at 25.  

A second opera, Polnishe Hochzeit (Polish Wedding), premiered in 1937 also at the Zurich Opera House and was subsequently performed on over 40 stages. It was recorded for the first time in 2016.

In 1938, the Nazis marched into Vienna following the Anschluss and Beer’s work was summarily banned. Like a criminal, he sneaked out of Vienna—with his possessions stuffed into two suitcases.

This is the last correspondence Beer received from his father in July, 1943. It says "You are my beautiful dream." Mailed to a fictitious name in Cannes, the post card has a Hitler stamp.

Fortunately, Beer was able to secure a French visa. Sequestered in a Paris hotel room, he scratched out a living adapting instrumental music for orchestra, and he accepted a commission from a Zurich Opera House conductor to compose a new opera that would be published under the conductor’s name. This piece he turned out in three weeks without benefit of a piano, all in his head; he heard it for the first time on the radio.
 

Joseph Beer in hiding at the Hotel Regina in Nice, France circa 1943.

The Nazis paraded through the Arc de Triomphe in 1942, so Beer was once again on the run. He made his way to the south of France. Joined by his brother Joachim, he went into hiding at a hotel in Nice.

Whatever money or goods he had been able to lay his hands on were sent to his mother, father, and sister Suzanne, who were trapped in the ghetto in Lemberg (L’vov) subsisting on scraps of garbage.

The Beer family at their home in Lemberg, Poland circa 1928. Left to right: seated is Beer's mother Amalie, Joseph (standing), older brother Joachim, his younger sister Suzanna, and his father Uri.

But then communication with them ceased altogether. Unaware of their fate, Beer kept working; he composed his third major opera Stradella in Venedig, and wrote music attributed to other composers.

At war’s end, he learned that his family had perished in Auschwitz as had his close friend and librettist Fritz Lohner-Beda. Beer would never recover.

Many of his colleagues had been killed and he suspected others of being collaborators or silent bystanders—with whom he would not do business. Once charming and outgoing, he was now solitary and withdrawn. Despite his recalcitrance, his opera Stradella was performed at the  Zurich Opera House in 1949.

Beer met and became engaged to Hanna Konigsberg, a refugee from Munich, in 1950. Later they married, and according to their two daughters, she became his sole collaborator, critic, and overworked typist.

The following year, there was a new presence in his life. He met and married a Jewish refugee from Munich two decades his junior. Her name was Hanna Konigsberg. She was able to penetrate his reclusiveness and would become his helpmate for the next 40 years. She also became the mother of two daughters: Suzanne Beer, an artist now based in Paris; and Beatrice Beer, an opera singer now living in Philadelphia.

Over the following decades, Beer continued to compose every day, producing two more operas and many oratorios. He died in Nice in 1987.

To promote his legacy, his family established the Joseph and Hanna Beer Foundation to “propagate the works of this brilliant composer and to earn him the global recognition he deserves.” And in 2016, Beer's opera Polish Wedding was recorded...for the first time.