Professor pens book about famed musician during Holocaust

FRANKLIN, Ind. (AP) – The only hope for survival was on the stage.

As growing Nazi power spread in Europe in the 1930s, famed cabaret player Willy Rosen fled his home in Germany to the Netherlands, as his Jewish heritage made him a target. Hitler’s forces made their way to his adoptive home as well, so Rosen clung to his creativity and skill as a performer to save his life.

Rosen’s ingenious, anxiety-wracked survival and eventually gut-wrenching death is captured in vivid detail by Casey Hayes, a Franklin College professor of music, music department chair and director of choral activities. He spent close to five years researching and preparing the historically accurate novel, “When the Music Stopped: Willy Rosen’s Holocaust.”

Hayes traveled to Europe dozens of times to learn about Rosen and his theater troupe, taking the life of one of the era’s most popular performers and reconstructing what his time in a Nazi camp was like. His hope is to shine a light on a significant talent whose career has been lost to time.

“It’s remarkable that it has been this long before anyone put together the pieces of what happened,” he said. “To be put on the shelf for as long as he has been, it was very disappointing. I’m very glad that’s not the case anymore. ”

Hayes has been fascinated by that era of European music.

In 2021, Hayes was selected as an Austrian Fulbright scholar and was named the Fulbright-Botstiber Visiting Professor of Austrian-American Studies at the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna.

His research focused on Rosa Wien; Gay Rights, Schlager and Self-Exile: 1918-1939, focused upon the flight of Vienna’s LGBTQI + and Jewish cabaret communities during the political union between Nazi Germany and Austria, and those communities recreating of Viennese cabaret in the United States.

This interest in the short-lived yet robust culture in Wiemar Germany, and its brief yet beautiful emergence of culture led him to discover the music of Willy Rosen.

“When I first heard a song by him, I thought it was so cool. I wanted to hear more, but there just was not a whole lot out there, ”Hayes said. “That started the quest.”

In 1920s and early 1930s Germany, Rosen was as big of a name as there was in Berlin at the time. His performances drew packed audiences, and he wrote scores for films and operettas.

“He was as well-known in Wiemar Germany as Barry Manilow was in the 1970s,” Hayes said. “Everyone knew his name; he was everywhere. ”

But as a Jewish person, Rosen’s livelihood was threatened by the antisemitic rise of Nazi factions. He escaped Germany through Switzerland and Austria, eventually finding his way to the Netherlands. He continued to perform, both touring non-Nazi Europe and in the Dutch resort town of Shcveningen, where he developed the famed “Theater of Celebrities” cabaret.

Despite his success, Rosen was captured by Nazis in 1943, sent to the Westerbork transit camp where Jewish people waited to be sent to death in concentration camps. To try and avoid this fate, Rosen and his theater group performed for Nazi commanders and fellow prisoners.

Their performances were popular, but they knew that each one had to be more enticing and creative.

For nearly two years, Rosen and his troupe lived this fraught existence. They were among the last to be sent to concentration camps in the east. He died in Auschwitz in 1944.

Hayes was determined to find out what he could about Rosen and his art. The process was not easy.

“Any time you go down a rabbit hole, where there is no information about someone, it becomes even more obsessive,” he said.

He dove into the available research, scouring internet resources for any mention of Rosen and his life. Eventually, important tidbits rose to the surface.

One of the most interesting pieces was a book that had been put together for the commandant at the transit camp. The pages of this book were scattered all over the world, and had never been put together since the 1940s. Hayes dug into where the pages had gone, and assembled it himself.

“When you translate that book, it became clearer what was happening – these were all big-name Wiemar German performers and artists and stars, that were all doing this cabaret in this Dutch transit camp,” he said. “It read like the who’s who of the cabaret scene of the 1920s and 1930s.”

Hayes also traveled to Germany and the Netherlands, digging through archives for more information about Rosen. He translated Gestapo documents about him, and built family trees to get the details of the story correct.

All of the places, dates, events and most of the people included in “When the Music Stopped” are real, Hayes said.

“I call it creative fiction, because all of the facts are what really happened. It was the dialogue that had to be written and all put together into a cohesive story, ”he said.

Writing the story took about six months, including a month entirely devoted to creating the framework of the story and ensuring it was historically accurate, Hayes said.

The book was published by Amsterdam Publishers, a company based in the Netherlands that specializes in writing focused on the Holocaust. “When the Music Stopped” was released on Jan. 27 – International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“It’s something I never thought I’d do in my life – write a book. But when you have a passion about something, having the book published is the capstone experience of all of that research, digging all of that up, ”Hayes said.

“It was a labor of love, and I’m glad to have his story told,” he said.

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Source: Daily Journal

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