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THE ECA Convention Hannover January 2020

A personal account from Warren Bank


I have always wanted to attend one of the Annual conventions of the European Cantors’ Association. 

They meet once a year in a European centre (Budapest, Prague, Leeds, London, Manchester) inviting cantors, prayer-leaders and anyone with an enthusiasm for chazzanut, nusach or Jewish music in general to spend a few days together learning, teaching, discussing, arguing (of course!) but all united by a common passion for the Cantorial art.

This was my very first ECA Convention and it was held at the very unique home of the European Centre for Jewish Music (https://www.ezjm.hmtm-hannover.de/en/home/), Villa Seligmann, Hannover. 

This is a sumptuous and stately mansion built by a wealthy Jewish merchant in 1906.  It has a magnificent salon dominated by a beautiful chamber pipe organ, which I had the privilege to play when accompanying one of the cantors). 

Various other musical instruments are dotted around the various rooms of this multi-story centre, including a spectacular Steinway grand piano which I too had the privilege to play!

What struck me was the diversity of the group: not all were cantors!  But among us were Chassidim, Modern Orthodox, Reform and Liberal, men and women. 

All learnt from each other during the course of the convention, and particularly over Shabbat and during the various performances.  I was particularly impressed by the atmosphere of complete respect and admiration for each other’s artistry and experience, no matter one’s denomination or outlook.   

It was abundantly clear that everyone present was just as passionate about the preservation and enhancement of the cantorial art and nussach, and Jewish music in general. 

Some of the guest speakers included Professor Mark Kligman of UCLA (Musicology), Cantor Asher Hainovitz of Yeshurun, Jerusalem (and previously of Pretoria, South Africa), David Prager (ex-Manchester), Dr Jerry Glantz- son of the famous chazzan Leibele Glantz, Cantor Benny Maissner (Toronto) and Cantor Dan Mutlu (New York), along with a strong delegation of cantors from Budapest. 

Sveta Kundish from Berlin and Alina Treiger from Oldenburg are both ordained and they contributed enormously with their artistry, talent and devotion. 

integration - a common theme

A common theme among the topics discussed was: how to integrate the beauty of true chazzanut with contemporary Jewish music and make our contemporary services both authentic but relevant at the same time.  All agree that this is no simple task.

What appears to have made this particular ECA Convention stand out from others is a rather fortuitous intersection.

This was between the incredible organisational skills evident from the management of Villa Seligmann (Eliyah Sakakushev), the Hannover Jüdische Gemeinde (and the inimitable Rebbetzin Tova Harety), along with the timing of the Convention around Holocaust Memorial Day.

This brought us two unforgettable concerts: the first was hosted by the Landesverband der Jüdischen Gemeinden von Niedersachsen at the Hannover Synagogue.

This was attended by various local dignitaries including the Prime Minister of Lower Saxony, the Mayor of the State Capital of Hannover and the State Bishop, Ralf Meister (who has studied at Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

The 'Night' Holocaust Project

On Monday 27th January the Night Holocaust Project Concert and its German premiere took place before an audience of 3,500 in Hannover’s massive Kuppelsaal.

This was performed by the Kaliningrad Symphony Orchestra, the Vilnius State Choir, the Moscow Jewish A Capella and wonderful soloists including our Cantors Benny Maissner (Toronto) and Dan Mutlu (New York). 

The German narration of excerpts from Elie Wiesel’s horrific story of deportation and life in Auschwitz was sensitively performed by one of Germany’s most famous actors, Sebastian Koch (Bridge of Spies, The Danish Girl).

A particularly moving experience was walking to shul on Friday night in a group, many openly displaying their tzitzit, donning their hats and kippot. 

I found myself marvelling at the moment, and how fascinating it was to be part of a group of Jews walking to shul in Hannover, openly and proudly: when last did this city last witness such a scene? 

Many people unfamiliar with the German Jewish community do not realise how extremely large it is.  At last count there were over 100,000 Jews in Germany -making it the 8th largest in the world. 

Hannover is a relatively small community but has approximately 10,000 Jews living there but not all are members of the official community.  These numbers were swelled by immigration from the Former Soviet Union and Israelis. 

The community is still able to support 4 shuls of various denominations including Chabad and Liberal. 

The present Orthodox shul where we were based for all services was built in 1963 and is a beautiful structure adjoining the modern aged home. 

The community has its own excellent orchestra and mixed-voice choir that performed for us on our arrival and also at the community Holocaust Memorial Commemoration which I mentioned earlier.

Shabbat services were led by various chazzanim, particularly Nathan Goldman of Stuttgart and the legendary Asher Hainowitz who astounded us with his magnificent and heartfelt mussaf, showing that, at age 80, he is a true master of the art of tefillah. 

Torah reading was by Russell Grossman of London.

The male members of the community choir together with their chazzan, Andrej Sitnow, led the rest of the service.

Guests at the Lower Saxony Parliament

On Monday morning, Holocaust Memorial Day, we were special guests of the President of the Lower Saxony Parliament (Landtag), Dr Gabrielle Andretta, who welcomed us to the state-of-the-art Landtag building and we were given a guided tour.   

Most of us noticed that all official flags had been lowered to half-mast in honour of HMD.

ECA Delegates with Dr Andretta at the Landtag

We then went to the Ahlem Memorial which was a pre-war agricultural centre just outside Hannover at which Jewish students learnt farming and agricultural methods. 

From 1942 however the Gestapo turned it into a centre where Jews were rounded up, imprisoned, tortured and executed.  Some 2173 Jews were deported from there mainly to Riga, Warsaw, Theresienstadt and Auschwitz of which only 144 survived. and thence dispatched to  service. 

Just before we left I went to inspect the wreaths that had been laid during a short commemorative ceremony and met a German woman clutching a handful of photos.  I engaged her in conversation and she told me that she had been very close to a local Holocaust survivor, Moshe, who had been living in Israel since after the war. 

She had always been in touch with him and showed me photos of another memorial ceremony some years earlier at which Moshe had been present along with two of the US armed force personnel who had liberated him from Ahlen in 1945.  She told me that Moshe had survived all this time but passed away only last week at the age of 94.  She was carrying these pictures as “a memory of love”. 

I found this very moving and thought how sometimes we encounter people for a brief moment of our lives and they are somehow able to touch us forever in ways we could never have imagined.  I was glad to leave Ahlen as I found its atmosphere oppressive and full of sadness at the horrors experienced there not so long ago.

Picture: German woman showing me photos of her dear friend, a Holocaust survivor who had passed away just one week earlier, and whom she had come to honour at Ahlem.

There was an optional tour to Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp on the final day and a group of about 15 of us were taken there by coach. 

We were personally escorted by one of the chief historians of the site, Diana Gring, who told me that she had personally spent many hours interviewing Chazzan Moshe Kraus (a Belsen survivor) and how moving she has found his faith and his music. 

This will hopefully find its way into a fascinating movie one of these days. 

There are of course simply no words to describe the experience of Belsen – there is nothing there: only dozens of mass graves beneath which lie the remains of more than 50,000 inmates who were so badly starved, beaten and emaciated, that when the liberating British forces arrived on 17th April 1945 and started filming the conditions, it was very difficult to distinguish the living from the dead. 

The museum treats this very sensitively by showing this harrowing army footage (restored in high quality monochrome) in a curtained-off semi-private viewing area.  This footage brought a new level of hideousness to the indescribable crimes of the Holocaust in such a graphic way that will forever be seared into my memory.

However of far more potency was the powerful manner in which Rabbis Natan Fagleman, Danny Bergson and Sveta Kundish intoned the Hazkarah, the Kaddish and a haunting Yiddish song at the Belsen Memorial.

We have forged some wonderful bonds across continents, communities and practice. 

So many special friendships have been created – and a sense of deep admiration for the craft and unique mission of our fellow chazzanim and ba’alei tefillah.   

Kol Hakavod to Alex Klein, Russell Grossman and Geraldine Auerbach of ECA.   Long may the ECA continue to flourish and not only keep the art of the cantor and Jewish music alive, but promote its growth and future innovation and development.