German jazz band Weintraub Syncopators played way to safety

By Jenni Frazer, June 14, 2013
The Weintraubs in Berline (Photo: Courtesy of Michael Fisher)

The Weintraubs in Berline (Photo: Courtesy of Michael Fisher)

“In memory,” read the dedication, “of the German jazz band, The Weintraub Syncopators, Berlin 1924-Sydney 1942: Stefan Weintraub, Heinz Barger, Addy Fisher, Emanuel Fisher, Horst Graff, John Kaiser, Cyril Schulvater, Leo Weiss”.

Since the dedication was in a concert programme for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, there was a natural curiosity: who were the Weintraub Syncopators?

In fact, as Michael Fisher, son and nephew of two of the players, recounts, the Weintraubs were one of Germany’s most popular and successful jazz bands, founded in 1924 and so in demand that they played on Marlene Dietrich’s landmark 1930 film, The Blue Angel.

Louis Armstrong rated the young band highly, naming one of its members, Eddie Rozner, as his European equivalent. “They were an act,” says Mr Fisher. “They did things like shining a spotlight on the trumpet player and the audience would only hear a violin.”

They were a well-honed cabaret act with a disarming repertoire of hot jazz and novelty comedy songs. This was made possible by the high level of their musicianship — among them, the seven young men played more than 30 instruments.

In 1934, the Weintraubs played all over Europe, and Heinz Barger, the group’s manager, secured a six-month tour of Russia. Michael’s father, Emanuel, whose surname was then Frischer, played trumpet and violin and replaced Eddie Rozner for the Russian tour. They spent more than 18 months in the Soviet Union.

Eventually, the Russian stint came to an end and the Weintraubs went to play first in Manchuria, then Shanghai, and then Japan, where in 1936 they secured a recording contract and made a number of records.

It was clear to the Weintraubs that they could not go back to Berlin, says Michael Fisher. By 1938, they were playing in Sydney, Australia, resident at the city’s leading nightclub, Prince’s. One of the most frequent visitors was MP Robert Menzies, later Australia’s prime minister, who helped get exit visas for Emanuel Fisher’s family in Berlin. The visas arrived in Berlin on the day after Kristallnacht, November 1938.

Once war was declared in September 1939, Australia, in common with its Commonwealth allies, interned many German Jews in the mistaken belief that they were enemy aliens. The members of the Weintraub Syncopators were initially interned, but Emanuel Fisher and two others in the band were released because they had never been German citizens.

At this stage, Emanuel’s brother, Addy, who had been playing double bass in another German jazz band which ended up touring in Beirut, arrived in Sydney and became the last new member of the Weintraub Syncopators.

By 1942, the band had effectively broken up. The rest of the band who had been interned were released, and those who could joined the Australian armed forces. There was, however, one last hairy moment when the authorities looked back at the Weintraubs’ wild success in Japan and investigated those records made in 1936. Were the records a secret code to help the Japanese war effort? Emphatically not, declared the musicians.

By the end of the war, some members of the Syncopators, by now all resident in Australia, were playing as individuals, but the band itself was no more. Emanuel Fisher went into business but returned briefly to music in the late 1950s, composing and arranging.

As for Addy Fisher, he bequeathed his double bass to the Israel Philharmonic. It was handed over by the family to the IPO in Sydney in 2008 but was in deplorable condition. Michael Fisher funded its restoration and, last month, the double bass was played on stage in Tel Aviv.

It is said that at the end of one of their last appearances in Berlin, the Weintraub Syncopators arranged for the stage to feature seven empty chairs, a reminder of what Germany was losing. Who would have thought it? The best jazz band in the country, all young Jews — and for once, they all survived.

Last updated: 11:45am, June 14 2013