Kenneth Asch

An encounter with the White Rose

Musician Kenneth Asch, who studied in Munich in the 1950s, recounts his arrival in a city reeling from the horrors of war

January 24, 2019 11:32

Lost to memory is the exact moment one of life’s vital decisions was made for me. The event itself, however, remains as clear, sixty years ago almost to the day: my music teacher — wise, respected and beloved — had made up his mind that the next and conclusive phase of my studies would be arranged for me at Munich.

I had long dreamed of Italy as my natural home, existentially as well as professionally. But very soon I was to find myself aboard a transatlantic steamer bound from Montreal to Le Havre with a one-way ticket to a future impossible to calculate, in a country that aroused the very darkest of thoughts back home.

Ultimately the choice proved providential, although family and friends certainly did not envision it in anything approaching such terms at the time.

How was it possible even to contemplate the idea of moving permanently to Germany? “Life is a mysterious business” is the best response anyone could find, with surprises lurking, good as well as bad, in the most unexpected places.

Emerging early in the morning from the overnight train from Paris, I found myself alone in a world foreign to me. Suddenly I was faced with a language new to my ear, except for a rough and ready familiarity based on my studies toward a career in music. But I would not recommend asking directions of the local gendarmerie in phrases lifted from an opera or piano score.

A far more dramatic introduction to my new circumstances was the city itself, 70 per cent destroyed during Second World War and stretching out a wasteland for all intents and purposes in each direction I looked. One ruin especially, the Justizpalast (Palace of Justice), captured my immediate attention.

For it was here in 1943 that the People’s Court had famously sentenced members of the University of Munich-based student group known as White Rose to death. This had been their final stop, in the full glare of the most public and ruthless of trials, before their removal to Stadelheim Prison.

Their story was short and sharp, especially once they had decided upon insurrection. The First World War’s catastrophic conclusion, the consequent Treaty of Versailles and the collapse a decade later, in the wake of the Great Depression, of their country’s economy and social structure, revolutionised Germany’s fortunes.

And a set of mainly political circumstances conspired suddenly to transform the manner in which German families raised their children. The most insidious and tragic aspect of this was the suspicion and hostility that arose between the generations — youth and parents, students and teachers — and the betrayals that resulted.

A few moments’ walk from the law courts is one of the finest Baroque churches anywhere, destroyed in 1944 and partially restored by the time I first experienced it.

This became my first spiritual home from home for reasons of the contradictions that it embodied.

Principally there was the music — orchestra, chorus and soloists — that accompanied Sunday Mass that I would attend weekly, a vivid reminder of the unanswered question: how could such a cultured nation as this have sanctioned such events as had been encouraged in the building next door?

Answers are still elusive, being the reason that vestiges of this history will be on prominent display next weekend at London.

On Sunday, 27 January at 6 pm 
the liberal congregation of West London Synagogue will gather for its annual Service of Holocaust Commemoration. On this occasion, uniquely for Great Britain, White Rose will not only make a personal appearance but participate in the Service itself.

Here from his home near Munich, Markus Schmorell, nephew of one of the movement’s original members, will join with others in readings.

Words have been chosen that illustrate the principled legacy of a movement that helped towards its nation’s return from the edge of moral and ethical collapse.

Germany’s support through the Goethe Institute and Deutsche Bahn of Mr Schmorell’s presence gives evidence of a door that is opened to dialogue between peoples who share memories.


The service to honour the memory of the White Rose Group in Munich will take place at West London Synagogue on Sunday at 6pm


January 24, 2019 11:32

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