Discovering Karol Rathaus

Who is Karol Rathaus and why we are making this film

Karol Rathaus (1895, Ternopol – 1954, Flushing, New York) belongs to the generation of composers who came of age after WWI and determined the direction of classical music for many years to come. Born in Ternopol (Galicia, presently Ukraine) in the waning days of Austro-Hungarian Empire, educated in Vienna and Berlin he was caught between his Jewish origin, Polish dominated childhood, and Austro-German cultural education.  With his music performed by such luminaries as Wilhelm Furtwängler and Erich Kleiber, he was on his way to become one of the leading voices of his generation. The rise of Nazis interrupted his ascend to the musical Olympus – he had to leave Germany and after several years of wondering through Paris and London, Karol Rathaus found a new permanent home at Queens, New York, where he became the first professor of composition at a recently formed Queens College.  The music of Karol Rathaus remains an important and unique part of the Western musical tradition of the 20th century, which was unfortunately neglected for too many years. 

Rathaus’ life is representative of the fate of many composers who fled Nazi Europe to escape Hitler’s gas chambers. The price of their physical survival became professional insignificance and obscurity. This film is an attempt, using a story of one particularly important  composer, to understand why this happened, and to dispel a popular myth about successes of “Hitler’s exiles” in the US and elsewhere. It is also a step towards the reinstatement of this generation of refugees to their rightful place in our cultural life and social conscience.

Karol Rathaus, circa 1952 (from Rathaus' family archive)

As our civilization struggles with multiple refugee crises and with fierce debates about immigration raging all over the world, the story of Karol Rathaus resonates beyond the  immediate bounds of music history. It reminds us about universality of fears  and struggles  of people forced to leave their homes and build new lives in new, and often hostile, environments.