In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Ernst von Dohnányi used his considerable influence in Hungary to protect Jewish musicians from the Holocaust. Tragically, in the years following World War II, he fell victim to false accusations that he was a Nazi war criminal. The smear campaigns were so successful that even today, over fifty years after his death, many musicians still believe that Dohnányi was a Nazi.
The charges of Nazism could not have been further from the truth. On March 17, 2014, I presented a paper on “Ernst von Dohnányi: A Forgotten Hero of the Holocaust Resistance” at an international conference titled The Holocaust in Hungary, 70 Years On: New Perspectives. My paper outlined several occasions on which Dohnányi openly defied the Nazis. This included blocking the creation of a Hungarian Chamber of Music that would have excluded Jews from the music profession, just as the infamous Reichsmusikkammer did in Nazi Germany. Dohnányi also resigned from his position as Director General of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music instead of carrying out orders to fire Jewish instructors. As the conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic, Dohnányi disbanded the ensemble rather than dismiss its Jewish members.
In addition to these public acts of defiance, Dohnányi assisted a number of individual Jewish musicians. These included impresario Andrew Schulhof, whom Dohnányi helped emigrate from Germany to the U.S. in 1939. The pianist Lajos Hernádi was discharged from the labor service when Dohnányi wrote a letter declaring Hernádi and his hands to be irreplaceable national treasures. When the famous violinist Carl Flesch and his wife were in grave danger of being deported to a concentration camp, Dohnányi helped to reinstate their Hungarian nationalities, enabling them to travel through Germany, back to Hungary, and ultimately to Switzerland. Dohnányi also personally saved the pianist György Ferenczy, Ferenczy’s wife, and several other Jewish musicians from the death trains. Zoltán Kodály later reported that Dohnányi had signed dozens of documents that had saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust. In Ernst von Dohnányi: A Song of Life, Dohnányi’s widow placed that number in the hundreds. Jewish violinist, violist, and composer Tibor Serly went so far as to credit Dohnányi’s frequent interventions for the fact that “Not one Jewish musician of any reputation living in Hungary lost his life or perished during the entire period of World War II.”
Dohnányi was investigated and cleared several times by the U.S. Military Government, and was repeatedly defended by prominent Jewish musicians who had worked closely with him in Hungary, including violist Egon Kenton [Kornstein], pianist Edward Kilenyi, musicologist Bence Szabolcsi, and composer Leó Weiner. The latter wrote at least two testimonials pointing out that the majority of Dohnányi’s students had been Jewish and that Dohnányi had consistently programmed Weiner’s own compositions, even during the Nazi regime.
Dohnányi was clearly not a Nazi. Instead, he was a forgotten hero of the Holocaust resistance who became the victim of very successful smear campaigns after the war—ones that continue to unfairly tarnish his reputation.