Hitler offered to make this Jewish composer an “honorary Aryan.” Instead, he immigrated to the U.S. through Mexico.

By Stephen Raskauskas |

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Composer Emmerich Kálmán black and white photo

Emmerich Kálmán was one of the most popular composers of his time

One of the most popular operettas of all time, The Csárdás Princess, was composed by Hungarian Emmerich Kálmán. It premiered in Vienna in 1915, and since, has been performed all over the world. In 1917, it opened on Broadway, where it played for 78 shows. Before coming to Chicago to see a production of The Csárdás Princess with Folks Operetta, which presents 8 performances between July 7 and July 22, 2018, Kálmán’s daughter, Yvonne, spoke about her father’s incredible life and career.

“My father was, along with Franz Lehár who wrote The Merry Widow, the most popular composer of his time,” she said. Born in Siófok, then part of Austria-Hungary, Emmerich Kálmán became a composer only after his dreams of being a pianist were dashed. (He developed arthritis, perhaps from over practicing.) Instead, he enrolled in what was then called the Budapest Academy of Music (now the National Hungarian Royal Academy of Music) to pursue music theory and composition, and studied alongside Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály.

His first operetta, Tatárjárás (The Mongol Invasion), was so popular throughout Europe he created a German version of the work for Vienna’s Theater an der Wien just a year after its Hungarian premiere. His last Hungarian operetta, Zsuzsi kisasszony, opened on Broadway as Miss Springtime a year after it premiered in Budapest.

Soon, Emmerich moved to Vienna, the center of operetta production in Austria, where he composed what would become his most popular operetta, The Csárdás Princess. The story, which Yvonne said “is a classic about two lovers who cannot be united because of their different backgrounds,” takes place in Budapest and Vienna, with some characters who take excursions to the United States. Little did the composer know at the time, he would later make an important excursion to the United States to save his own life and the lives of his family members.

He began composing The Csárdás Princess before World War I had begun, though Yvonne said, “There is a kind of sadness about it because as my father was writing, it was very obvious that life would change forever. Then, when the war finally started and it premiered, he realized that old mores were going to die, and that many people who were going to go to war would not come back, and though some would, it would be a would different society.”

Though society did change drastically during and after World War I, Emmerich remained in Vienna and continued to have success as a composer worldwide. His work was so popular in the United States that George Gershwin came to Vienna to meet Emmerich in 1928. After they enjoyed Sachertorte and mochas, Gershwin played Rhapsody in Blue for Emmerich and his colleagues.

A decade later, Germany annexed Austria, and Emmerich decided it was time to leave Vienna. “I was born just before my father was able to save his life and the lives of his family members by leaving Vienna,” Yvonne said. “We left Vienna on a pretext. The Zurich Opera was opening a show by my father, and since he never gave up his Hungarian citizenship, he was allowed to leave with the family. So, he took us to Zurich, and then we moved to Paris.”

In Paris, he received a visit from an officer in the Third Reich with an offer from Hitler to receive status as an “honorary Aryan.” Yvonne recalled, “When the Ambassador came to visit, my father said ‘Who will guarantee my life,’ and he responded, ‘I will guarantee your life.’ My father responded, he was a very polite man, ‘But who will guarantee your life?’ The minute the officer left, he called and made a reservation, I think for the next week, on what turned out to be one of the last ships leaving Genoa for New York City. And that is how he saved his family, because France was not good for Jews during World War II either.”

“When we came to the United States I was a baby,” she said.  “I remember coming down to Tijuana, Mexico to get our visas changed so we could stay in the United States. My father was so grateful that we were able to be refugees, as they called us, and then to become American citizens. So I grew up in the United States and always considered myself an American, and I’m grateful that there was a program in the United States that actually saved our lives.”

When the Kálmán family arrived in the United States, they spent time living in both Los Angeles and New York. He was offered a contract from MGM to adapt some of his operettas into films, though when America became embroiled in the war, these projects were scrapped.

“I remember how happy we were when the war was over,” Yvonne said. “But when my father found out that most of our family had died in concentration camps, he had a heart attack that very same day. He lived, but he was extremely weakened. There was a tremendous amount of sadness. He was asked to come back to Vienna, but he said he never could after what happened. We moved to Paris after the war. Suddenly, all the people came who had banned him – because most of the theaters had banned Jewish composers – were having revivals of his operettas, and my father became very popular again.”

Yvonne Kalman receiving the Pro Cultura Hungarica prize from Hungary’s culture minister in the House of Parliament. (Photo: Budapesti Operettszínház)

Yvonne Kalman receiving the Pro Cultura Hungarica prize from Hungary’s culture minister in the House of Parliament. (Photo: Budapesti Operettszínház)

Despite the exuberance and effervescence of his many operettas, Yvonne said her father was “a very introverted person. He lived through his music, though he was very shy. He didn’t resemble any of the characters in his shows. He was very kind and very sensitive. He really believed and lived the golden rule, and that’s what he taught me. He had a wonderful sense of humor. He loved to laugh. He would always take me the movies in New York City, and he loved to enjoy himself with me. Outside of that, he loved the American mystique, and his last operetta was called Arizona Lady.”

Reflecting on her life lived around the world, Yvonne said, “I really feel the United States has had such a huge impact on the rest of the world because it’s such a wonderful land of different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds,” Yvonne said. “America is such a fabulous place for everyone to come to because we have been built on people coming from other nations, and then they contribute their backgrounds, their history, their way of looking at things. I think we would do ourselves a terrible disservice if we don’t allow that to continue in every professional field and with people of every ethnic background from around the world.”

Yvonne, her father Emmerich, and the rest of their family came to the United States as one of the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Seeing how immigrant families seeking entry into the United States have been torn apart today, for her, has been “heartbreaking. It’s the worst of the worst. Taking children away from their parents is terrible, and I can’t believe it has been allowed to happen and I hope things are resolved quickly.”

“What I feel so terribly sad about right now is that we’ve lost every ounce of civility. It’s like we’ve unleashed the worst of humanity. I wonder where our sensitivity has gone. It’s terrible to see the ice – I’m sorry for using that word – but it’s terrible to see how cold the hearts of people have become and it makes me very sad the way society is going. It’s terribly sad when we don’t learn from mistakes that have been made.”