Kurt Weill: Schicklgruber

Written by Sari Gruber


In category: Song of the Day

Published October 28, 2019

This week, as I continue my preparations of the Weill and Blitzstein double-bill for NYFOS next month, I see the many parallels between the time in which these works were composed and our current era (and the reasons for which they were written). I would therefore like this week’s NYFOS Song of the Day to be centered around other songs by Weill and his contemporaries which still ring true today. The specific context may have changed for each song since it was written, and yet I find it remarkably clear that these compositions were prescient and that history is, indeed, repeating itself. Just as in the 1930s and 1940s, we are witnessing rampant lust for power, propaganda, war, all while human beings are being killed, torn from their children, and placed into camps. 

Having spent much of my childhood growing up near Stuttgart in (at the time) West Germany, I knew many adults around me (mostly honorary aunts and uncles) who talked about life during the “Krieg” (meaning WWII). I heard stories of near-misses during the bombings, of escapes from bomb shelters with sparks catching coats on fire, extreme hunger (I still wipe every drop of egg white from the egg with my finger, as I had been taught), and of the many male family members who perished in battle. That my godfather had been wounded at the Russian front as a mere 15-year-old inspired my pacifism early on, as had my affection for the “enemy” farmers who nursed Onkel Heiner back to health so that he was able to walk back home to Munich after the war ended. Whatever the war was about was not something I ever thought to ask, but I knew deep down that, clearly, there were good people on both sides of a horrible situation.

It was not until my mother brought my sister and me to the U.S. when I was almost nine that I heard the words “Nazi” and “Hitler” for the first time. My mother left me with an aunt in Ohio for a few months, and I recall watching the TV mini-series The Holocaust over a series of nights, lying on the living room floor riveted to the horrors unfolding before me about ghettos, concentration camps, hatred, and madness — and feeling utterly nauseous. How, HOW could these adults I knew and loved have allowed such horrors to happen? I found out later that my older sister had learned in great depth at the Hochschule about the monstrosities which will forever shame the German culture. I suppose the German educational system deemed second grade a bit young to cover such gruesome topics alongside cursive and arithmetic. Incredulous and shaken at the end of the series, I recall my deep sense of betrayal and complete disgust with authoritarianism, discrimination, racism, and war. 

It was not until college that I learned of the pejorative term “Schicklgruber,” — and then later of this song of the same name by Kurt Weill — which is rooted in Adolf Hitler’s father likely being born out of wedlock to Anna Schicklgruber. Well, I am a just-plain Gruber myself, and know that means “digger” or “grubber,” ostensibly of a ditch or a groove (Grube). In Austrian German, Schickl could mean either money or possibly fate, so with both words combined, Schicklgruber could translate into “Moneygrubber” or a bit more clunky “Fate-digger.” 

Lest anyone still believe our nation used to be above influencing politics in other countries, “Schicklgruber” was printed on millions of allied propaganda fliers dropped over Germany during the war, having since transitioned to a verb and devolved into slang. Weill composed the song of this name in 1942 as one of two English-language propaganda songs for the Lunch Hour Follies in a NY ship-building shop. Howard Dietz penned the scathing lyrics as a criticism of Hitler. Stratas gives the song a good whirl in this recording.

author: Sari Gruber

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Hailed as “nothing short of sensational” (Opera Magazine) and “a real creature of the stage,” (Opera News) soprano Sari Gruber is a longtime NYFOS favorite.  She hosts Song of the Day as we anticipate her return to the NYFOS Mainstage November 19 in a double bill of Marc Blitzstein’s No For An Answer and Kurt Weill’s Der Silbersee.

1 Comment

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    Thank you for a most enlightening article, and even more for just sharing one of my favourite Weill songs. That CD by Teresa Stratas has been one of my most treasured since I first discovered it.


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