Search for Names, Places and Biographies

Already layed Stumbling Stones

back to select list

Porträt Oswald Behrens
Oswald Behrens ca. 1958
© Hamburger Abendblatt 15.2.1958, S. 9

Oswald Behrens * 1901

Lessingstraße 24 (Hamburg-Nord, Hohenfelde)

JG. 1901
ERMORDET 1.2.1943

Herbert Oswald Behrens, born on 15 Nov. 1901 in Hamburg, arrested on 15 Feb. 1938, detained from 31 Mar. 1938 in the Fuhlsbüttel police prison, from 23 June 1939 in the Bremen-Oslebshausen penitentiary, deported from there on 13 Jan. 1943 to the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp, murdered on 1 Feb. 1943

Lessingstrasse 24

"I think it was only through our brother’s urgent letters from captivity that we realized that we had to emigrate. It was a difficult decision for me.” This was written by Oswald Behrens’ older sister Lily in the 1950s as part of her restitution proceedings. She, her mother, and her younger sister Helen had survived the Shoah as emigrants Britain. Their brother and son, the musician Oswald Behrens, could not save himself. He was murdered by the Nazis.

Oswald Behrens was the son of the Jewish couple Richard Philipp and Thecla Behrens, née Heyman. Thecla Behrens came from the English industrial city of Manchester, where she was born on 22 Sept. 1869. Her well-off parents, Hermann S. and Helene Heyman, née Oppenheimer, were able to provide her with a comprehensive education. From 1876 to 1885, she attended Ellerslie Ladies’ College in England, then Owens College of Literature and History. She then studied art with a minor in music and passed the piano examination with distinction. After her father’s death in 1896, Thecla’s mother moved with her to Cologne in Germany. From there, Thecla continued her art studies and studied painting in Düsseldorf.

On 15 Oct. 1898, she married the cotton broker Richard Behrens in Cologne. He was born in Lüneburg as the son of the paper merchant Bernhard Behrens and the Hamburg native Recha, called Emma, Warburg, but lived and worked in Hamburg at the time. Thus, Thecla moved to him to the Elbe River after the wedding. Almost two years later, on 15 June 1900, their first child, a girl, was born in Hamburg. Her parents called her Lily Emma. Herbert Oswald followed her one and a half years later. The third child, also a girl, was born on 16 June 1903 and received the first names Helen Alice. From mid-Mar. 1908 onward, the family lived in their own 12-room house at the intersection of Lessingstrasse 24 and Uhlandstrasse.

All three children had inherited their artistic and creative talent from their mother. But while Lily and Helen first oriented themselves in this direction and then – like their father – completed a more practical commercial training, Oswald went the opposite way. After attending girls’ high school (Lyzeum), Lily Behrens studied painting and drawing at the State School of Arts and Crafts (Staatliche Kunstgewerbeschule), today’s College of Fine Arts (Hochschule für bildende Künste). Although she had been brought up "more aesthetically than practically,” as she later put it herself, she went to business school afterward. However, as she suffered from severe myopia, she had problems finding a job following her successful graduation in 1922. Because her mother Thecla was often ailing, but her parents also kept open house featuring many social events, she mainly took care of the family’s household.

Having attended girls’ high school, Helen first decided to train as an advertising draftswoman at the State School of Arts and Crafts. Afterward, however, she also went to business school and initially worked in her father’s office, later at various companies as a commercial employee.

Oswald, on the other hand, went to the Realgymnasium of the Johanneum [a high school focused on science, math, and modern languages]. Unlike the academic school of the Johanneum, it did not prepare its students for university studies, but for practical professions in the commercial and technical fields. However, both directions did not correspond to what Oswald wanted. Rather, he moved to Munich at the beginning of the 1920s and devoted himself to philosophy studies at the university and music studies at the Academy of Music (Akademie der Tonkunst). He took composition with Siegmund von Hausegger and studied with conductor Hans Knappertsbusch. His teachers also included the musicologist Adolf Sandberger and the composer Joseph Haas. In addition, he took private lessons in counterpoint, score reading, and coaching with Karl Blessinger, who also worked at the Academy. From Apr. 1924 onward, he worked for a year as a music editor for Mandruck AG für Notendruck und Notenstich in Munich, where he did corrections as well as arrangements of some of the compositions printed there.

In the spring of 1925, Oswald Behrens returned to Hamburg to take up a position as a piano and theory teacher a few months later at the Brahms Conservatory headed by Raphael Seligmann-Ferara. On 25 Nov. 1925, he married Margarete (also Margareta) Emmy Luise Hoff in the Hanseatic city. She was born in Karlsruhe on 1 Mar. 1897. Her father was the portrait and genre painter Karl Heinrich Hoff, her grandfather, Karl H. Hoff, a professor at the Karlsruhe Academy of Art. Originally, Margarete had trained as a kindergarten teacher, but by then, she was writing stage plays. At the time of the wedding, the couple lived together as subtenants in Hamburg-Barmbek, at Lortzingstrasse 18, and Margarete and Oswald Behrens continued to live in subtenancy arrangements during the following years. At the end of 1928/beginning of 1929, they moved into the first apartment of their own in Eimsbüttel, at Moltkestrasse 50b.

On 4 Feb. 1929, Oswald and Margarete Behrens became parents, naming their son Thomas Joachim. With the support of Raphael Seligmann-Ferara, Oswald Behrens had already received a provisional teaching permit; in May 1929, he successfully passed the state examination. In order to earn additional income, he gave private lessons, performed in nightclubs, and from 1928 to 1930, he was conductor of the St. Georger Orchesterverein von 1862, with which he gave concerts in the small hall of the Musikhalle and in Hamburg’s Conventgarten, the large event venue on Fuhlentwiete in Hamburg-Neustadt.

Nevertheless, the financial situation of the small family was very difficult. For this reason, Margarete Behrens first asked the then Hamburg School Inspector for Vocational Education, Johannes Schult, to increase her husband’s fee – but in vain. Schult could not help her because the Brahms Conservatory was a private institution. In her distress, Margarete turned to Friedrich Bauer, who was Hamburg Senate Councilor at the time. She described to him "the downright sad conditions under which my husband [is] forced to live and work. How he – the 27-year old – has to play through the nights, in some obscure pubs, after [being] already strained enough during the day – through the lessons at the conservatory and some private lessons.” For his "Sonata for two pianos,” which premiered at the small Musikhalle with the composer and pianist Ilse Fromm-Michaels participating, the Senate Commission for the Cultivation of the Arts (Senatskommission für die Kunstpflege) actually granted Oswald Behrens a one-off scholarship of 500 RM (reichsmark) in Sept. 1930. Soon thereafter, he was also appointed to the jury of the Hamburg Tonkünstlerverein (Hamburg Musicians’ Association).

In 1932, Oswald Behrens’ father Richard suffered a stroke and had to withdraw from his business. This meant considerable financial restrictions for the family, whose financial backbone he had been. A part of the house on Lessingstrasse was rented out. Although or perhaps precisely because Oswald and Margarete Behrens had to move together with their little son Thomas several times back then – from Moltkestrasse to Uhlenhorster Weg 15, then to Birkenau 16, and at the end of 1932/beginning of 1933 to Mundsburger Damm 41 – the center of their lives, too, was the house on Lessingstrasse. Oswald Behrens’ granddaughter Beatrice once wrote: "When my father [authors’ note: Thomas Behrens] spoke, he always spoke of the Behrens’ ancestral home [Stammhaus] on Lessingstrasse, how wonderful that house was. His memories probably reflect a happy childhood there. (...) On Lessingstrasse, my grandfather truly lived, this was everyone’s home.” The relationship between Oswald and Margarete Behrens nevertheless became complicated. On 11 Jan. 1933, they divorced.

Not even four weeks later, on 30 Jan. 1933, Reich President Paul von Hindenburg appointed the party chairman of the NSDAP, Adolf Hitler, as Reich Chancellor. Thus, the Nazis came to power in the German Reich. As a result, Oswald Behrens first had to resign from his position as a member of the Hamburg Tonkünstlerverein; his working hours at the Conservatory also shrank to three to ten hours per week. Probably that’s why he focused more on composing. During this time, he composed several works such as an 18-part song cycle based on texts by Max Dauthendey and numerous pieces for the women’s choir at the Brahms Conservatory.

Oswald Behrens’ father Richard died in Dec. 1933. As a result, his family had to economize even more. Lily Behrens was now looking for a job as a housekeeper, which turned out to be difficult. Being Jewish, she was only allowed to work in Jewish households and in view of the increasing economic plundering of Jews, fewer and fewer families were able to pay domestic workers. In addition, there was a first wave of emigration of Jews immediately after the National Socialists came to power. Eventually, Lily and her mother Thecla lived in only two rooms of the large house on Lessingstrasse, having to sublet the remaining rooms, to two pianists, among others. Helen had already moved out a few years earlier. She, too, had increasing problems finding work. Long periods without any employment were only briefly interrupted by temporary jobs with Jewish companies whose owners were also about to emigrate. Further training failed because, according to the Hamburg employment office, she was not allowed to sit in the same room as other students. She did not get a job at the radio station (from 1934 onward, Reichssender Hamburg) because, according to the station, it would have to pay a fine of 1,000 RM if employing a Jewish woman.

After separating from his wife, Oswald Behrens found a new partner in Ilse Harmsen, with whom he became engaged. However, the marriage did not take place because Margarete and he reconciled after all by the end of 1935. However, at this time, the "Nuremberg Laws” stood in the way of remarrying. They came into force on 15 Sept. 1935 and forbade marriages between Jews and non-Jewish partners. They also made extramarital sexual intercourse between Jews and non-Jewish partners a punishable offense. Oswald Behrens was Jewish; Margarete came from a non-Jewish family.

Starting in July 1935, Oswald Behrens worked as a music theory teacher at the Milee School on Rothenbaum, newly founded by dancer and choreographer Erika Milee. Probably due to financial difficulties, he had to take on an additional job in the Missing & Co. metal factory from Aug. 1936 onward. He also gave private piano lessons and occasionally played in a café run by a family he knew.

In addition, he worked for the Hamburg Jewish Cultural Federation (Jüdischer Kulturbund Hamburg). Strictly controlled by the Nazi authorities, this organization allowed Jewish artists to present themselves to an exclusively Jewish audience after they had been excluded from the German cultural scene in 1933. Oswald Behrens wrote the music for the choral dance celebration entitled "The Victory of the Maccabees” – a tribute to the dancer Rudolf von Laban – on the occasion of a Hanukkah celebration organized by the Kulturbund and the Hamburg Zionist Association in 1936. Moreover, he acted as the musical director, and Laban’s former student Erika Milee served as the overall director. A training class and a children’s dance group of the Milee School as well as an amateur choir also participated.

In 1937, Behrens also took over the musical direction of the actors’ ensemble in the Hamburg Jewish Cultural Federation together with Fritz Berend and Lutz Proskauer. With Kurt Behrens (who was not related to him), he was partly responsible for piano accompaniment in the field of stage music. He also composed music for Romeo and Juliet and for Scholem Alejchem’s play Amcha (Dein Volk) oder das grosse Los, which the Jewish Cultural Federation brought to the stage of the Conventgarten during the 1937/1938 season under the direction of Hans Buxbaum. Guest performances took him to Leipzig, Breslau, and Dresden, among other places.

On 1 Apr. 1937, the Brahms Conservatory was "Aryanized” and Oswald Behrens was dismissed. By this point, he earned only a little money as a worker at Missing & Co. There, he was arrested by the Gestapo on 30 Mar. 1938 and taken to the Fuhlsbüttel pretrial detention facility. Someone had denounced him because of his relationship with Margarete. In addition, he allegedly maintained too close a relationship with one of his students at the Brahms Conservatory and thus purportedly exploited the dependent relationship. Margarete was also arrested and detained for several days.

From prison, Oswald Behrens wrote the letters mentioned at the outset to his mother and sisters. At the end of 1938, Thecla Behrens had to sell the house on Lessingstrasse together with the remaining furnishings; in 1943, it was almost completely destroyed in an air raid. In Dec. 1938, Thecla Behrens fled Germany for Britain, followed in Feb. 1939 by her daughters Lily and Helen. Lily had worked as a housekeeper with Elsa Hartogh for the last six months before leaving the country and also received accommodation there (for Elsa Hartogh’s husband Emil, a Stolperstein is located on Claudiusstrasse in Marienthal; see; Helen lived with various friends for the last two months. Each of them was only allowed to export 10 RM in cash, Thecla Behrens also a few pieces of furniture, and some household goods. They were also able to take compositions by Oswald with them, thus saving the works from destruction.

Margarete and Oswald Behrens’ son Thomas, who was considered a "Jewish crossbreed of the first degree” ("Mischling 1. Grades”) according to the categories of the National Socialists, was to flee Germany as well and travel to Sweden on a children transport (Kindertransport). But appendicitis prevented this. When Thomas was healthy again, the beginning of the Second World War made it impossible to leave the country, and there was probably no money left for it.

In Britain, Thecla Behrens, Lily and Helen sold the few rescued household effects to pay for a defense attorney for Oswald. But it did not help him. On 27 Feb. 1939, the verdict was passed: The Hamburg Regional Court (Landgericht) sentenced Oswald Behrens to 13 years in prison for sexual offense in violation of a dependent relationship "in two cases” and for "racial defilement” ("Rassenschande”) in five cases, followed by the loss of civil rights for ten years and a professional ban as a music teacher for the duration of five years.

That was the last time Margarete Behrens saw her husband. More than 20 years later, still appalled by Oswald Behrens’ condition at the time, she described this sight in the following words: "His full black hair had turned white, his eyes completely rigid, his speech faltering. It crossed my mind: ‘Just how must he have been treated to look like that!’ Accordingly, it seems likely that they beat him up – like a dog.” He was imprisoned in the Fuhlsbüttel police prison until 23 June 1939, when he was transferred to the Bremen-Oslebshausen penitentiary. He probably also composed in prison, because he asked for music paper again and again. However, all notes from this time are lost.

From the end of 1942 onward, the German prisons were to be made "Jew-free” ("judenfrei”). Oswald Behrens was transferred from Bremen-Oslebshausen to the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp on 13 Jan. 1943. Margarete Behrens later received the news that he had "died” there on 1 Feb. 1943, that is, he was murdered.

Margarete Behrens later also reported how difficult the Nazi era had been for her son Thomas. For instance, he was "terribly mistreated” several times, especially by his classmates. Only when an older boy from the neighborhood stood up for him and took him along to join the Hitler Youth, he was protected from the assaults for a while. In 1944, he had to leave the Hitler Youth again (although actually even as early as 1941, Jewish "crossbreeds of the first degree” were excluded). As a "crossbreed,” he was also only allowed to attend the eight-grade elementary school (Volksschule) and not any secondary schools. In 1944, at the age of 15, he began an apprenticeship at the Hamburg Becker, Bauer & Co drugstore company. In the same year, he was summoned to the Gestapo headquarters, the Stadthaus, on Hamburg’s Stadthausbrücke. The Gestapo wanted to take him to Neuengamme concentration camp. However, in the Stadthaus, he later told his daughter Beatrice once, someone said to him, "Boy, go home, this will soon be over anyway,” and sent him away again. It saved his life.

At the beginning of the 1950s, Oswald Behrens’ conviction was largely overturned. The marriage to Margarete was recognized as legally binding and the date of remarriage set as of 31 Jan. 1943. Margarete and Thomas Behrens received restitution as Oswald’s heirs for the harm he suffered to his body and health.

Thecla, Lily, and Helen Behrens lived in great poverty after their escape to Britain. Thecla Behrens was already too old to find a regular job. She tried to earn some money by giving private language lessons and doing small paintings. The daughters initially worked as maids. Lily found a job in a medical library in late 1943, Helen in a print shop. Both supported their mother. Thecla Behrens died on 20 Feb. 1956, Lily Behrens on 15 Nov. 1977, and Helen Behrens on 2 July 1993, all three having lived in London until their deaths.

In honor of the composer and teacher Oswald Behrens, several commemorative events took place in Germany and Britain in 1958. The "Sonata for two pianos” was performed on the radio by the North German Broadcasting Corporation (Norddeutscher Rundfunk – NDR) and a concert took place in the small hall of the Musikhalle Hamburg, in which two of Behrens’ former pupils, the alto Käthe Geyer and the pianist Gerda Berthold, among others, took part.

Translator: Erwin Fink
Kindly supported by the Hermann Reemtsma Stiftung, Hamburg.

Stand: December 2019
© Tobias Knickmann, Frauke Steinhäuser

Quellen: StaH 242-1 II Gefängnisverwaltung II Amtsgericht Hamburg 10940; StaH 332-5 Standesämter 6640 u. 666/1925; StaH 351-11 Amt für Wiedergutmachung 1488; StaH 351-11 Amt für Wiedergutmachung 19213; StaH 351-11 Amt für Wiedergutmachung 23610; StaH 351-11 Amt für Wiedergutmachung 25202; StaH 351-11 Amt für Wiedergutmachung 25267; StaH 351-11 Amt für Wiedergutmachung 27271; StaH 361-2 II Oberschulbehörde II 18 Höheres Schulwesen, Brahmskonservatorium; StaH 363-2 Senatskommission für Kunstpflege Eb 27; Diercks, Dokumentation Stadthaus, S. 26; o. A., Oswald Behrens zum Gedenken in: Hamburger Abendblatt v. 15.2.1958 (StaH 731-8 Zeitungsausschnittssammlung A 752 Oswald Behrens); E-Mail-Wechsel mit Frau Beatrice Behrens, März–Juli 2015; Tobias Knickmann, Oswald Behrens, in: Claudia Maurer Zenck u.a. (Hrsg.), Lexikon verfolgter Musiker und Musikerinnen der NS-Zeit, online unter: (letzter Zugriff 20.8.2015); Hamburger Adressbücher; Barbara Müller-Wesemann, Theater als geistiger Widerstand. Der Jüdische Kulturbund in Hamburg 1934–1941, Stuttgart, 1996, zugl. Diss., Hamburg, 1995; dies., Jüdischer Kulturbund Hamburg, in: Institut für die Geschichte der deutschen Juden (Hrsg.), Das Jüdische Hamburg. Ein historisches Nachschlagewerk, online unter: (letzter Zugriff 12.1.2015).

print preview  / top of page