Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

The von Trapp Family Singers, undisputedly one of the most iconic families in cinematic history, was a group formed from the family of former Austrian naval commander Georg von Trapp (1880-1947), who was among the most decorated Austrian naval officers during World War I and who, as a submarine commander, sank eleven Allied merchant ships and two Allied warships. The family’s biography served as the basis for a memoir by the family matriarch, Maria von Trapp, and for the celebrated Broadway musical and film, The Sound of Music (1965).



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During his time as a navy cadet, Georg visited Eretz Yisrael and toured all the biblical sites he had learned about in his childhood. Among other things, he purchased seven bottles of water from the Jordan River which were later used to baptize his first seven children by his first wife, Agathe Whitehead. Four years after Agatha’s death in 1922, Georg hired Maria Augusta Kutschera (1925-1987), a schoolteacher and prospective nun at the Benedictine Nonnberg Abbey in Salzburg, to serve as the governess for the seven children. Maria sang songs to the children to help them adjust to the loss of their mother and, as depicted in the film, she was the inspiration behind their performing together as a musical family. On November 26, 1927 – and not after the Nazis came to power in 1938, as erroneously presented in The Sound of Music – the 47-year-old captain married the 22-year-old Maria, who bore him three additional children. As she wrote in her autobiography, she wanted to be a nun, was not then in love with her husband, and married him only because of her deep love for his children. (The number, names, and genders of the children were changed in the film.)

As part of their required education, all German naval cadets were taught to play a musical instrument, and Georg became a violinist. Unlike the rendering in the first half of The Sound of Music, the family was musically oriented well before Maria’s arrival and Georg was in fact a tender and affectionate father who enjoyed musical activities with his family. The film’s depiction of him as a detached and cold-blooded patriarch who disapproved of music was a source of great distress to the family; Maria had sold her book’s film rights to a West German film company for a song (if you’ll pardon the pun) and, as a result, the von Trapps made little profit from the success of The Sound of Music and had virtually no input into the film’s narrative. The German company released a musical comedy-drama, Die Trapp Familie, in 1956, and a sequel, The Trapp Family in America in 1958 before Rogers and Hammerstein turned it into a Broadway musical in 1959, running for 1,443 performances. The film, which won several awards, including the Academy Award for Best Picture (1966), was released in 1965.

The von Trapps began publicly performing in 1935, and the family attained international recognition after winning first prize in the prestigious 1936 Salzburg song competition. They went on tour through Europe to great acclaim, but after the 1938 Anschluss, several factors led to the family’s decision to flee Austria, including, according to some critics, the hostility toward Jewish children by the children’s classmates in school. However, the deciding factor was unquestionably his declining Hitler’s offer of a commission in the German navy after the Anschluss; as one of Austria’s great patriots, the Nazis viewed his service in their navy as a huge propaganda coup, and one did not decline such an important honor from the Fuhrer. In addition, he refused to fly the Nazi flag on the family home and declined an offer to perform at an event in honor of Hitler’s birthday; the handwriting regarding the fate of the family under Nazi rule was very much on the wall.

The family did not leave by crossing the Austrian Alps to Switzerland on foot – a geographically impossible maneuver – as dramatically presented at the end of the film, but via a train ride to Italy, where Georg was a citizen. From Italy, the financially strapped family (they had lost their fortune during the 1935 Austrian bank collapse) went on to the United States, where they applied for immigration status on September 7, 1939, and settled in New York City. Ironically, the abandoned von Trapp home became Heinrich Himmler’s headquarters.

Maria wrote The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, an account of the singing family published in 1949 and which inspired the 1956 West German film, The Trapp Family, which in turn inspired Rodgers and Hammerstein’s hit 1959 Broadway musical, The Sound of Music, and then its 1965 film adaptation starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, which was then the highest-grossing film of all time. Although the story is a dramatic tale of human suffering and the remarkable life of a family during a time of intense political challenge and change, the Sound of Music, a great international success, was considered a frivolous and cartoonish offense to national pride in Austria and the film never had a theatrical release there. Unsurprisingly, the film was not well-received in Germany either. Moreover, the Munich branch manager for 20th Century Fox approved (without authorization) an alternative version of the third act of the film in which most of the story after Maria’s wedding was cut; this version, which was shown in German theaters upon the film’s release, was ultimately replaced with the original edit when (Jewish) director Robert Wise discovered the switch.


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The Sound of Music is largely the work of Jews, including composer Richard Rogers, lyricist/librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, screenplay author Ernest Lehman, and director Robert Wise, who won an Academy Award for Best Director (and Theodor Bikel was the first Captain von Trapp on Broadway). However, many commentators note the seeming incongruity of a biography and motion picture that is essentially an anti-Nazi narrative set in Austria during the onset of the Holocaust that essentially waters down the Nazi threat; makes no mention of the Jews; does not portray Nazis as antisemites; and fails to feature any Jewish characters.

Hebrew handbill for showing of The Sound of Music in Israel.

Some suggest that “Uncle Max” (an entirely fictional character, an impresario who does not appear in Maria’s biography) is meant to be Jewish, but there is nothing to support this theory, particularly given his easy friendship with the Nazis; in any event, if Max Detweiler is Jewish, he would be little more than an antisemitic stereotype of the opportunist, grasping, money-grubbing Jew. There is also some suggestion that “Professor Kohner” – the off-camera toyshop owner who, at Max’s request, sells his puppet theatre to the von Tropp family that they use for the famous Lonely Goatherd number – is Jewish but, again, there is simply nothing to support this proposition.

Moreover, while Georg’s categorical opposition to Nazism is a major theme in the film, nowhere do we see him objecting to antisemitism, militarism or authoritarianism; rather, his opposition to the Nazis is grounded in his distress regarding the threat that Nazi Germany poses to Austrian autonomy. As one reviewer cogently noted, “No one is asking for the Shoah with music, of course, but the film runs so far in the other direction that the most real danger of the Nazis seems to be in making the Austrian von Trapp children sing the worst musical arrangement in the film.” Perhaps all this is the basis for desperate and frenzied attempts by some commentators to find Jewish characters and narratives where there are none.

The religion of the von Trapp family is the subject of some discussion among critics, with some claiming that they were Jewish. For example, according to the February 27, 2014, Lawndale News in Chicago, “When Germany invaded and occupied Austria in 1938, the Nazis started the persecution of all Austrian Jews. The von Trapps, being Jewish, fled Austria for Italy before the Nazis could have either interned them in a concentration camp or had them killed.”

There are several arguments supporting the theory that the family may have been Jewish, none of which hold water, even in the aggregate: The family was wealthy and owned a successful business “von Tropp” was a common Jewish surname, and they fled the Nazis. “Maria” was actually “Miriam,” whose parents – who are never even referred to, let alone identified (they may have already been taken away by the Nazis) – saved their Jewish child from the Nazis by sending her to a nunnery in the neighborhood of the local shtetl in the same manner as many other desperate Jewish parents at the time. As columnist Danny Miller argues, presumably very much tongue-in-cheek, when the nuns sing “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” they are evoking the “Jewish problem” of Nazi rhetoric; in fact, the opening theme of the musical and film is that she had no proper place with the solemn and sober nuns, as she breaks all of the convent’s rules, dances and sings in the stunning Austrian mountains, and, most significantly, skips mass.

When Maria/Miriam sings to Commander von Trapp “For here you are, standing there, loving me, whether or not you should,” might she have been referring to the Nuremberg laws, pursuant to which Aryans were prohibited from marrying Jews upon pain of death? And, while some of the nuns, including particularly the Reverend Mother, were sympathetic and compassionate like many of the Righteous Gentiles who helped to hide Jews during the Holocaust, others were clearly antisemitic, including particularly Sister Berthe, who evoked images of antisemitism from the Middle Ages by calling Maria/Miriam “a demon.”

In reality, it is well-recognized that the von Trapp family were all Christians. Although Maria was raised by an atheist and socialist uncle after the death of her mother when she was two years old, her beliefs changed when she heard the preaching of a well-known Jesuit priest and sought to become a Benedictine, but after Georg married Maria, the entire family became Roman Catholic.

June 18, 1944, newspaper ad for the Trapp Family Music Camp.

Many von Trapp family members had attended and had fond memories of “Sing Weeks” in Austria, which offered music training to the general public. When the family immigrated to the United States, they brought this experience with them and, after the family settled in Stowe, Vermont, they decided to run their own annual summer Sing Weeks as a summer camp. During the 1943 Christmas holidays, they found an old abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps camp near the family’s farm, which they determined would be a suitable place to run the Sing Weeks. After securing a ten-year lease for the camp from the State of Vermont in May 1944, the family renovated the camp’s old barracks, renamed them after famous composers (Schubert Hall, Haydn Hall, Beethoven Hall, Mozart Hall, Bach Hall and Stephen Foster Hall), and went on to hold four 10-day Sing Week sessions from 1944 to 1956.

Photo taken at the Trapp Family Music Camp.

To publicize the inaugural session of the Trapp Family Music Camp, nicknamed “Little Austria,” the group produced brochures, ran newspaper ads, and made announcements at the end of every performance while on tour. The first Trapp Family Music Camp opened on July 10, 1944, with Vermont Governor William Henry Wills presiding over the ceremony; there were about 400 attendees at the camp that first summer and, within just one year, the camp had become nationally renowned as a center for summer music education.

Each family member performed multiple music roles that contributed to the camp’s success, including teaching singing, folk dancing, and how to play the recorder, and all aspects of running a camp, including preparing meals, washing dishes, making beds, and laundering linens. The ambitious daily itinerary began with morning chapel and included breakfast, choral singing lessons, lunch, free time for hiking, swimming and berry picking, followed by recorder lessons, singing, folk dancing, dinner, storytelling, handicrafts, then lights out at 10 p.m. Over the eleven years that the family ran the camp, thousands of people participated, including young and old from diverse backgrounds – including Jewish children, as we shall see.

The camp was discontinued after the 1956 summer season when the family began to develop new avenues for their creativity, religious activities, and hospitality. The Trapp Family Singers disbanded in 1957 and the family eventually built a lodge and ski center in Stowe, which has become a popular tourist attraction. Von Trapp Family Lodge, which is on 2,500 acres, offers 96 rooms and is an excellent Alpine lodge with excellent indoor and outdoor resort amenities.

On August 15, 1944, during the camp’s inaugural season, Josephine Cohen, the sister of camper Lucille Cohen, sent a letter complaining about the camp to Town Hall’s concert director, Kenneth Klein, with a carbon copy sent to Maria. In the August 21, 1944, correspondence exhibited here written on Trapp Family Music Camp stationery, Maria writes to Alix Williamson, the Trapp Family Singers’ publicist:

Maria von Trapp’s August 21, 1944 letter about a misbehaving Jewish girl at the Trapp Family Music Camp.

The only person I had trouble with, I am sorry to say, was a Jewish girl named Lucille Cohen. She strictly refused to wear skirts. She was besides very conspicuous and vulgar and used a terrible language. I finally asked her to better leave the Camp, as this was not a summer resort anyway, for which she was looking. Now her sister, Josephine Cohen, is spitting poison about it. I enclose a copy of a letter of hers and leave it up to you as to what you think necessary to do about it. I tried to explain to Lucille and begged her to comply with the rules as I knew everybody would say, ‘Of course, the Jews,’ and I opened my place to them against all the warnings of our neighborhood. But I think she was not intelligent enough to understand what I meant.

I am happy to tell you, however, that in every course we have between ten and fifteen Jewish people and everything was always in full harmony.

In his response to “Baroness Georg von Trapp,” Williamson advises Maria to ignore the issue, but then added:

Alix Williamson’s August 23, 1944, response to Maria’s letter regarding Lucille Cohen.

I am sorry that you had the trouble with Lucille Cohen, but I do think it unfortunate that the question of her religious denomination should arise in this connection. After all, she is just one person who happened to be disagreeable, and you know there are many of these belonging to every faith, so that I can hardly see why that should enter the picture. As for handling the matter, I think you would be wise to completely ignore it. Her sister is apparently a sore-head and a trouble maker by nature, and I am sure that the people whom she contacted must know this, so that she will be unable to do you any real harm. After all, you are having nearly 500 people up there, and if everyone but Lucille Cohen is satisfied, I don’t see why her particular experience should militate against the success of the camp. I would advise you to just forget about the whole incident.

Reading between the lines of Williamson’s missive, Maria’s antisemitic animus is evident, as she apparently focused on Lucille Cohen as a Jew rather than on the misbehavior of a single camp attendee. Williamson – who was Jewish – gently sets her straight about the irrelevancy of Lucille’s “religious denomination.”

Williamson (1916-2001) was an American publicist who specialized in promoting musical artists both in the United States and abroad, including the New York Philharmonic for 15 years, the Juilliard String Quartet for 23 years and the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society Center for 22 years. She was the press representative for pianist André Watts for 15 years, Richard Tucker’s press agent for 15 years, and the Trapp Family Singers’ publicist for more than two decades. It was she who urged Maria to chronicle her life’s story in a book, which became The Story of the Trapp Family Singers and inspired Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music.

In contrast, when Maria’s oldest son, Rupert Georg von Trapp, was offered a medical position in Vienna in 1938, he refused it after learning that Nazis had taken the open position away from a Jewish physician. He would later enlist with the U.S. Army and earn a Bronze Star during World War II.

Finally, one additional noteworthy and generally unknown “Jewish angle” in the story: the famous opening number in which Julie Andrews frolics amongst the hills that are “alive with the sound of music” was filmed in part from the air, and the filmmakers grew increasingly concerned when she was knocked down by the powerful helicopter gusts. The production team was stymied in their attempts to truck their equipment up the mountains until they discovered an unused road – that had been built to transport Jewish prisoners to a local concentration camp.


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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].