The Day the Music Stopped

On a warm summer day last year, Marc Alexander stood before a plaque on the old apartment building at 49 Smoke Street in Berlin, thinking of his grandfather.

The plaque announced that here, in a garret flat in 1927, a drama student conducted auditions for what would become the sassy and wildly popular German a capella ensemble, The Comedian Harmonists. Alexander’s Jewish grandfather, Erich Abraham Collin, became the second tenor of the group, which enjoyed enormous success in the 1930s but was forced to dissolve under Hitler because three of the six members were Jewish.

Alexander, now 47, spent five years growing up in his grandfather’s spare apartment in Los Angeles, but he learned little of Collin’s history until long after his death in 1961. He knew only that his affable grandfather was a machinist; and that he was reluctant to speak of his painful past. “Don’t feel sad for me,” Collin sometimes said. “I lived a lifetime in seven years.”

The seven years Collin was referring to were his years in the Harmonists, which was based on the American group The Revellers and played to cheering, sold-out crowds all over Germany.

But Alexander never even heard one of the Harmonist’s albums in his grandfather’s home. While other Jews learned about their forebears from relatives, Alexander learned about his grandfather from filmmakers and playwrights who came to L.A. to interview his family about the Harmonists in the 1970s and beyond. In 1976, there was a documentary about the Harmonists, “Six Lives;” in the ’90s, Barry Manilow created a musical, “Harmony;” another musical, “Band in Berlin,” is now on Broadway; and a hit German film by Joseph Vilsmaier, “The Harmonists,” is opening today in L.A.