German Boy Choirs: Schoeneberger Saengerknaben

Figure 1.--The Schoeneberger Saengerknaben in Berlin is one of Germany's most famous choirs. They wear black short pants suits and white kneesocks. Notice the West Berlin flags they are waving. The Choir performed in Berlin through the dark days of the Cold War. The Communists derisevely called them "The Front Line City Boys Choir". The boys accepted the name as a badge of honor. The Choir in their destinctive uniform were a beacon of hope from Berlin throught the Cold war.

The Schoeneberger Saengerknaben in Berlin is one of Germany's most famous choirs. Unlike many other notable choirs, the Schoeneberger Saengerknaben has a relatively recent foundation, in fact a child of the Cld War. The choir was founded immediately after World War II. It became one of Berlin's best loved cultural symbols in the darkest days of the Cold War. Berlin was at the center of the Cold War and the bright clear voices of the Schoeneberger Saengerknaben choristers was a beakon of hope from the beleagered city. They in a small way symbolized the emergence of Berlin from the dark NAZI past to a democratic free city situated behind the Iron Curtain and evenually the Berlin Wall. Schoeneberger Saengerknaben choristers were at the Reichstag when President Kennedy gave his famous speech pledging to stand with West Berliners. The boys sang at the Wall in 1961 when it was built--a lament to separation from the choir members in east Berlin. A different generation sang at the Wall when citizens of East and West Berlin breeched the Wall.


The Schöneberg Singing Boys were founded by Gerhard Hellwig on November 12th, 1947. Gerhard Hellwig’s musical roots lie in classical music. His father was the musical director in Strasbourg at the Kaiser’s (Emperor) court. Gerhard graduated from the prestigious Weimar Music Conservatory. Gerhard Hellwig became the conductor of the choir. Hellwig was also Wieland Wagner's artistic director at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth. He had no real idea at the time how much is founding of a small choir would come to mean to Berliners and Germans in general a very difficult time in their history. The founder, Gerhard Hellwig, was not only the choir conductor, but in 1962 he became the opera director ofthe Frankfurt opera. In 1964 he became the director of the Berliner Festwochen (Festival Weeks). In 1965 he co-founded the Berliner Theater Meet. Gerhard Hellwig in 1972 he was the director/conductor of the orchestra Philharmonia Hungarica. In 1974 he became the director/conductor of the RSO (Radio Symphony Orchestra) Berlin. Lellwig married Janice Martin, an American opera singer (born in Sacramento) who now is retired (and divorced from Hellwig), living in California. Janice Martin became very well known in the Berlin and other European opera houses. She excelled in Wagner. Her son, Robert Martin, also is an opera singer (bariton). He grew up in the choir of his father. He also is a member of Freundschaft Liederkranz in San Francisco, a German choir.

Figure 2.--Berlin in 1947 was a beaten and wrecked city. Boys picked through the ruins for anything of value that could be exchanged for food. Most people had lost all hope for the future. Note the long over the knee stockings that this boy wears.


Berlin would not seem one of the most prosptious place to launch a boys' choir. It had been the capitalcity of one of the most monsterous regimes in history. And the city itself was virtually obliterated by the Allied strategic boming camopaign and the acpocalyptic Red Army assault. But after the War in the rubble that surrounded them, some Berliners knew the city's soul was at stake. And the German effecient civuil defene effort kept the population safe even during the height of the Allied bombing. And what neuther the NAZIs or the War suceeded obliterating was the German musical tradition.

Battle of Berlin

The battle for Berlin fought in April 1945 was one of the most horific engagements of World War II. Stalin ordered the Red Army to take Berlin. After the Americans seized the Remagen Bridge and crossed the Rhine, Stalin ordered the time tble speeded up and at the same time lied to Eisenhowser that he was preparing to take the German capital. Losses on both the German and Russian side were enormous. Russian losses were in part due to the fact that Stalin had ordered that Berlin be seized bfore the Americans could reach it. Stalin's ordered resulted in a race to Berlin by Marshall Zukov and Koniev, both wanting the victor' laurels. It has always been wonderd why Stalin was so obsessed with Berlin and was willining to sacrifice so many Red Army soldiers to get to Berlin before the Americans. It has always been felt that it was primarily for the political value, to demonstrate the role of the Red Army in defeating the NAZIs. A British histoian argues that there was another important reason. Beria had learned of the American Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb. Stalin as a rsult ordered a top secret Soviet atomic bomb project--Project Boradino. Located at Berlin was the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, the center of the German atomic project. While the Germans were fa behind the Americans, the Russins obrained agreat deal of valuable information an 3 tons of uranium oxide. [Beevor] The Soviet conquest of Berlin proved to be a nightmare for the surviving women, almost all of whom were raped. It is estimated that 2 million German women were raped by Russians at the end of the War. Perhaps 0.2 million of those rapes took place in Berlin. The rapes included children, nuns, old ladies, and even Russian women brought to Germany to work as slave laborers. The Soviets denied the German civilian reports, but Soviet archieves leave no doubt as to what occurred.

Berlin after World War II

Berlin was in ruins at the end of World War II as a result of the Allied bombing campaign and the Russian conquest of the city. Berlin was a major target of Allied bombing and by late 1944 the Allies German air defense could no longer effectively protect German cities. Berlin was further devestated by cataclismic Soviet conquest of Berlin in April 1945. The Western Allies had released most prisoners of war (POWs) by 1947, but a lot of boys' fathers were either dead, or still POW’s in Russia and Siberia. (Only a small number of the POWs taken by Soviets survived and managed to return to Germany. Only a small portion of the Soviet prisonors survived the German camps.) Living conditions were very difficult in Berlin and the rest of Germany after the War. Food was rationed to 1,500 calories per day. Bread cost 80 Marks (about $50) and butter cost 600 Marks (about $360).

New Image for Berlin

Hellwig in the early years literally picked out boys from the streets. Some thought there were more important matters to attend to. Others knew that Germany's soul was at stake. The beautiful, clear voices of Berlin boys were to play an important role in forging a new image of Berlin around the world. At the time, the image of German childrn held by many was that of uniformed Hitler Youth boys and girls.

Figure 3.--The boys were selected and began singing. Note the long pants the boys wore during the winter.

Early Years

The name

One of the first orders of business was to name the new choir. Hellwig, instead of naming his choir the Berlin Singing Boys, he instead named them after his home district of Berlin Schöneberg" which he remembered with such affection from his boyhood.

Training begins

The boys that could sing, became the first Schöneberger Saengerknaben (Singing Boys). Boys from both East and west Germany participated. The Choir was given a rehearsal space in the Schöneberg City Hall (West Berlin’s City Hall until 1990), by the first post war mayor. Their first informal performances were in hospitals. Gerhard Hellwig saw the importance of boosting moral of citizens of a city which had lost all moral. The word soon spread throughout the city of the brilliant new choir.

Figure 4.--The first group of boys began sining in 1947. Finances did not yet permit the purchase of a choir uniform for the boys. The clear, hopeful voices of the boys were a rare hopeful beacon as Berlin emerging from the War.

Berlin Air Lift

Berlin was at the center if the Cold War. Many believe that the Cold War began and ended in Berlin. The beginning would be the Soviet efforts to push the Western Allies out of Berlin. The end was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Berlin was conquered by the Red Army in savage fighting during the end of April 1945. Stalin was intent on the Red Army taking the prizeThe year after the choir was founded the decission of the Allies in 1948 to supply Berlin despite a Soviet blockade through Berlin Air Lift raised the hopes of Berliners. The Soviet blockade and the Allied resonse was in retrospect the formal beginning of the Cold War. And ironically it was in Berlin a little more than 50 years later that the Cold War would end with the fall of the Wall. For Berliners it was a defining moment. Not only did it become clear that the Western Allies would stand by them, but the supply of food and consumer goods actually increased. Food was actually more plentiful in West Berlin than east Berlin, despite the Soviet blockade. West Berliners began to hope for a better future with increasing confidence.


The Schoeneberger Saengerknaben made its first formal appearace with their debut in 1949 at the newly rebuilt Deutsche Oper Berlin (German Opera at Berlin), the old building had been reduced to rumble by the bombing. The first work was Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser. This marked the beginning of an engagement that continues today. Whether the Deutsche Oper Berlin performs Carmen, La Boheme, Hänsel & Gretel etc..., the Schöneberg Singing Boys are always involved.

Figure 5.--The Choir is a frequent fixture on German television. They are pictured here in 1959.


The Schöneberg Singing Boys in 1954 were engaged to perform in the Bayreuther Wagner Festspiele, founded by Richard Wagner himself in the last century. Gerhard Hellwig later on became Wieland Wagner’s (Richard Wagner’s grandson) artistic director.


Hellwig because was also an expert in opera. He was, for exmple, Wieland Wagner's artistic director at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth. The Schöneberger Sängerknaben normally performed in the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Some of the choristers, especially Hllwig's son Robert who joined the choir at age 7 were also active in opera. Eobert as a boy appeared in operas such as Carmen, La Boheme, Hänsel & Gretel, Rheingold, Tosca, Falstaff, Rosenkavalier, Cavalleria Rusticana, Damnation of Faust and many others at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. They have participated in 3100 opera performances in German, Italian, French and Russian: Carmen. La Boheme. Tosca. Der Rosenkavalier. Boris Godunov, Tannhaeuser, Cartmina Burana, etc.

Figure 6.--The Choir sang at the Berlin Wall as the Communists began building it. The East Germans drisvely called them the "Front Line City Boys Choir". The boys took this as a badge of honor.

Divided City

The Soviets and Communists around the World assumed that the superority of Socialist economics would overwealm the Capitalist West. To their surprise, from a very erarly point, Communism proved to be a very inefficent economic system. This was especially embarassing in places where observers could make easy comparisons. And the most obvious was Berlin. As free West Berlin prospered as part of the German Economic Miracle and East Berlin languished under a chillingly efficient police state and Socialist economy, the East German pleaded with the Soviets for action. The Soviets were unwilling to take military action. So their only option was to close East Berlin off from West Berlin to make the comparisond less embarassing. The result was the Berlin Wall and a divided city. Berlin itself was to do no more than resist Communist aggression. But that in itself was a major act, located as the city was deep in Soviet-occupied East Germany. And part of that resistance was the beautiful, clear voices of the Schoeneberger Saengerknaben. And the boys were there when the Wall went up and again when the Wall came down.

Berlin Wall

The Soviets and East Germand built the Berlin Wall in 1961. The most visible aspect of the Cold War was the Berlin Wall - the Wall the Communists built between East and West Germany. Until 1961, East Berliners and other East Germans could take a subway car to flee to West Berlin and on to West Germany. The number of East Germans fleeing to the West was an embarrassment to the Communists who after all claimed to be creating workers' paradises. The glaring differences between the vibrant economic life of Berlin and the gray, drudgery of a Communist People's Republic was particularly apparent. The number of trained professionals in particular threatened the economy of East Germany. The Wall changed this. It did stop the flow of people West, although heart rending sights of small numbers of people braving the increasingly lethal dangers of the Wall moved West Germans. The Wall effectively separated Germans for nearly 30 years. Once completed only small numbers succeeded in crossing it. Many died in the process.

Impact on the choir

The Schoeneberger Saengerknaben by the time the Wall was built was an established Berlin institution. The Wall was a disaster for many choristers. For the Choir this meant, that half of the choristers, the boys from East Berlin, could no longer participate. The Wall had permanently separated the East German boys. For the Schoeneberger Saengerknaben, the Cold War was a very personal experience for the choristers as it was for all Berliners, separating friends and neighbors. To protest and to say goodbye to friends, the choir sang at the wall the day it was built. The leaders of the East German communist regime called the choir "The Front Line City Boys Choir". This title, meant as an offense, was taken as a compliment by Gerhard Hellwig and only strengthened his will (and the will of all West Germans) for reunification.

Figure 7.--The Schöneberg Sangerknaben sang at the Reichstag near the Wall in 1963 when President Kennedy gave his stiring "Ich bin ein Berleiner" speech.

President Kennedy

Around the time that John F. Kennedy visited Berlin, the mayor of Berlin Willy Brandt (later West German Chancellor) gave a grand speech in front of the Reichstag in Berlin "Berlin belongs to the free world". President Kennedy visited Berlin in 1962 to demonstrate American resolve in this vulnerable outpost of freedom. He told Berliners. "There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass' sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin. Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us." The speech was delivered at a time when most viewed Berlin as the most likely flash point for war between East and West. Berlin was surounded by Russian troops and only the American presence prevented its seizure. The President's word carried over the Wall and could be heard over in the East, because the wall was directly behind the Reichstag. The Schöneberg Singing Boys performed directly under the sign "Berlin belongs to the free world". No other European choir played such a key symbolic role in te Cold War and thus eventual German unificatiion.

German Liberty Bell / Freiheitsglocke

Americans after the Berlin Airlift presente s a Liberty Bell /Freiheitsglocke ) to the people of Berlin (1950). It was a poignant symbol of the fight for freedom against communism being waged in Europe. The epiccenter of that fight was of course Berlin. The Bell was of course inspired by the American Liberty Bell in Philidelphia, butit was not a replica of the American bell. The bell was installed at the Rathaus Schöneberg, the former city hall. The idea for the symbolic gift was a project sponsored by the Crusade for Freedom and its sponsor, the National Committee for a Free Europe which also operated Radio Free Europe. World War II hero, General Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the campaign to give a bell to Berlin (Labor Day, 1950). At his side was General Lucius D. Clay who master-minded the Berlin airlift. The stated purpose was to give every American an opportunity to play a personal part in the "free world's determination to resist Communist aggression." The Governing Mayor of West Berlin, Ernst Reuter (SPD), spoke at the presentation creemonies and pledged that Germany "will never rest or relax until freedom will shine over the countries of Eastern Europe that are at present forced to live in slavery". Unlike the American original, the Germans ring their bell is daily at noon, and at midnight on Christmas Eve and on New Year's Eve. We note the Schoeneberger Saengerknaben appearing with the Bell. A recording of the ringing was broadcast by the American radio in West Berlin (RIAS) every Sunday just before noon. These broadcasts have been continued by Deutschlandradio Kultur. In the radio broadcasts, the ringing of the bell is followed by an excerpt from the text of the "Declaration of Freedom" in German, read by important dramatic actors. The Germans rung their bill on several important occasions: 1) East Berlin workers uprising (June 17, 1953), 2) the Hungarian Uprising (1956), 3) the construction of the Berlin Wall (1961) and 4) the reunification of Germany (1990). Most recently the bell was rung when Islamic terrorists attacked America (September 11, 2001 ). Thousands of Berlin citizens assembled to pay their respect at John-F.-Kennedy-Platz in front of the former city hall where the Bell is housed.

Figure 8.--The Choir for formal appearances always appears in their black shortpants suit and white kneesocks. Here they march in the New York Steuben Day parade in 1997.

Performances and Trips

Like the Vienna Boys Choir, the Schoeneberger Saengerknaben has performed all over the world. The Schoeneberger Saengerknaben have been singing in the following cities: Amsterdam, Bern, Brussels, Copenhagen, Montreal, Philadelphia, New York, Paris, Stockholm, Turin, and Washington. The Schöneberg Singing Boys in 1967 took their first trip to North America. The performed at the World Fair in Montreal and in front of the Capitol in Washington DC. The Choir in 1978 they presented President Jimmy Carter with musical greetings from Berlin. Gerhard Hellwig received the Bundes Verdienst Kreuz (equivalent to the US Congressional Medal of Honor) in 1982 for his life time achievement. The year 1987 marked the 750th anniversary of Berlin and the 40th anniversary of the Schöneberg Singing Boys. That year, he became the artistic director of the Sternstunden (Hour of the Stars). A summer long Gala concert series including "A Mid Summer Nights Dream".

Figure 9.--The Choir often appears on German television. Here they appear with President Lubek.

German Unification

Everything changed in 1989, one of the most fareful years in German history. In the summer, Hungary opened it’s borders to the West. Tens of thousand’s of Germans fled East Germany through Hungary. This sparked the peaceful revolution in East Germany leading up to ultimate unification. On November 9th 1989 the Berlin wall was opened. New Years Eve 1989-1990 marked the biggest new years celebration Berlin had ever seen. About 1.5 million people gathered near the Brandenburg gate. Many of the people danced on the wall itself. The Schöneberg Singing Boys sang right in front of the Wall. Theu had sang at the Wall when it first went up. They now sang at the Wall as it came down meaning the birth of the new reunited Germany.

Figure 10.--The Choir issued this CD on the occasion of their 50th anniversary. Notice the one younger boy wearing the new style of longer short pants


Gerhard Hellwig in 1993 received the Bismarck Medal, another high German honor. In 1995 he received the Golden Glover Award. An award given to artist by other artists.

The 50th anniversary

The 50th anniversary of the Schöneberg Singing Boys was celebrated in 1997. In honor of his fathers life’s work and their 50th anniversary, Rob Tamino composed the anniversary theme song for them called "Ja, wir sind jetzt 50 Jahre alt" (Engl.: Yes, we are now 50 years old). The song was recorded in April. The recording includes some 120 musicians : 35 singing boys, 63 "old singing boys" including some of the founding members, as well as musicians from a well known Berlin Big Band. The song got it’s first radio air-play on May 12th and was featured on Europe wide TV on May 18th during their prime time 50th anniversary documentary. The choir will be performing the song at all of their performances throughout 1997, including at New York’s Steuben Parade in September. The song is also featured as the first song on their new greatest hits CD.

Choir Members

The Schoeneberger Saengerknaben is usually composed of about 30 boys. They vary in age from about 8-13 years of age. By 13 years of course their voices begin to change, at which time they leave. Being feel connected with the Choir for the rest of their lives. The first group was all from Berlin. During the 2000s the choir not only included Berlin boys. There were also boys (or their parents) who were from the following countries: Poland, Czech Republic, Croatia, Turkey, Thailand, South Korea, Romania, India, Egypt, Italy and the United States.

Figure 11.--The Choir for formal appearances always appears in their black shortpants suit and white kneesocks. Here they march in the New York Steuben Day parade in 1997.

German Boys' Clothes

German boys like other European boys commonly wore short pants in the 1940s when the Schoeneberger Saengerknaben were founded. German boys, more than boys in other neighboring countries, might wear long pants during the cold winter months. The black pants chosen for the choir was porobably a practical choice. Almost all German boys because of the Hitler Youth had black shorts. Thus in the difficult conditions following the War, this masde uniforming a simple matter. The brown shirts were unacceotable because of obvious associatiion with the NAZIs. The black shorts, howevert, f\did not have the same stigma. Most of the year, however, short pants were very common, often with knee socks or long over the knee stockings for younger boys in the cooler weather. White knee socks were sometimes worn by some boys as part of dressy outfits.

The Choir Uniform

The choir from its foundation has sought to identify itself with a distinctive uniform. In the early years, money did not exist to purchase smart suits for the boys, but they wore their trademark black short pants and white kneesocks (Kniestrümpfe). from the very beginning. Soon black short pants suits were purchased and worn with white knee socks. The boys always wear their jackets with open collars rather than with ties. The black jackets have a crest of the rampant bear, symbol of the city of Berlin. This is the same symbol appearing on the Berlin flag. The choir includes boys of up to about 14 years of age. Unlike many German choirs which have sought to update their uniform with what they seen as modern clothing trends, the Schoeneberger Saengerknaben has sought to maintain the same uniform they adopted in the early days of the choir. When traveling to the United States they appear to wear long pants. Presumably the boys felt more comfortable in long pants as they were sightseeing and traveling about America because American boys did not commonly wear short pants suits. The boys for formal occasions, however, such as marching in the New York City Steuben Day Parade, wear their trade mark black shortpants and white kneesocks.

Figure 12.--The Choir is pictured here in 1997 on the occasion of its 50th anniversary in their trademark black shortpants suit and white kneesocks.

News Year Celebration

The Schoeneberger Saengerknaben has performed at many New Year celebrations. They always wear their trademark uniform of white shirt, black sweater with choir badge, black shorts, white knee socks and black shoes. The boys appeared for New Years 2000 continuing to wear their destintive uniform for the new melinnium. We have no details on their performance.

Choir Movies

Several European choirs have been used in movies. The Vienna Choir Boys have been most frequently fearured in films. Several other choirs, gowever, have also been featured. Although there are quite a number of American choirs, they have not been used in films to our knowledge. The The Schoeneberger Saengerknaben has been featured in at least one film. It was a German film, although we do not yet know the title. We have little information about the film. The film does not appear to be about the choir itself, the choir only appeared in the film. There may have been only one scene and we do not know the context in which they were introduced in the film. We do not know if the The Schoeneberger Saengerknaben made any other films.

American Connection

The son of the founder and conductor of the Schoeneberger Saengerknaben, Robert Martin, is a member of the Freundschaft Liederkranz Chorus in San Francisco. As a boy he used to sing in the choir of his father, Gerhard Hellwig. His mother, Janice Martin, is a famous opera singer (Berlin, Vienna). She now also lives in California.


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Created: November 2, 1998
Last updated: 6:27 PM 1/18/2011