Charlotte Selver
Charlotte Selver

You can open up again

Johanna Kulbach (January 1, 1912 – July 21, 2010)

This interview with the late Johanna Kulbach from June 12, 2008, was held at her home on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. Spending time with her was very inspiring in many ways. Having recently lost both legs due to arterial sclerosis, Johanna was full of life, happy to live and simply a joy to be with. Johanna died earlier this year and I am happy to share with you what she shared with me on that hot summer day in New York City.

As always, the published interview is an "edited excerpt". For an interview to work in print it is usually necessary to shorten it considerably and I often have to rearrange the order of the questions and answers to create a better flow. Occasionally I also take the liberty of rearranging the sentence structure or replace a word because the spontaneity of the spoken work does not always translate into a complete and understandable sentence in print.

The unedited, raw interview with Johanna can be accessed by supporters of this project. This is the first time I've done it and it is a bit of an experiment. You will experience "that scattering of the conversation [which] is so typical of my mother's style", as her daughter Lisle recently wrote to me. The interview contains many more details about Johanna's life, her odyssey with Lisle from Berlin to New York, and her relationship with Charlotte Selver. I only removed some personal remarks which seemed not suitable for publication. You and access it through the Members Pages, where you will also find an an audio excerpt.

Portrait of Johanna KulbachJohanna Kulbach: I studied music in Berlin when I was very young. There was this big movement in Germany, everybody did something like dance or Gymnasik. We heard about all the people who taught, and so I heard about Elsa Gindler too, but she didn’t accept anyone at that time. But then a good friend of mine said to me: “I do something unusual.” She took classes with one of Gindler’s students. I went with her instead of first taking the beginners class, so I didn’t really understand what was going on. And then Nazi time came and she wasn’t supposed to teach Jewish people anymore. So she sent me to another Gindler student but I didn’t understand what was going on, and she got me to Gindler. I have to be very grateful that she did. Gindler took me to one of the beginner’s classes and slowly, slowly I began to understand.

Gindler was very thorough. We had to do experiments during the week and write a report on it and send it to her before the next lesson so she knew what we had understood. I hate writing, so that was a challenge for me. But eventually I got clearer by being forced to write, which was very helpful. I stayed with Gindler maybe three or four years. But then, close to the end of the war, her studio was bombed, and we were bombed, so it ended like that.

But years later I took a 3 week workshop in Hindelang. I don’t remember very much about that year and class. Everybody was still under the influence of the end of the war and where they had been, and some people from Israel came. At that time she tried very hard to get people to discover more on their own. She was eager and hopeful that people would learn how to do it, not only do what she had taught them.
I’m grateful to Charlotte Selver and to Elsa Gindler because their work was important for me, it helped me a lot.

Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt : Can you say in which way?

Johanna: I’m much healthier than most people. I react more positively I think. I can deal with things. The things which Gindler addressed in her classes. We were very afraid at that time. We had double the fear – the bombing and the Nazis. Going to the concentration camp was always on our horizon.

Stefan: Why did you not leave?

Johanna: I was married to a German. He had polio, he limped. So he couldn’t be a soldier. He worked – and I peeled potatoes for a year and a half. You don’t have to think when you peel potatoes, you just sit there. But I had a very good neighbor and we had wonderful conversations. I always told her about the classes with Gindler. I was very fortunate because she had worked with one of the Gindler people. Many people knew about Gindler. She was very, very well known. Actors went to her to learn how to fall when they had to die or faint. They learned how to fall and not to hurt themselves. Many artists knew about her.

Stefan: So you were able to go and see her during the war?

Johanna: Oh yes, it was all during the war.

Stefan: And the Nazis, they left you alone because you were married?

Johanna: Yes. They knew about it. It was really toward the end of the war that we would have been shipped to concentration camps, but the war was so advanced, the trains couldn’t take us anymore. They had to take all the people fleeing from the East. And then we experienced the Russians. That was, on top of it, a horrible experience. Nothing happened to me. I was lucky but I was also aware of the danger. When the Russians first came I saw a neighbor woman standing there outside, watching what’s going on. She was so obvious. . . .

What I learned about fear is that after the bombing is over, the bombs don’t fall anymore and you don’t have to stay in this situation of fear. You can open up again. I learned that with Gindler. Oh, that helped a lot.

My parents were in Berlin when I got Lisle after the war. They were American citizens. My father was a professor of art history. He was lecturing for one semester at the Berlin University in his language again, in German, and some old students could be with him at that moment. That’s when Lisle was born and they got for me the things I needed for the birth. Can you imagine, there was absolutely nothing in the clinic. I brought everything. No cotton, nothing, no diapers for the baby. My sister sent me a CARE parcel with all this stuff – diapers with safety pins. It was amazing that my parents were there and I could stay with them for a few days after the birth in an apartment which had heat, because we had no heat and we had electricity only in the middle of the night for two hours, from two to four.

Stefan: What happened to your husband?

Johanna: He died in an accident. We had survived the Nazis and the war. . . .

I was married for 15 years. Then I got Lisle and when she was 9 months old, he died. It was devastating. And then I had to get out of Berlin and to the United States, where part of my family was. An aunt in Munich said: “You have to go to America; you have to go to America!”

I came to the US at Christmas of 1949, and I met Charlotte very soon after I arrived because my sister had worked with Carola Speads [another student of Elsa Gindler]. When Carola gave a talk with slides my sister took me there and in the audience was somebody who looked very different from other people. I asked: “Who is this interesting woman?” My sister said: “Oh, that is Charlotte Selver. I can introduce you.” So she introduced me and I told her I had worked with Gindler, and she said, “Oh, that’s wonderful.” So we became very close friends.

Charlotte invited me to join her classes. I didn’t have to pay her because I had absolutely no money and I was also at the beginning of teaching – I taught recorder. I took Charlotte’s classes for quite some time. Charlotte also gave lectures with slides about the work. I heard that lecture over and over again, and eventually saw much more of what she saw in the slides, why somebody in this photo was so with the movement. It became so much clearer. I learned a lot from Charlotte. She was very generous. She liked to share.

Stefan: How did Gindler work compared to Charlotte? Was it different?

Johanna: Gindler was very methodical. Charlotte you wouldn’t say was methodical. She was intuitive. Gindler tried to be very methodical. She wanted to know what happened when we worked at home and thought very much about people’s experience. And later on, in Hindelang, she said: “I’m not interested to hear about when you are feeling fine; I want to know what your problem is – that you find your problem.” That was one of the striking things. Charlotte was much more intuitive.

Stefan: Can you remember a particular class – what you would have done during a class with Gindler, for example?

Johanna: In Hindelang, the first day, quite a number of people came late. So she discussed why people are late. Gindler went about that very strictly, and very clearly. “Why do you come late?” “How long does it take you to get ready?” “Did you wake up late?” She started even with lying down and going to sleep: “Do you lie down with all your stiffness and your flabbiness? Take a broom stick and lie on it before you go to bed to get yourself in better shape for sleeping.” Such daily life questions came up and they were taken very seriously. And relationships. “How do you react?” “Do you carry something for a long time, anger?”

Stefan: Tell me about how you became a recorder teacher?

Johanna: I visited someone we knew from Germany and she said, “My son has a good friend. She takes the lesson with so-and-so.” And I called so-and-so, and she said, “I don’t want to teach on Friday afternoon anymore.” She taught at the 92nd Street Y. So I gave the lesson and somebody said: “You know so much more about teaching!” You know, I had taught in Germany. I had forgotten about it. After the war, we were in Weimar for one and a half or two years. In the Russian sector, where my husband had a job again. And they desperately needed teachers, music teachers. So I taught music in a boys’ public school there – 35 boys in a class. You have to have humor and patience for that. I had both. The boys went to the train stations with their mothers in the morning at 5:00 to steal charcoal briquettes. When the railroad cars rolled by some boys jumped up on top, threw down the briquettes, and the other boys picked them up. The cars were always half empty when they got to where the soldiers were living. The population lived that way. It was brutal. It was really bad, such a cold winter. Everything was frozen. It was not good. But I don’t think about it. Now, I don’t know, war certainly doesn’t solve things. And how many wars have we had since? It’s unbelievable. People don’t learn. . . .

Stefan: How did the work with Gindler influence how you were teaching the recorder? Was there a clear connection?

Johanna: Most children liked it. I taught at Mannes College and many times children were put in my class who had been violinists and they had done very well. But the teachers were so excited about how good the children were that they overtaxed them. They lost the joy. Then they had recorder with me and so got to enjoying it again. Then they often went back to their violin.

I certainly use a lot of what I have learned with Gindler. In my trying operations and to recuperate afterwards. After the last operation, I think it was in January 2007, it took me a long time to recuperate and feel like myself again. I was worn out I guess. It was so much – they were always big [Besides open-heart surgery, Johanna had both legs amputated in her old age]. It’s unbelievable what this work can help – how to help yourself.

Stefan: Did you consciously do things or was it just working in you?

Johanna: I think I reacted – I did not sit there and practice. I just reacted. And I don’t complain. I’m not in misery. I have a much more positive outlook.

Stefan: Yes, I can hear that in your voice too! That’s wonderful.


Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project
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