NEW YORK -- If rescuers hurry they may be able to save a Holocaust victim: the music of Germanic Jewry that was nearly obliterated by the Nazis.

Synagogue music had drawn Jewish and many non-Jewish listeners to temples in Berlin and Vienna, but it barely survived the Nazi storm troopers who destroyed recordings and scores, composers and cantors with equal abandon.

"A whole culture of music came to a sudden crashing fall," said Neil Levin, professor of music at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, who is trying to piece together lost sacred and secular sounds.

Only a few Germanic choirmasters and cantors -- who sing the musical portion of the liturgy during synagogue services -- survived the Nazi concentration camps.

Working from their recollections, a few extant concert programs and other remaining documentation, Levin and other scholars are scurrying to reconstruct and preserve the legacy.

Levin figures he has a few more years, at most, before those with firsthand knowledge of the music die of old age.

All known surviving cantors and choirmasters in the United States met for the first time this month to share what they remember of the music they performed in pre-Nazi Germany and Austria.

These were the men who were revered as guardians of Jewish culture in the 1930s, and before, when synagogues had a role in society much like concert halls have today.

The conference participants brought with them memorabilia they had stashed away in boxes many years ago -- yellowed prewar concert programs, loose pages of musical notes, photographs of temples before they were gutted, of choir boys who died in gas chambers.

The meeting, which Levin said was the first of its kind held in the United States and the first outside Israel since a 1958 Paris conference, was only a start toward the music's reconstruction.

Guests included the last choirmaster of the famed Viennese Seitenstettengasse Temple, who performed synagogue music for the first time since the war.

Wishing to forget pain he associated with his Germanic roots, Kurt Frederick changed his name from Fuchsgelb and turned his back on synagogue music. He took up conducting opera and the symphony in Albuquerque.

Topics at the meeting, "Varied Voices: A Conference on Jewish Musical Traditions," ranged from scholarly assessments of differences between Western and Eastern European music to emotional reminiscences of Germany before the extermination of 6 million Jews.

Rabbi Gunter Hirschberg, formerly a German choir singer, told how a Christian organist had saved the music of one of Berlin's main temples shortly after "Kristalnacht," the pogrom 49 years ago when Nazi Brown Shirts smashed synagogues and Jewish shops all over Germany, foreshadowing the full-scale Holocaust of World War II.

He remembered his surprise at the outbreak of overt anti-Semitism when suddenly, almost overnight, "It became very important to me to sing louder than the Nazis outside."

"There was a strong German tradition of anti-Semitism -- as in other places -- but not on the level that kept Jews down. That's why the Holocaust was so shocking," said Baruch Levine, professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University.

Though Jews never accounted for more than 1 percent of the German population, Levin said every big city had at least one major "choral synagogue" and most had several such temples with rich musical performances.

"So great was the Jewish culture that government dignitaries came to hear the music. Even {Hungarian composer and pianist} Franz Liszt came to the synagogue in Vienna and wrote about it," Levin said.

The government even granted Jewish composer Louis Lewandowski the official title of royal music director.

Jewish participation in general German culture meant Jews were exposed to and influenced by such composers as Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann, said Philip Moddel, formerly a cantor in Frankfurt and choirmaster in Cologne.

This influence meant that German Jewish music tended to be more disciplined and less emotional than Jewish music in Eastern Europe, Moddel said. "The essence is that Eastern European music is freer in its style, leaving more room for improvisation."

Only a small portion of the music of Lewandowski and another renowned German-speaking Jewish composer, Salomon Sulzer, survived the Holocaust.

Nonetheless, Levin said that at its prewar zenith, "the German synagogue music composite included dozens of other once-prominent composers and musical traditions that are now virtually forgotten after the total destruction of the thriving German Jewish culture."

In addition to physical destruction, some Germanic music died out in the United States, now home to about 6 million Jews, where the German traditions were overwhelmed by those of the Polish and Russian Jewish immigrants, with their Eastern European customs and rituals.

Levin said the only way to salvage the traditional melodies, which can be traced to the Rhineland in the Middle Ages, was to interview survivors at length, to record any tune they remembered and to search worldwide for whatever was written.