The Struggle to Renew an International Center of Jewish Culture and Creativity in Contemporary Vienna - A Detailed Overview
by Warren Rosenzweig, Artistic Director of the Jewish Theater of Austria www.jta.at
Artistic Director of the Jewish Theater of Austria
Jewish Theater of Austria
I. Re-establishing the Theater in the Nestroyhof
The initiative to re-establish the Jewish theater in the Nestroyhof presents a unique opportunity to restore a heritage site of major significance in a city whose contemporary greatness is largely inspired by the cultural history that the neglected landmark embodies. At least as important, the initiative suggests hope for the future of diversity and responsibility in Austria, while its success can contribute to Gentile-Jewish reconciliation.
II. Fin-de-Siècle Architect Oskar Marmorek
The Nestroyhof is a masterpiece by the most important Jewish architect of Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, Oskar Marmorek.
Born in 1863 in Galicia, Oskar Marmorek moved to Vienna with his family at age 12 and later studied architecture at the Technical University. Like his contemporary, Otto Wagner, he built some of the most beautiful Jugendstil apartment buildings in Vienna in an unmistakably distinctive and personal style. Besides the Nestroyhof, extant examples of his work include, among others, the Villa Wrchovzky in Grinzing, the apartment and business buildings at Windmühlgasse 30 and 32, Schottenfeldgasse 65, and Lerchengasse 3-5 ("Zu den drei Lerchen"), the "Rüdigerhof" at Hamburgerstrasse 20, and other buildings in Austria, Hungary, Germany, and elsewhere.
Marmorek made the acquaintance of another Viennese intellectual, Theodor Herzl, in 1895. The architect soon became one of the first members of the World Zionist Organization and was elected to its executive board. The friendship that developed between Marmorek and Herzl, together with their common Zionist goals, would forge an intimate cooperation that would last until the latter's death in 1904. In Herzl's final major testament to Zionism, his utopian novel "Altneuland" ("Old New Land"), the author modeled the character of "Steineck" - the fictional architect of the State of the Jews - on his close friend and associate, Oskar Marmorek.
Marmorek was also an active member of the Viennese Jewish community and, like Herzl, an outspoken opponent of the popular antisemitic movement that mushroomed with the rise of Karl Lueger as Mayor of Vienna in 1897 and would later culminate in the Shoah. In 1909, suffering from physical illness and depression - deeply disheartened by the rapidly rising tide of Austrian antisemitism - Marmorek took his own life at the gravesite of his father in Vienna. He was 46 years old.
III. The History of the Nestroyhof
It was the age of Arthur Schnitzler, Sigmund Freud, Martin Buber, Franz Kafka, Theodor Herzl, Gustav Mahler, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Max Reinhardt, Lise Meitner, Karl Kraus, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Viktor Adler, Arnold Schönberg, Stephan Zweig.
Formerly a center of indigenous and international Jewish culture and creativity, the theater in the Nestroyhof made a daily contribution to a flourishing intellectual, artistic, and social movement in Vienna that, by the 1930s, had included numerous theaters and independent ensembles.
Built in 1898, the Nestroyhof was the architect's first major Jugendstil venture, yet it is as quintessential of the contemporary style of the day as it is exquisite and expressive in its detail and structural design. A high example of architectural innovation, the Nestroyhof is among the first multifunctional buildings ever created. Incorporating a mid-sized theater, commercial business and office spaces, and private apartments into a single complex, the building stands at the vanguard of 20th Century urban architectural design.
Erected in the heart of the Leopoldstadt, Vienna's most densely and culturally active Jewish quarter, at the center of its thriving cultural scene in the Praterstrasse, the Nestroyhof was financed, owned, and occupied by Austrian Jews and was renown for its role in Viennese Jewish theater until its seizure by the Nazis in 1938 and its full Aryanization by 1940.
The theater in the courtyard of this Jugendstil gem was an integral part and central feature of the design from the start. Until 1938, themes of Jewish identity, culture, and experience were often portrayed on its stage in Yiddish, German, and other languages. Known at different times under various names, including "Intimes Theater", "Klein-Kunst-Spiele" and "Theater Reklame", the theater in the Nestroyhof was respected for nearly four decades for its many resident productions, but was also the host stage for visiting performances by artists and ensembles of international renown, such as Molly Picon, Maurice Schwartz and his Jewish Art Theater, the Vilna Troupe, the Ziegler-Pastor Yiddish Theater of Bucarest, and the Habima of Tel Aviv.
The German language programming of the Intimes Theater included productions by Osip Dymov, the Student Club Theodor Herzl, and others, that focused on themes of Jewish identity. From autumn 1927 until March 1938, Theater Reklame was home to the famous Jüdische Künstlerspiele of Jakob Goldfliess, which presented a diverse program that was known not only for its artistic quality and creativity, but for the contemporary relevance of its themes. The ensemble brought people together in a daring human environment and did not shy away from the social and political challenges of the day. Not merely entertainment, but communication and even protest were courageously emphasized, as in the 1937 bi-lingual (German and Yiddish) production of Arnold Zweig's "Die Sendung Semaels," about the ritual murder accusations against Jews in late 19th Century Hungary.
The theater remained in operation until the Anschluss, when it was taken by force. Some of the best loved artists of the Jüdische Künstlerspiele, such as Laura Glucksmann, Ben Zion Sigall, and Herman Weinberg were to die at the hands of the Nazis, while others, including Artistic Director Jakob Goldfliess, resident playwrights, Abisch Meisels and Samuel Harendorf, and the actor Doli Nachbar managed to flee to London, New York, and elsewhere.
The key themes in the life, passions, fears, and achievements of Fin-de-Siècle architect, intellectual, and Zionist pioneer Oskar Marmorek all unite in this historically unique site of Viennese Jewish heritage.
IV. The Theater in the Nestroyhof Today
Unlike the other Viennese Jewish theaters, the Nestroyhof survived 20th Century destruction by a series of lucky accidents. When the auditorium was converted into a supermarket after WWII, the market owners simply built an internal shell of added walls and a low drop ceiling, effectively preserving the balcony, glass roof, and sumptuous architectural detail, while hiding it from view for decades. Even the thousands who bought their groceries there, year after year, were unaware that they were pushing their carts down the aisles and on the stage of the great old Jewish theater.
The last supermarket tenant moved out in the late 1990s and the space remained empty and sealed off from public access. It was rediscovered a few years ago when an opening in a section of the wall between the drop ceiling of the former supermarket and the original glass roof of the theater revealed, among other things, the balcony, boxes, and balustrades that run along all three sides of the auditorium. The drop ceiling of the former supermarket is now gone, revealing a spacious, elegantly designed interior with a central auditorium and balcony level large enough to seat up to 250 people. Most of the original architectural detail is still intact.
V. The Nestroyhof Initiative
The Jewish Theater of Austria has been working for years to rally public support to restore this heritage site that is of such significance for Austria and for the international community.
In late 2001, soon after learning of the hidden existence of the site, I first began to discuss the issues of landmark protection, restoration, and the reestablishment of the old Jewish theater in the Nestroyhof with Viennese government officials. In a letter dated April 5, 2002, I was informed that, for financial reasons, the Department of Culture was not prepared to help.
Since that time, the same government office has agreed to finance, and annually subsidize, extravagant new theatrical ventures, including, for example, the building of a new opera house (Vienna's fourth) and a new Broadway style musical venue with 1,100 seats. Together with the Federal Government, the City has also provided huge annual sums to finance the renovation and openly far-right-wing programming of a cultural venue called "Haus der Heimat" ("House of the Homeland").
In July 2003, I turned to the public for support and, within weeks, broad public media coverage had made the Nestroyhof, so long forgotten, a household word among culturally informed Austrians. Since then, many Austrian citizens and internationals have voiced their support for our initiative to reestablish the site as an international, intercultural center for performing arts, focusing on themes relevant to contemporary Jewish experience, identity, and values.
Outspoken supporters of the initiative have included, among many others, the President of the Jewish Community of Vienna Dr. Ariel Muzicant, Director of the Federal Theater Holding Dr. Georg Springer, Vienna Chief Rabbi Prof. Paul Chaim Eisenberg, Archbishop of Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, 2004 Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek,* and the late Federal President Dr. Thomas Klestil. Also, the current, private owners of the Nestroyhof have formally endorsed the initiative. In April 2004, the Jewish Theater of Austria submitted a detailed proposal to the City of Vienna for its plan to restore and reestablish the Jewish Theater in the Nestroyhof.
Theater arts funding is fully centralized by the government, while federal and municipal tax laws make private and institutional investment in not-for-profit theater economically prohibitive. The result is that "commercial" theatrical houses and "independent" not-for-profit companies alike require government approval and subsidy for every work they produce. All theater funding in Vienna is ultimately controlled by a single government official - the "Kulturstadtrat" ("City Councilor for Culture") - who heads up the Department of Culture. While the Federal Government is now, at last, preparing to enforce landmark protection for the Nestroyhof, the "Kulturstadtrat" of Vienna still claims that the city cannot afford to support the modest costs of restoration and startup.**
The Jewish Theater of Austria is now forced to seek help from abroad to rescue the Nestroyhof from renewed destruction, misuse, and oblivion. We hope that the international population of Vienna still has many friends in the world who understand the importance of living, creative Jewish culture in Europe and the desire of hundred of thousands of third generation Austrians to replace the deadly legacy of National Socialism with new hope of reconciliation.
We will not give up the struggle to renovate and reopen the theater in the Nestroyhof as an international performing arts center, and to inspire the understanding of the few politicians in Austria who do not share our value for living, interactive Jewish culture. Please contact us with your ideas and your support.
VI. Vienna in the 21st Century: Renewal or Renewed Destruction?
The reestablishment of an international Jewish theater in the Nestroyhof is vital to the social health and future of the Austrian community and is long overdue. A 21st Century Jewish theater betokens a new era of cultural and artistic renewal, diversity, and interaction for Vienna. It can contribute significantly to the economy of the city's central, yet culturally neglected Leopoldstadt, and can inspire international admiration and attraction.
Vienna is still famous today for the great Jewish heritage that was criminally obliterated in the 30's and 40's. The Nestroyhof now signals hope and opportunity for progress. Unless this unique site is renovated and preserved now, it may be lost forever. In the 21st Century, destroyed for the second time.
Copyright © 2004 by Warren Rosenzweig
*updated Oct. 2004
**Compare, for example, the recent decision of the Department of Culture to finance the new Ronacher musical theater venue (there are already several government subsidized musical theaters in Vienna) with its reluctance to invest in the reopening of the International Jewish Theater in the Nestroyhof. To assist the "commercial" Ronacher venue, the Department has recently made a commitment to contribute 47 million Euro for renovation, plus 22.5 million Euro annually thereafter for programming. By contrast, the not-for-profit Jewish Theater of Austria - the first Jewish theater in Austria since 1938 - has requested public support in the amount of 400,000 Euro toward the cost of renovation, plus 100,000 Euro annually for at least the first four years of Nestroyhof programming. Several of the new theaters, such as the Ronacher, that have opened or are currently being built and subsidized on public funding from the Department of Culture since 2000, are housed in properties that, like the Nestroyhof, were stolen from Viennese Jews during WWII. While lavish sums of taxpayer money is currently being poured into such properties for uses that completely disregard this aspect of their history, the government claims that it doesn't have the modest subsidies needed to help recover the Jewish Theater in the Nestroyhof.
THE JEWISH THEATER OF AUSTRIA
Founded in 1999 by its Producing Artistic Director, Warren Rosenzweig, the Jewish Theater of Austria is the first professional Jewish theater company in Austria (and among the first in Western Europe) in over sixty years. On tour at home and abroad, it produces and presents the work of international artists and develops new works for a 21st Century European Jewish repertoire. A not-for-profit "Theater of Responsibility," it enables the reintegration of Jewish culture as a part of Austrian culture. At the same time, it offers an antidote against ignorance and intolerance in a thought-provoking and entertaining atmosphere.
A dedicated core of artists and organizers works closely together with invited international artists on innovative approaches to interpreting contemporary Jewish experience on stage. Since April 2004, the company has also been developing an ensemble of young actors - IJTE - the International Jewish Theater Ensemble.
The critically acclaimed productions of the Jewish Theater of Austria have been made possible with generous, enthusiastic support from the local governments of the City of Graz and the Province of Styria, but also from diverse institutional and private sponsors. In return, the Jewish Theater of Austria makes an important contribution to cultural diversity and living Jewish art.
For more information, please return to our main page, www.jta.at, or contact us by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for your interest and support.
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updated: 14.11.2004 by andi stern