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Newsletter of the Association for Jewish Theatre (AJT) - Sept. 01, 2005

Rebuilding Jewish Theater in Vienna

by Warren Rosenzweig
Artistic Director, Jewish Theater of Austria, www.jta.at

What would Vienna be today without Freud, Schnitzler, Wittgenstein, Herzl, Mahler, Schönberg, Reinhardt, Buber, Zweig, and the many thousands of Jews who did so much to ensure its high status in modern world culture? Thanks to Hitler, Eichmann, Seyss-Inquart, and their millions of willing henchmen, it would be what it is today: the scene of the crime of the twentieth century - a denuded human landscape.

There seems to be a correlation between the sustained absence of Jewish culture and the sustained absence of justice, or even concern for justice, for the crimes of National Socialism in Austria. Ever since the myth of national victimization was more or less put to rest in 1991, there´s been considerable fanfare in commemoration for dead Austrian Jewry, but practically no investment in living Jewish culture.

The Jewish Theater of Austria, founded in 1999, is a case in point. In a city and state that controls all funding for theater (non-profit or "commercial") through political government offices, Vienna and the federal government do not support the work of the first Jewish theater company in Austria since 1938.

Luckily, the Jewish Theater of Austria enjoys an avid audience following and broad media interest, and has remarkably survived the government´s starvation plan for years on the good will of its local supporters, which include the city of Graz and the province of Styria, smaller institutions, commercial enterprises, and private enthusiasts, particularly in Vienna.

But the killer instinct of the elite is not altogether mysterious. It was often the most dedicated Nazi collaborators who inherited the economic, political, and judicial power in post WWII, "victimized" Austria. The heirs of that power still perceive a threat in the prospect of a healthy, renewed Austrian Jewish identity. After all, the wrongful and rampant profiteering of their elders has continued in them, without interruption, even to this day.′*′

Many of Vienna´s most popular tourist attractions, for example (such as the giant Ferris wheel of the film "The Third Man"), are stolen Jewish properties for which no form of compensation has ever been made. For the Jewish Theater of Austria, another interesting example can be found in the heart of the old Jewish quarter of Vienna, known as the "Leopoldstadt". There the Jewish Theater of Austria has been contending for years with the government and with the Nazi collaborator family called "Polsterer" to give the great Jewish theater of fin-de-siècle architect Oskar Marmorek back to Austrian and Jewish culture.

The Polsterers acquired the "Nestroyhof," as the building is called, through "Aryanization" in 1940. When a court ruling in 1950 ordered the return of the property to its rightful heirs, the Polsterers contested. Eight months later, in 1951, the rightful heirs were persuaded to accept a "settlement" of a few hundred dollars for the Jugendstil masterpiece…′*′

Since late 2001, the Jewish Theater of Austria has been campaigning for the reestablishment of the currently empty theater hall in the Nestroyhof as a contemporary, international Jewish Theater. The "Cultural Councillor" (Kulturstadtrat), Andreas Mailath-Pokorny, says that the Viennese government cannot afford to support the necessary restoration (ca $1.5 mil.). The owners have responded more pointedly by displaying a number of swastikas on the inside walls of the property and, in defiance of public attention and a pending criminal court case (swastikas are illegal in Austria), have refused to remove them.

The struggle of the Jewish Theater of Austria and its "Nestroyhof Initiative" may be seen as a litmus test for Vienna´s ability to reconcile and grow. Is the reestablishment of Jewish theater possible, in the 21st century, in the city with the most conflicted Jewish history in the western world? We hope that the coming months and years will see increasing international cooperation with the plan to make it possible.

For more information concerning the history of the Nestroyhof and the battle for its future, please visit: www.nestroyhof.com.

[The above article first appeared in print in September 2005 in a publication of the international Association for Jewish Theater.]

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