ROBBERY, RAPE and REPITITION
(from 1938 to the present)


HOW THE JEWISH THEATER IN THE NESTROYHOF CHALLENGES OUR WAYS


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

The initiative, since 2001, of the Jewish Theater of Austria to rescue the former Jewish theater in Vienna at Praterstrasse 34 –the “Nestroyhof” – has not been in vain. Now, after years of struggling with disinterested city government officials and the secretive landlords of a property obtained through National Socialism and retained through extreme injustice, it finally seems clear that this gem of Austrian and Jewish cultural heritage will be protected from further destruction. It will not again be used as a supermarket (as it was for decades), nor will it become what at least one of the Polsterer family landlords, Martin Gabriel, was still vying for as late as June 2004: a commercial center for business functions, gastronomy, and “clubbing”.

But will it be a Jewish theater again, as it was at the time when Gabriel’s elders stole it, through their collaboration with the Nazis, from Anna Stein? Despite the efforts of the Polsterers to go on blithely evading the problem as they have done for many years; despite the foreboding swastikas that Mr. Gabriel has so long refused to remove from the inside walls of his inherited stolen property; and despite the negligence of Vienna’s “Counselor for Culture,” Andreas Mailath-Pokorny, to give the matter its due attention, the theater in the Nestroyhof will be a place of art and culture again. But will justice be done?

Everyone knows that it’s futile to struggle for justice in the face of sustained “Aryanization” in Austria. At least I’m often told that it’s futile and that everyone knows. It’s all right for politicians to give windy speeches about how they stand for the cause of justice. It’s all right for academics to theorize and lecture on the problem of injustice and for theologians to preach. But it’s not all right to actually do something about it. For a Jew, it’s not even all right to speak. But is it all right for a Jew not to speak? And is it all right not to act? And what about an independent Jew – not a Jewish official – but an unfettered individual who cares about heritage and is free to speak and free to act. Is it all right to be free?

We live in a well organized state. In our daily lives, we reap the many benefits of political, economic, and social organization. But as we know, such organization comes to us at a price. Independence, for example, is not well tolerated by the heads of our well organized state. Through the elaborate mechanics of centralization, independence it is not even tolerated in the arts. Yet it remains a venerated personal attribute – a quality we revere in women and men of creativity and greatness and one we often associate with responsibility and conscience.

But I was asking the question, “Will justice be done?” when I was interrupted by thoughts of independence, responsibility, and conscience. The question concerning the Nestroyhof is not philosophical, but practical. It’s not a question of ideas, but of action

For years, neither the Polsterers, who control the Nestroyhof, nor Andreas Mailath-Pokorny, who controls the city’s huge public budget for culture, have been willing to discuss the plan to restore the former Jewish theater to its original function. My colleagues and I have never let these circumstances dissuade us from acting on behalf of the artistic, cultural, and just cause of rescuing the theater from further destruction and to reestablish it as an international, intercultural center for performing arts, centered on themes of living Jewish identity and experience (see www.nestroyhof.at). The fact that the Polsterers are now finally willing to allow their stolen property to be used for theater again is proof that even the profiteers of Aryanization can learn if they must.

In place of the usual silence, denial, and disinformation, the family will soon have to admit that the Nestroyhof is the site of Aryanized Jewish cultural heritage. They will not have much choice. For years, the Jewish Theater of Austria has been calling attention to the facts. They may have to confess to various travesties of justice and, in time, perhaps we’ll reach a point when the question will no longer be so much what happened as what can be done about it now? The answer should be obvious: the Polsterers can show that they are ready to break with the legacy of thievery by giving this one piece of plundered property back to heritage and culture. Haven’t they made money on Jewish blood long enough?

I’m less optimistic about the powerful Counselor for Culture, who has made it clear to me since February 2002 that he doesn’t support the plan to reestablish the Jewish theater. But then why wish for political intervention, which typically comes at a price: the price of political dependence, groveling, and censorship. Why not wish instead for Mailath-Pokorny’s non-intervention. Let the politician stay home for a change while creative culture reasserts a healthy will to independence.

But critics will want to know from where the funding should come to renovate, reopen, and run the Jewish theater if not from Uncle M.P.? They say that without his support, it cannot be done. Some say that without his support it shouldn’t be done. And many will point out what the Counselor himself has insisted all along: that the city can’t afford to support the plan.

Decades of centralized theater arts funding – of the dependency of the artist on political nepotism and “lobbying” – have made us a bit like circus elephants, clinging to the little tails in front of our big noses. We’ve learned to obey the snap of the whip and to keep our positions in the ring. Hang on tight and there may be a handful of peanuts after the show. Let go and risk the electric shock of the ringmaster’s prod. Then we’ll take your ivory and the rest of you is glue!

I have no advice for circus elephants. But Jewish culture in Vienna was never welcome in the ring of the highly celebrated Second Republic1 to begin with. The Jewish theater in the Nestroyhof can be and, ideally, should be reestablished with as little government involvement as possible.

But critics will say that regardless of the situation prior to 1938, the Jewish community in Vienna today is too small to warrant a Jewish theater. Who will be its audience? Even among Jews, how many people in Vienna can understand Yiddish (or is it Hebrew)? Why would an assimilated community be interested in Jewish themes? What does religion have to do with theater? “Jewish” theater means “ghetto” theater and is fundamentally racist. The Torah itself warns against the depravity of theater. Since when does Jewish identity need a theater for its expression? Besides, we already have Jewish theater – the municipal theaters have often performed works by Jewish authors and one of those theaters is even run by a Jew.

At a recent conference in Vienna, a well meaning speaker declared his basic support for our plan to reestablish the Jewish theater with the caveat that it must be a place where “Jewish and Aryan actors will play together on the same stage.”2 The only ghetto in contemporary Vienna is the ghetto of willful ignorance. In this Garden of Eden where the false security of superstition continues to triumph over knowledge, even now its sedentary dwellers are afraid to taste of the allegorical apple…

Mr. Gabriel has argued that the hall in the Nestroyhof wasn’t always a Jewish theater. But it was nothing else from September 1927 until the Anschluss in March 1938. What he doesn’t speak about (yet) is how his family came to take possession of the property from Anna Stein in 1940. Nor does he like to mention (yet) the profound Jewish consciousness of the Zionist architect, Oskar Marmorek, or the numerous other “Jewish” characteristics of the building and its history. Glücklich ist wer vergisst, was nicht mehr zu ändern ist.3 As Mr. Gabriel has stated, “it’s time to go on with our lives.” And I agree – it’s time to go on, but not without recovering what can be recovered.

The Polsterers could say that their Aryanized property was forcibly restituted in 1950 and then legally repossessed by them a few months later from the then rightful heirs,4 fair and square, for 3.500 schillings. If Anna Stein still has heirs today who wish to claim that in the post-war era they were robbed again by means of coercion and fraud, where are they now? Let them speak! The Polsterers could say this, but they don’t.

But why don’t they remove their swastikas? Mr. Gabriel has been promising reporters that he would do so for nearly a year. Meanwhile, the arguments for not removing them have come mainly from left-wing, ‘swastika tolerant’ individuals whose efforts to gloss over robbery and antisemitic recalcitrance in the interest of personal opportunity only show that they follow fashion along with their right-wing opponents.

On June 2, 2005, for example, at the opening of a photography exhibit ironically called “Women in the Holocaust – Frauen im Wiederstand” (“Women of the Resistance”), the name “Anna Stein” was forbidden, as well as any talk about the Aryanization of the Nestroyhof, its continued possession by the direct beneficiaries of plunder, or the counter-exhibit, the protected swastika collection, just below the feet of the unsuspecting antifascist visitors. The Counselor for Culture himself blessed the event with a speech that was free from any hint of the knowledge concerning the Nestroyhof to which he had been privy for years. The organizer of the pro-resistance event beseeched me not even to discuss these issues with people on the street outside the entrance: “Every second house in Vienna,” she said, “has swastikas on the walls in the basement. It’s nothing new.”

There have been and will be other collaborations with the effort to whitewash the history of plunder (and to evade the question of justice) for the chance to take turns in the rape of the Nestroyhof, now that the Jewish Theater of Austria has uncovered her shroud again. While some of the latest presenters claim to care, their use of the premises depends entirely on their obedient allegiance with the profiteers of National Socialism (and their mutual toleration, if necessary, of swastikas).

In the early 40s, at a time when bread was worth more than gold, the Polsterers were the ones selling the bread.5 The more miserable the fate of the masses, the more wealth and property the Nazi family amassed…

For example, the building at Schottenfeldgasse 60 in Vienna was once home to a synagogue, Hebrew school, and a number of Jewish families. Along with other prized NS family assets such as the Nestroyhof, today it is still in the possession of the notorious Polsterers. For many years, aging Aunt Elisabeth Polsterer-Tree successfully thwarted public attempts to identify the house with a commemorative plaque. In September 2004, the plaque was finally installed against her will in the cement in the publicly owned sidewalk, a few centimeters from the façade.6 Directly across the narrow street, the Jugendstil “Andreas Neider” house at Schottenfeldgasse 65 looks on coolly, face-à-face, with patient irony. Another work by the Jewish architect, Oskar Marmorek, it reminds us that there is strength in independence, responsibility, and conscience.

Vienna, October 2005

What can be done?
If you’d like to assist the Nestroyhof Initiative, or have information that may be of help, please contact us at office@jta.at.
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