Cataloguing the Martin Miller and Hannah Norbert Miller Archive

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Life before 1938: Hannah in Vienna

In the next two blog posts I want to go back to Martin and Hannah’s pre-emigration days, to look at some of the records that survived from these years and see what they reveal about their early lives, before the upheaval caused by Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. In this post I will focus on Hannah.

Hannah Norbert aged about 20, c1936

Hannah Norbert aged about 20, c1936

There are no records in the collection relating to Hannah’s early childhood, but her 1946 Austrian passport informs us that she was born Hanne Nußbaum in Vienna on 25 February 1916. What we know of her teenage years comes mainly from an interview she gave in 1995 with Charmian Brinson, Exile Studies Research Centre member, in which she stated that she had wanted to be an actress from a very early age. Her determination in this can be seen from the fact that, at 14 years old, without her parents’ knowledge, she sought out Hans Thimig to ask for advice and approval. Thimig was the son of the well-known theatrical director of the great Burgtheater, Hugo Thimig, and was himself an actor at Vienna’s Theater in der Josefstadt. He encouraged her to pursue her passion for the stage, telling her ‘you are talented and you should learn’. However, Hannah’s interview comments suggest her father was a little suspicious of this seal of approval for his pretty daughter, and questioned Thimig’s motives!1

File:Thimig hugo august.png

Hugo Thimig, German actor and theatre director. Photographer: Josef Székely, via Wikimedia Commons

File:Burgtheater um 1898.jpg

Vienna’s Burgtheater in around 1898. Photographer: August Stauda [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Rather than taking Thimig’s word for it, Herr Nußbaum appears to have written to another well-known Austrian actor, Ernst Deutsch, to ask his opinion of Hannah’s potential. Deutsch is now best known to English-speaking audiences for his role as Baron Kurtz in the 1949 film produced by Carol Reed,  ‘The Third Man’, in which both Hannah and Martin had minor acting roles.

File:Ernst Deutsch, 1931 Variante 1.jpg

Ernst Deutsch, Austrian Jewish actor 1931. Photographer: Waldemar Titzenthaler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At that time, Deutsch was best known to German-speaking audiences as an actor in expressionist films and on the stage in Berlin, where he was based in the 1920s. He also performed in Vienna, including a season at the Burgtheater in 1931-1932, and after the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933, he worked mainly in Prague and Vienna before emigrating to the US in 1938. It was probably during the early 1930s in Vienna that he got to see something of Hannah’s acting talents, and responded to Hannah’s father with the letter now in the Miller collection. Promising her father not to mention the letter exchange between the two men to Hannah, Deutsch confirmed his firm belief in her potential as a budding actress: ‘ihre besondere Begabung … ist für mich ohne Zweifel’ (‘I have no doubts about her special talent’).

Letter from Ernst Deutsch to Herr Nußbaum c1932

Letter from Ernst Deutsch to Herr Nußbaum c1932

As a teenager, Hannah had attended the Döblinger Mädchenmittelschule, a local girls’ secondary school to which the wealthy families of the Cottageviertel sent their daughters.2 As Hannah approached the sixth form, Paul Kalbeck, then Director of the Theater in der Josefstadt, whom Hannah saw for drama lessons, recommended that she try to get a place at the prestigious Reinhardt Seminar, Austria’s main drama school. The school had been opened in 1929 by the theatre director, Max Reinhardt, and was at that time located in one of the wings of the former palace of the Habsburgs, Schloss Schönbrunn. Reinhardt Seminar students practised on the palace theatre, once the Habsburgs’ private theatre.

File:Schlosstheater Schoenbrunn.tif

Schlosstheater Schönbrunn. Photographer: Gruppe80 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Hannah’s application to the school was successful, and she spent two years as a student there, from 1933 until 1935.

Reinhardt Seminar (College) ID card(1), c1933

Reinhardt Seminar (College) ID card(1), c1933

Reinhardt Seminar ID card(2), c1933

After leaving the Reinhardt Seminar, Hannah was quickly successful at gaining parts in theatres in Switzerland, Vienna and Innsbruck. The photograph below shows her playing Mary, Queen of Scots in a production of Schiller’s ‘Mary Stuart’ at the Städtebundtheater Biel-Solothurn. The scene shows Mary on her knees in front of Queen Elisabeth, who was played by another Austrian actress, Isolde Milde.

Performance of Schiller's 'Mary Stuart', Solothurn, 1935

Performance of Schiller’s ‘Mary Stuart’, Solothurn, 1935

In 1937, Hannah was engaged by the Wiener Kammerspiele, a studio theatre attached to the Theater in der Josefstadt, to play the part of Ruth in a play by Ernst Vadja called ‘Das Geständnis’. The contract below shows that she was paid 10 Schillings a day, except for days on which there was a matinée performance, which would earn her an additional third on top of the standard daily rate. This was slightly more than the average worker earned in 1937 for a single work shift (8.90 Schillings).


Contract with the Wiener Kammerspiele 1937

Contract with the Wiener Kammerspiele 1937

Hannah’s last stage performances in Austria before the German takeover in March 1938 were in Innsbruck. The contract below shows that she was engaged to play the parts of ‘Liebhaberin und Salondame’ (lover and a kind of ‘femme fatale’ character) in an unspecified play at the Stadttheater there from 3 February until 3 April 1938. Her wages were 300 Schillings a month.

Hannah Miller's contract with Stadttheater Innsbruck, 1938
Hannah Miller’s contract with Stadttheater Innsbruck, 1938

It is not clear whether she actually played the above roles however, as she herself stated that she was at this time playing the leading role in Georg Rendl’s 1937 play, ‘Elisabeth, Kaiserin von Österreich’, and the photograph below seems to confirm this. The other two actors in this photograph are Louis Victor, playing Franz Joseph, and Franziska Frey as Erzherzogin (Archduchess) Sophie. Her contract was abrupted terminated on 12 March 1938 with the Nazi Germany’s Anschluss: Hannah was summoned to the director’s officer and told that she could not continue working.

Performance of 'Elisabeth Kaiserin von Österreich', Innsbruck 1938

Performance of ‘Elisabeth Kaiserin von Österreich’, Innsbruck 1938

1 Archive of the Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies, University of London, Exile Archive, Interview with Hannah Norbert Miller by Charmian Brinson, December 1995.
2 Ruth Barton, Hedy Lamarr: the Most Beautiful Woman in Film (Kentucky: University of Kentucky, 2012), p. 12.
3 International Labour Office, ‘World Indexes of Employment’, International Labour Review, 40 (1939), p. 107.


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