Cataloguing the Martin Miller and Hannah Norbert Miller Archive

Home » Life before the UK » ‘Keeping something alive in the very jaws of death’: Martin Miller and Berlin’s ghetto theatre

‘Keeping something alive in the very jaws of death’: Martin Miller and Berlin’s ghetto theatre

May 2013
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Whilst cataloguing correspondence in the collection recently, I came across some letters sent to Martin Miller which throw some light on when and why Martin left Austria after the Anschluss in March 1938.  The letters reveal that, having been banned from working in ‘German’ theatres in Austria, Martin managed to get himself a job with the only theatre company left in German-occupied territory which  would then employ Jews: the Jüdischer Kulturbund (KuBu). So, incredible as it now seems given the increasing level of violence against Jews at that time, in late October or early November 1938 Martin headed to the very heart of the Third Reich: Berlin.

KuBu programme

Jüdischer Kulturbund programme from December 1938

The Jewish ghetto theatre  run by the KuBu was located just twenty minutes’ walk from the government district, in the Kommandantenstraße in Kreuzberg, and it survived (though ever more precariously) until 1941. The KuBu itself was established after the National Socialists came to power in Germany in 1933, when Jewish artists and intellectuals were banned from working in the country’s cultural institutions. The director reported to the Ministry of Propaganda, which strictly controlled its work and membership. All Jews in the performing arts were required to join the KuBu, and Jews alone could join, attend and review events. Permission to put on certain plays was refused if they were deemed either ‘too assimilatory’ to German life (i.e. not Jewish enough) or, by contrast, were thought ‘too Jewish’.

File:Gedenktafel Kommandantenstr 58 (Kreuz) Theater des jüdischen Kulturbundes.jpg

Memorial plaque to the theatre of the Jüdische Kulturbund. By OTFW, Berlin (Self-photographed) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The earliest letter in the collection from the KuBu indicates that Martin first wrote to the company from Vienna asking for work in early September 1938. Dr Werner Levie, one of the directors, responded that no decision could be made immediately because the acting and directing manager, Fritz Wisten, was then on holiday (a strikingly ordinary-sounding activity for a Jew in Berlin at that time). However, Levie’s comment that he had seen Martin perform in “Jud Süss” in Vienna in November 1937 (see a previous blog) probably raised Martin’s hopes, as his performance had been very well received by critics.

KuBu letter3

Letter from Fritz Wisten, Director of the Jüdischer Kulturbund, October 1938

The second letter, dated 3 October (shown above), was from Wisten himself and stated that the KuBu would be delighted to welcome Martin as a member of the group, but was unfortunately unable to commit to doing so just then. In fact this letter coincided with a period of upheaval for the KuBu, as its managing and artistic director, Kurt Singer, was making plans to go on a six-week tour of America, partly to raise funds for the company. [Footnote: Rovit, p. 142] However, a short time later leadership of the company was settled, and with Levie as Acting Artistic Manager during Singer’s absence, Martin’s engagement was agreed. His contract ran from 1 November until 31 March 1939, during which time his wages were 250 RM per month and he was entitled to one week’s paid holiday.

Interior view of the destroyed Fasanenstrasse Synagogue, Berlin, burned on Kristallnacht; November Pogroms. Center for Jewish History, NYC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Rehearsals for Martin’s first play with the KuBu, Benjamin … wohin? (Where to, Benjamin?) were interrupted by  the Kristallnacht pogrom of 9-10 of November, when all KuBu activities were called to a halt and most Jewish males were summarily imprisoned . Exactly what happened to Martin is not certain, but Wisten and some of the other actors were detained in Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, just north of Berlin. Wisten was released five days later with a shaven head and pneumonia, on the understanding that he would return to work at the theatre and would keep productions going, despite the low morale and depleted performer and audience numbers.1

KuBu Programme for Die Fee January 1939

KuBu Programme for Die Fee January 1939

As well as the correspondence there are also two KuBu programmes in the collection: the above is for Martin’s second play, Ferenc Molnar’s Die Fee (The Good Fairy), staged in January 1939. The list of actors illustrates a new Nazi requirement, just implemented, for all Jews to take ‘Israel’ or ‘Sara’ as their middle names. The programmes are also full of adverts for shipping companies offering Jewish would-be emigrants transport routes out of Europe.

Martin Miller as King Leontes in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale

Martin’s third and final part in a KuBu production was as King Leontes in Shakespeare’s Wintermärchen (or A Winter’s Tale). The play was probably chosen with the aim of amusing the audience whilst also ‘offering an allegorical story for solace during difficult times’.2 According to one review in the collection, Martin’s ‘stocky figure’ and ‘heavy head on a short neck’ was not very regal, but he made up for this with his ‘powerful kingly demeanor’ conveyed through his ‘astonishing vocal and physical range of action’, which gripped the spectators’ attention.3

Postcard from Fritz Wisten to Martin Miller, February 1939

A postcard in the collection dated 7 February 1939 from Wisten to Martin seems to suggest that in the short time that he was in Berlin, Martin became an important figure within the company on both a professional and a personal level. The postcard (which shows a portrait photo of Wisten on the front) reads: ‘My dear Miller, we met each other late, but the pleasure of working with you has made me forget the time lost. At the end of my artistic work for the KuBu is your Leontes! That is a lucky sign. Warm greetings, your Fritz Wisten’.

Certainly the experience of working there seems to have been of great personal significance to Martin himself: in an interview in 1967, when asked about his experiences in the KuBu, he responded as follows: ‘in a way, you know, I felt better in Germany itself. I felt I was keeping something alive in the very jaws of death; in Vienna, one felt almost frivolous playing in the theatre while the European world collapsed’.4

Letter from Werner Levie to Martin Miller in London, March 1939

The end of Martin’s association with the KuBu is marked by a letter to him from Levie dated 28 March 1939, by which time Martin was safely in exile in the UK. Levie wrote that, despite Martin’s short time with the KuBu, he appeared to have fully grasped what the company was striving to do. He also expressed the hope that he would meet Martin again soon in London. In 1943 Levie was arrested in Holland, however, having led a similar cultural foundation to the KuBu there for two years. He died in Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in 1945.

Footnotes
1 Rebecca Rovit, The Jewish Kulturbund Theatre Company in Nazi Berlin (Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 2012), p. 148.
2 Rovit, p. 153.
3 Julius Bab, ‘Jüdischer Schauspieler: Rudolf Müller’ in Jüdisches Nachrichtenblatt, 17 February 1939, p. 9.
4 ‘Jewishness and the Theatre’, The Jewish Telegraph, c. 1967.


1 Comment

  1. […] invasion. Julius Bab, the German theatre critic and journalist with whom Martin had worked at the Jüdischer Kulturbund in Berlin, wrote from exile in Paris to inform him that news of his parody been reported by the prominent […]

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