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Under the Austrofascist regime established by Austria’s ultra-right-wing Fatherland Front Party in 1934 and lasting until the German annexation in 1938, small unofficial theatres were one of the few public arenas in which criticism of the regime and the growing influence of Nazi Germany could be voiced from within Austria. Large theatres with auditoriums for more than 50 people were strictly regulated through a system of licensing, which compelled managers and artists to comply strictly with the regime’s cultural policy and present an uncritical view of social and political events.1
However, those theatre workers prepared to make do with simple, low-budget productions on makeshift stages with audiences of less than 50 could avoid the heaviest penalties imposed by the censor and perform plays by writers critical of events in Nazi Germany and Austria. Such theatres included the avant-garde ‘Theater für 49’, where Hannah Norbert-Miller performed in the expressionist play ‘Das Leben des Menschen’ in the spring of 1937, as well as the political cabaret theatre, ABC Regenbogen Café, where Jura Soyfer was the in-house author.2
Unfortunately many of the records from this fascinating aspect of Austrian theatre history have gone missing without a trace.3 This is particularly true for the political cabaret scripts, which, given the political circumstances of their creation and the fact that they were written for immediate performance, were rarely published or made more broadly available. In the case of the highly political scripts of Jura Soyfer, many were confiscated and lost for good when he was arrested in November 1937. Under National Socialism, moreover, the possession of his work was a great risk, and some of the records of his writing were burnt by his parents and friends out of fear.4 Consequently only fragments of some of his work from this time have survived. For example, much of Soyfer’s novel, So starb einer Partei, which was the work he most valued, was lost. The image below shows a leaf from one of the surviving bundles of typescripts which found their way into the Millers’ possessions.
So how did his writing survive and his theatre plays end up being performed in London less than a year after his death in Buchenwald? Above all, it was because some of his friends, family and colleagues bravely risked their lives to carry the manuscripts beyond Austria’s borders. Otto Tausig, the leader of the exile theatre company, the ‘Austrian Youth Players’, later wrote that in the suitcases of some of those who emigrated after 1938, handwritten poems, a newspaper article or an almost complete play could lie hidden between the shirts or books.5
One of those courageous people who transported them was Helli Ultmann, Soyfer’s girlfriend. Ultmann made her way to exile in the USA via Paris and London, where she was in touch with Martin Miller and met him to pass on copies of Soyfer’s work. The letter below in the Miller Archive written by her in October 1939 to Martin Miller captures the moment when she arranged to pass on the smuggled material to Martin for the Laterndl:
Roughly translated, the letter reads:
I can come to London, I would very much like to attend your performance. Also let me know by return of post what I should copy down for you, I will then bring it with me, as I’m expecting my luggage to arrive tomorrow at the latest. I can actually bring you the chansons a few hours before the performance, so you’ll still have enough time to prepare them.
In all, two of Soyfer’s theatre scripts and seven of his song lyrics (such as the one below) ended up in the Miller collection. We cannot be sure which of the lyrics are the chansons referred to Ultmann in her letter, but for me the letter wonderfully captures a moment of triumph against Nazi oppression: when the bravery of those determined keep alive the memory of Soyfer and his political message won a small victory with the knowledge that his work would again be performed and celebrated in public.
1 Barbara Nowotny, ‘Theater im Souterrain: Das politische Wiener Theater der 1. Republik’ (unpublished master’s thesis, University of Vienna, 2010), p28.
2 Viktoria Hertling, ‘Theater für 49: Ein vergessenes Avantgarde-Theater in Wien (1934-1938)’, in Jura Soyfer and his time, ed. by Donald G. Daviau (California: Ariadne Press, 1995), pp. 321-335.
3 Nowotny, p. 5. Hans Weigel also discusses this issue at multiple points in his book Gerichtstag vor 49 Leuten (Austria: Verlag Styria, 1981), for example, p. 33, p. 120 and p. 159.
4 Horst Jarka, Jura Soyfer: Leben, Werk, Zeit (Vienna: Löcker Verlag, 1987), p.498.
5 Jura Soyfer, Vom Paradies zum Weltuntergang, ed. by Otto Tausig (Vienna: Globus Verlag, 1947), p. 9.
The Millers were most closely associated with the Austrian exile theatre company, the Laterndl, but their papers also contain documents relating to a number of other political and cultural organisations established by members of the 30,000-strong Austrian refugee community.1 The organisations shown here had various aims, including helping other potential refugees still in Nazi-occupied territory to escape, improving the daily life of the refugees in the UK, and focusing attention on how to build a better Austria after the war. Such organisations would also have fulfilled a much-needed social function for the members themselves, as they created a sense of community and helped refugees overcome feelings of loss, hardship and alienation.2
Probably the earliest document in the Miller collection relating to the refugee organisations is the above letter, which documents some of the desperate attempts by refugees already in the UK to help more victims of Nazi persecution to emigrate, as the wave of Nazi terror in Vienna increased in 1938. It was written by the founders of ‘Austrian Self-Aid’, a ‘charitable, non-political organisation with the aim of providing assistance and information for other Austrian refugees in Britain’.2 Although the exiles who established it were mainly Communist Party members, they gave their political views a low profile in order not to alienate members of the general refugee community and to avoid difficulties with the British authorities. Unfortunately the second page of the letter is missing so the reason for writing is not certain, but since it was written in English and describes the difficulties of dealing with the immense demand for help given the group’s limited resources, it seems likely that it was intended for British supporters of the Austrian cause to request financial support.
Another document in the collection, which illustrates one way in which the British authorities interacted positively with the refugee groups, is the above programme for a carol concert held at Sadler’s Wells Theatre on Christmas Eve 1939. The concert was organised by the Resident Foreigners’ Committee of the British Council, which had recently been established to provide educational and cultural support to refugees and allied service personnel.3 As the programme shows, the concert included performances by Czech and Polish choirs, an ad hoc group of German-speaking actors (most of whom were members of one or other of the established German-language exile theatre companies in London) led by Martin Miller, as well as the well-travelled British singing group, Fleet Street Choir 4 Below is a letter from the British Council to Martin sent after the event, congratulating him on the success of the production and thanking him for the Austrians’ hard work.
For many Austrian refugees, the heart of the exile community was the Austrian Centre (AC). Located in Westbourne Terrace in Paddington, London, it was set up by Communist refugees as a self-help organisation to provide support for the community. The above flyer for the AC, dated 30 July 1942, gives information on the Centre’s events, facilities and publications. It shows, for example, the range of Austrian specialities on the menu of the Centre’s restaurant, such as ‘Fridattensuppe’ (broth with sliced pancake), ‘Polsterzipf’ (sweet pastries) and ‘Faschiertes mit Spinat’ (minced meat with spinach). It lists entertainment events organised by refugees at the AC, such as the Laterndl’s production Spiel im Schloss and the première of a farce by Franz und Paul von Schönthan: Raub der Sabinerinnen. It also notifies readers of forthcoming information events concerning the British internment of refugees as enemy aliens, and of a new translation service provided by the AC for members needing to have their documents translated into English.
Also advertised on the AC flyer is the Centre’s own German-language newspaper, the Zeitspiegel, which was claimed to be ‘unentbehrlich für jeden Emigranten’ (‘indispensible for every emigrant’). This was a weekly paper focusing on topics of most relevance to the refugees, such as antisemitism, the internment situation, and events in Austria and Germany. For example, this edition from the collection (below) reports on developments in Vienna, where hunger, exhaustion and sabotage were apparently dramatically reducing war production.
Finally, this flyer from 1941 highlights some of the key political issues that were considered of particular importance by at least some of the Austrian refugee community at the time. It advertised a series of public debates organised by the association, ‘Das kommende Österreich’ (‘The coming Austria’), at the Mary Ward Settlement in Tavistock Place, London. The discussion topics included the position of the Austrian Communists with regard to unity in the fight against Hitler; the prerequisites for a Central European federation; and the legal position of Austrian refugees and their incorporation into war production and civil defence.
1 This figure is from Anthony Grenville, ‘The Emigration of Austrians to Britain after 1938 and the Early Years of Settlement: a Survey’, in Immortal Austria: Austrians in Exile in Britain, ed. by Charmian Brinson, Richard Dover and Jennifer Taylor, Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, 8 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006), pp. 3-17 (p. 3).
2 Andrea Reiter, ‘Introduction’ in ‘I didn’t want to float; I wanted to belong to something.’ Refugee Organisations in Britain 1933-1945′, ed. by Anthony Grenville and Andrea Reiter, Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, 10 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008), pp. ix-xvi (pp. x-xi).
3 Charmian Brinson, ‘Eva Kolmer and the Austrian Emigration in Britain, 1938-1946’, in German-speaking Exiles in Great Britain, ed. by Anthony Grenville, Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, 2 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000), pp. 143-169 (p. 145).
There are only a few documents relating to Hannah’s first year of exile, but using the oral history interview she gave in 1995 it is possible to fill in the gaps between the records to reconstruct, at least partly, her path from Innsbruck in March 1938 to London in August 1939.1
After the German annexation of Austria in March 1938, Hannah’s family joined the 36,000 other Jews in Germany and Austria who decided to leave their homelands and seek sanctuary elsewhere in 1938. For the Nussbaums, the obvious first choice was the UK, where Otto Nussbaum had business connections and which the family had visited a number of times. In fact Otto had begun preparations to emigrate a some time before by registering his firm in England, but with the upsurge in violence against the Jews following the Anschluss and the ‘aryanisation‘ of his business in Vienna, the need to move had become urgent.
The visa requirement for Jewish refugees from Austria to the UK was only introduced after the Anschluss in March 1938, so, after a phone call to her parents in Vienna, and in the belief that she would not need a visa, Hannah set off by train for England alone. With her money confiscated on the Austrian-Swiss border, Hannah relied on friends in Switzerland to help her travel via France and on by boat from Boulogne. At the UK border, however, to her surprise and disappointment, she was refused entry. In her 1995 interview she described the ‘very cool, tall, blond gentleman with a moustache’, who, despite her pleas, simply apologised as he put her back on the boat to France.
Upset at her treatment at the UK border, Hannah made a spur-of the-moment decision that, rather than waiting around with the increasing number of refugees refused entry to Britain who were gathering in Boulogne, she would head back to Paris. Through the acquaintanceship of a lawyer for MGM Films, she established contacts in the film industry there, made friends and found herself a place to live. The above ID shows that she was given the right to reside in France from 29 March until 29 June 1938, although the stamp at the top of the form made clear that she was not supposed to work (‘Ne doit occuper aucun emploi salaré’).
Photographs from the collection indicate that this bar on employment did not actually stop her from trying to work, however. Written on the reverse of the photo above, the following notes suggest that she probably intended to send it to French acting agencies: ‘Hanne Norbert, 28 Quai de Béthune, Odéon 40-13. Parle: français, anglais, allemand’. In fact, as Hannah admitted in 1995, she managed to land herself a small part in a Sacha Guitry film whilst she was there, and she had a second film part lined up for herself which she was only prevented from taking by the outbreak of the Second World War.
Hannah remained in Paris until August 1939, successfully entering the UK only shortly before war was declared, when the borders were closed to further refugees from Nazi-occupied territories. Thankfully, her parents were by that time safely settled in London, having landed at Croydon Airport on 15 September 1938, and she was permitted to enter the UK on the visa they had managed to arrange for the family in Vienna. The above postcard was sent to Hannah from a French friend, Jean Peltzer, who had run a film club (Ciné 200) of which Hannah was a member while she was in Paris. It is the last record to document Hannah’s connection with pre-war France.
Dated December 1939, the postcard illustrates the rapidly changing circumstances of individual lives within those few short months. It has been redirected from Hannah’s Paris address to her parents’ address in Maida Vale, London, and Jean has now joined the army, and writes to Hannah as follows: ‘Dear friend, how is life? I hope that this little note finds you in good health and hope that events have not made you unhappy. For me, after these few months of war, morale is good and I am being patient… I would be very happy to hear your news. A friend who forgets nothing, with my friendship, Jean Peltzer’.
Whether Hannah had any more contact with Jean after this is not clear, but I would be delighted to received any further information about Jean Peltzer or the Ciné 200 club that he ran.
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.
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!1Rather 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.
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’).
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.
Hannah’s application to the school was successful, and she spent two years as a student there, from 1933 until 1935.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.