Cataloguing the Martin Miller and Hannah Norbert Miller Archive

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July 2020

Schwejk at the Laterndl

Two months after the Laterndl’s re-opening in new premises in Finchley Road in January 1940, the company began rehearsals for their fourth cabaret show, Der unsterbliche Schwejk (The Immortal Schwejk). The subject matter was very much in keeping with the tradition of 1930s Viennese Kleinkunst (political cabaret), which had adopted as a hero Jaroslav Hašek’s Schwejk figure and his ability to frustrate the Austrian military authorities in their battles with the Russians on the eastern front in WW1 through feigned or real idiocy.1

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Miller 3/1/1/6. Director Martin Miller and other Laterndl actors in rehearsal for Schwejk, 1940

Variations on the Schwejk story (Schwejk heilt sein Rheuma and Die Wiener Festwochen des braven Soldaten Schwejk) were played at the cabaret theatre Literatur am Naschmarkt in 1933 and 1934. Also in 1934 Jura Soyfer and Hans Weigel wrote a speech for a Schwejk character for a performance at a workers’ club, involving many references to current events.2  Weigel recounts that his and Soyfer’s Schwejk figure addressed the issue of his own anachronistic existence in the 1930s with disturbing foresight about the coming war:

Der Herr Direktor hat zwar erst g’meint, der Schwejk is’ unaktuell, weil der is eine Gestalt aus der Vorkriegs- und Kriegszeit – bitte: in einer Vorkriegszeit leb’n wir doch jetzt und wegen dem Krieg, wegen dem nächsten, brauchen S’Ihnen keine Sorgen machen, den wer’n wir noch alle in bester Gesundheit erleben, dafür wer’n die maßgeblichen Herrn schon sorgen.3 

This roughly translates as

(The Director [of the workers’ club] first said that Schwejk was out-of-date, because he is a pre-war and war-time figure – please: we are actually now living in a prewar era and you don’t need to worry about the war, about the next one, we’ll all experience that in the best of health, the leading gentlemen will take care of that.)

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Miller 1/2/3/13. Lyrics of ‘Das Lied vom braven Soldaten Schwejk’

The Laterndl’s Schwejk programme comprised a ‘montage of [six] scenes from the life of its eponymous hero’.4  In-house composer, Georg Knepler, wrote and arranged the music; Martin Miller directed and played the leading role and the Laterndl’s house authors, Hugo Königsgarten, Rudolf Spitz, Franz Bönsch and Albert Fuchs, wrote the script. Sadly this is now lost except for the lyrics (above) for their song, ‘Das Lied vom braven Soldaten Schwejk’.

Miller 5 /2. From the Picture Post, Vol 7/4, 27 April 1940

Miller 5/2. From the Picture Post, Vol 7/4, 27 April 1940

The show first two sketches, ‘Schwejk im Hinterland’ and ‘Schwejk an der Front’, closely followed the storyline of the first two chapters of Hašek’s novel. In both the novel and the Laterndl’s stage version, Schwejk finds himself arrested after a police spy hears him making unpatriotic comments in a bar when the news that Archduke Ferdinand has been shot is announced – see the above image taken by the Picture Post in April 1940. The photographs in the Miller Archive are less easily placed in particular scenes because there are no captions for them. However, it seems likely that, despite the differences in layout and scenery from the one above, the photograph below is also of that first scene in the bar – note the cartoon image of the Emperor shown to Schwejk by the police spy, played by Fritz Schrecker.

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Miller 3/1/1/6. Laterndl actors Peter Preses, Marianne Walla, Fritz Schrecker and Martin Miller in Der unsterbliche Schweik, possibly in the sketch ‘Schwejk im Hinterland’, 1940

Other sketches, which strayed further away from the original WW1 setting, included ‘Die Glückliche Republik’, ‘Schwejk und Hitler im Männerheim’, and ‘Schwejk und Neidinger’. Like Schwejk, Herr Neidinger embodied the apparently simple-minded man who somehow managed to outwit the authorities, in his case the Nazis. Neidinger had been created by Franz Bönsch for the scene ‘Der verhängnisvolle Geburtstag’ of the Laterndl’s second cabaret show in February 1940, Blinklichter (Beacons), when he was played by Peter Preses.

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Miller 3/1/1/6. Martin Miller as Schwejk at the Laterndl, 1940

In the final sketch, ‘Schwejk im Protektorat’, Schwejk found himself in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia – anticipating Brecht’s setting of his 1947 Schwejk im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Georg Knepler remembered one scene in which a Nazi officer threatened to exterminate the Czechs, to which Schwejk responded in beautiful Prague-German, ‘no, paare werden schon ibrig bleiben’ (‘well, a few will still be left over’).5

Miller 5_2. From the Picture Post

Miller 5/2. From the Picture Post, Vol 7/4, 27 April 1940

The production attracted signficant media attention, including from the British press. The images from the Picture Post are just two of a photo spread they published on the production with the headline, ‘today new stories about Schweik [sic] are going the rounds in Prague – heartening the Czechs against the Nazis. Meantime [Hašek’s] doings are being presented in London by refugee actors from Vienna at ‘The Lantern’, in Finchley Road.’


1 Jaroslav Hašek, The Good Soldier Schweik, trans. by Paul Selver (London: Heinemann, 1930).
2 Walter Rösler, ‘Aspekte des deutschsprachigen Exil-Kabaretts 1933-1945’ in Exiltheater und Exildramatik1933-1945, ed. by Edita Koch (Maintal 1991), pp. 283-293 (pp. 289-290).
3 Hans Weigel, Gerichtstag vor 49 Leuten (Vienna: Styria, 1981), p. 99.
4 Richard Dove, ‘Theatre of War: the Austrian Exile Theatre Laterndl’, in German-speaking Exiles in Great Britain, ed. by Anthony Grenville, The Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, 2 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000), pp. 209-229 (p. 213).
5 Rösler, p. 290.

The survival of the smuggled scripts

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

Feodor Weingart and Hanne Norbert in Das Leben der Menschen  at the Theater für 49 in Vienna, April 1937

Miller 3/4/1/6 Feodor Weingart and Hanne Norbert in Das Leben des Menschen at the Theater für 49 in Vienna, April 1937

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.

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Miller 1/2/4/2. Page from surviving fragment of Jura Soyfer’s novel, So starb einer Partei

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:

Letter from Helli Ultmann

Miller 2/126. Letter from Helli Ultmann to Martin Miller, October 1939. By kind permission of Monica Andis, daughter of Helli Andis (née Ultmann).

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.

Wenn der Himmel grau wird

Miller 1/2/4/1/7. Script of ‘Wenn der Himmel grau wird’ by Jura Soyfer

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.

White House to become Brown House: the April Fool Führer

On April Fools’ Day 1940, a speech broadcast by the BBC to Germany and Austria apparently by Adolf Hitler himself seemed to raise the prospect of the United States being drawn into WW2 more swiftly than had been expected. Citing his desire to protect the Czech and Polish minorities in New York, and the importance of German science and technology in his discovery of America, the Führer set out his demand that the United States become a German protectorate. In one fell swoop he also announced plans to reinvent the New York skyline, remove the Statue of Liberty to alleviate traffic congestion, and rename the White House the ‘Brown House’.

Miller.1/1/1. Typescript of 'Der Führer spricht' ('The Führer speaks'), 1940

Miller 1/1/1. Typescript of ‘Der Führer spricht’ (‘The Führer speaks’), 1940

The broadcast was received with consternation in the United States, where it led the CBS network to contact the BBC in a panic to ask after its source.1 It came, after all, as the German military build-up to the invasion of western Europe was reaching its peak: the invasion of Norway and Denmark followed just a few days later on 9 April, and that of Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and France only a month later, in May 1940.

The speech was, in fact, a spoof, written and performed by Martin Miller and commissioned for a live radio broadcast on the BBC’s European service, whose directors were keen to use it as part of their propaganda war against Germany. The April Fools’ speech, ‘Der Führer spricht‘, was the first in a series of Hitler speech parodies which Martin wrote and performed for the BBC between 1940 and 1942. Last year a tape recording of the 1940 broadcast was added to the collection and and digitised, and from this a video with English subtitles has been created. This is the only recording of Martin’s Hitler parodies to have survived, although a post about another of Martin’s spoof speeches can be found here.

Miller 2/16. BBC contract for Hitler speech parody radio broadcast, 1940

Miller 2/16. BBC contract for Hitler speech parody radio broadcast, 1940

Martin had in fact written the speech earlier in the year for a performance at the Austrian exile theatre, the Laterndl (photograph below), where it was seen by around 6000 viewers in the course of its three-month run in the cabaret show Blinklichter. In the audience at one of the performances was the BBC’s Head of the German Section of the Political Warfare Executive, Richard Crossman, who subsequently arranged for Martin to repeat the performance for radio broadcast.2

Miller 3/1/1/2. Martin Miller as the Führer, Laterndl, January 1940

Miller 3/1/1/2. Martin Miller as the Führer, Laterndl, January 1940

Laterndl audiences were perhaps more used to viewing satirical sketches relating to current events in Germany and Austria, as this was the core material of the Kleinkunstbühne. For most British audiences, however, the use of satire in the theatre to stir up anti-Nazi feeling was relatively new. Even in the late 1930s stage representations of Hitler were banned by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, and a number of theatres were refused licences for plays which critically depicted events in Nazi Germany. Developments in Germany were at that time still considered to be ‘no direct concern of ours’, and it was felt undesirable that a theatre should become a centre of anti-Nazi feeling.3 Just three years before Martin’s parody of the Führer was commissioned by the BBC, a British actor was prosecuted and fined for his humorous caricature of Hitler at the Kings Theatre in Hammersmith. The sentence was reported with disapproval in Germany, where the Nazi paper, Der Angriff, commented that it was a ‘lenient punishment for impertinence’ and that ‘England does her duty lackadaisically’.4 One can only imagine the Nazis’ reaction to Miller’s brilliant and biting satire of 1940 – this time it was not reported in the Nazi press!

Miller 2/8. Letter from Julius Bab to Martin Miller, 20 April 1940

Miller 2/8. Letter from Julius Bab to Martin Miller, 20 April 1940

Martin’s ability to capture the Führer’s vocabulary, rhythm, intonation in a speech containing the same warped logic of a real Hitler speech made his name as an actor in circles well beyond those in London’s Austrian exile community. The letter above from 20 April 1940 gives some indication of the impact that the parody had on anti-Nazis in the countries under the direct threat of 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 French journalist and historian, Geneviève Tabouis, at a conference in the city two days earlier.

The letter (roughly translated) reads:

This G. Tb. [Geneviève Tabouis] held a conference on 18 April 1940 in the Marigny Theatre [in Paris]. It was oversubscribed and has to be held a second time. She talked about Hitler’s plans. In the course of this she said:

In London there is now an excellent Austrian actor, Miller, who, at a cabaret club, does a splendid imitation of Hitler. He declared (as Hitler!) recently: ‘Columbus discovered America with a German compass. So America actually belongs to Germany!’

She continued with her account, in great detail. To much amusement! I thought you would enjoy hearing about this!

There can be no doubt that Martin would have been pleased with this news of the impact of the parody. As well as the reports of the reaction abroad, several British newspapers reported on the spoof broadcast, including the News Chronicle, which featured the story on its front page.5 Most importantly for Martin, it would have been a way of fighting back against the evil of National Socialism. On a personal level it also secured his reputation as a brilliant impersonator and actor at the BBC, the most important broadcasting institution in the country that was to become his new home.


1 Daniel Snowman, The Hitler Emigres: The Cultural Impact on Britain of Refugees from Nazism (London: Pimlico, 2003), p. 134.
2 Charmian Brinson, ‘The Go-Between: Martin Miller’s Career in Broadcasting’, in German-speaking Exiles in the Performing Arts in Britain after 1933, ed. by Charmian Brinson and Richard Dove, The Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, 5 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013), pp. 3-16 (p. 4).
3 Dominic Shellard and Steve Nicholson, The Lord Chamberlain regrets …: a History of British Theatre Censorship (London: The British Library, 2004), p. 117).
4 Shellard and Nicholson, p. 120.
5 Brinson, p. 5.

Soyfer’s ‘Songs of the Vagabond’ at the University of London

The letter below from the renowned British theatre producer, Peter Hall, indicates that several decades after his death, Hannah Norbert-Miller was still doing her best to promote Soyfer’s work, always hopeful that his theatre plays would become known to wider audiences in the UK. In this final blog on Soyfer’s work I want to show how, thanks to the archive project funded by the Miller Trust last year, records of Soyfer’s work in the Miller Archive inspired performances at the University of London of a number of Soyfer’s songs, thereby raising his profile in a way of which Hannah would hopefully have approved.

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Miller 2/107. Letter from The National Theatre, London, to Hannah Norbert-Miller, 1977

Whilst cataloguing Soyfer’s work I found that, although there were numerous records of the texts of his lyrics, there was only one sheet of music in the collection. This was the first page of a setting of Soyfer’s ‘Mein Bruder Vagabund’ from his play Astoria, a satire on the authoritarian state of 1930s Austria. The sheet gives no indication of the date or composer, but with the help of the Jura Soyfer Gesellschaft in Vienna I was able to establish that the music was based on a melody by Soyfer’s collaborator, Jimmy Berg, for a production at the ABC cabaret theatre in Vienna in 1937. Martin Miller was one of the cast – unfortunately I have not been able find out which character he played.

Jura Soyfer's Vagabundenlied (or Wanderlied)

Miller 1/2/4/1/3. Musical score of ‘Mein Bruder Vagabund’, by Jura Soyfer and Jimmy Berg, copied by unknown hand, c. 1940. By kind permission of Trude Berg.

But although it was now known that the music and lyrics were written in Vienna in 1937, the printmark of this document indicated clearly that it had been written in the UK. The record was not, then, one of the cabaret texts smuggled out by Soyfer’s friends, as described in a previous post.

Made in England print mark

Miller 1/2/4/1/3. Printmark on musical score of ‘Mein Bruder Vagabund’, by Jura Soyfer and Jimmy Berg, c. 1940 By kind permission of Trude Berg.

With the assistance of archivists at the Literaturhaus Wien, I was able to obtain copies of Berg’s own manuscript score from his archive in Vienna. A comparison of the two manuscripts shows some differences: unlike Berg’s version, the London manuscript has a few short introductory bars, and after closer examination it became clear that that the score in the Miller Archive was actually a mixture of two different songs from Astoria: not just ‘Mein Bruder Vagabund’ but also ‘Willst du, zerlumpter Geselle’. These differences, and the differences between the handwriting, suggest that it is unlikely to have been Berg himself who scored it in the brief stop in the UK before going to the USA in about 1939. It is perhaps more likely to have been someone else who could remember the Soyfer/Berg composition from Austria and simply wrote it down from memory once they had arrived in the UK? Any comments about this theory would be very much welcomed!

Miller 1/2/4/1/3. 'Mein Bruder Vagabond' by Soyfer (text) and Berg (music), copied by unknown hand

Miller 1/2/4/1/3. 1st line of musical score of ‘Mein Bruder Vagabund’, by Jura Soyfer and Jimmy Berg, c. 1940. By kind permission of Trude Berg.

Literaturhaus Wien, Nachlaß: N1.EB-16. Berg's own copy of 'Mein Bruder Vagabund' by Soyfer (text) and Jimmy Berg

Literaturhaus Wien, Nachlaß: N1.EB-16. Berg’s own copy of ‘Mein Bruder Vagabund’ by Soyfer (text) and Jimmy Berg

With the permission of Berg’s widow in the US, the Institute decided to engage two musicians to perform these pieces publicly. The first occasion was the launch of an exhibition on the Miller Archive, ‘Theatrical Lives from Vienna to London’ at the University of London’s Senate House, when baritone Ken Eames and pianist Malcolm Miller performed the songs for 40 attendees. The response was so positive that we repeated the event at the Bloomsbury Festival 2013. This time West End actor/singer Julian Forsyth and pianist Malcolm Miller entertained 140 visitors with Soyfer songs under the heading ‘Political Cabaret in Exile: Music  from the Miller Archive’. Recordings of the songs have been performed at Bloomsbury can be heard here.

Ken Eames and Malcolm Miller performing at the launch of the exhibition, 'Theatrical Lives from Vienna to London', IGRS, July 2013

Ken Eames and Malcolm Miller performing at the launch of the exhibition, ‘Theatrical Lives from Vienna to London’, IGRS, July 2013

In fact one both occasions our musicians also performed Soyfer’s songs set to music by Marcel Rubin, whose music is not in the Miller Archive but whose archive is at the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek in Vienna. Rubin was also an Austrian exile, and he composed the music whilst in France in an internment camp in 1940, probably without knowing who the author of the lyrics was.1 When he was released he went to Mexico, where he worked in the exile community choir, which would almost certainly have performed his version of the song. So it seemed to me to be a nice illustration of the way that the ideas and writing of Soyfer were kept alive by the refugees after being taken out of Austria, by being dispersed to different countries across the world, where they were adapted and performed in different ways in different places.

'Political Cabaret in Exile@ Music from the Miller Archive', at the Bloomsbury Festival, 20 October 2013

‘Political Cabaret in Exile: Music from the Miller Archive’, at the Bloomsbury Festival, Senate House, University of London, 20 October 2013

Hartmut Krones, ‘Immer noch “auf der Flucht” (aus Wien): zu Liedern von Hanns Eisler und Marcel Rubin’, in Musik im sozialen Raum: Festschrift für Peter Schleuning zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. by Freia Hoffmann, Markus Gärtner and Axel Weidenfeld (Munich: Allitera Verlag, 2011), pp. 161-187 (p. 178).

Lechner Edi at the Laterndl

Photographs, a compère script and a programme all bear witness to the Laterndl’s production of Jura Soyfer’s Lechner Edi schaut ins Paradies in February 1940, part of the cabaret show, Von Adam bis Adolf. This post will draw together this material to see what overall record they provide of the production. It also links to a recording of a song from the play set to music for the Laterndl performance by German exile composer E.H. Meyer. The recording was made at the event ‘Political Cabaret in Exile: Music from the Miller Archive’ at the Bloomsbury Festival in October 2013.

Miller 5/1/6. Programme for the Laterndl's third cabaret show, Von Adam bis Adolf, February 1940 (photocopy

Miller 5/1/6. Programme for the Laterndl’s third cabaret show, Von Adam bis Adolf, February 1940 (photocopy

As the programme below shows, of the ten items composing the show, Lechner Edi was number six on the agenda, immediately following the interval and more or less at the central point of the programme. Lasting 30-40 minutes, the play is good example of the Mittelstück genre of Austrian Kleinkunst cabaret, with which Soyfer became closely associated. Such playlets were usually sandwiched into the centre of a cabaret programme of more traditional and shorter cabaret numbers, usually between two intervals. The longer length of the Mittelstück allowed Kleinkunst writers to explore their chosen themes more deeply, the term (literally ‘middle piece’) being a reference to the position of such pieces somewhere between theatre and cabaret.1

Von Adam 2 and 3 joined1

Miller 5/1/6. Programme for the Laterndl’s third cabaret show, Von Adam bis Adolf, February 1940 (photocopy)

Although there is no script of the play itself in the collection, there is this English-language script (below) written for the compère, whose job it was (at least in the UK exile version of political cabaret) to give an overview of the plot for non-German audience members. In this case the compère script was probably written and presented by Hanne Norbert, whose English language skills in addition to her acting talents made her a great asset to the Laterndl.

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Miller 1/2/1/2. Compère’s script for Jura Soyfer’s Lechner Edi, February 1940

As the script explains, the protagonist of the play is a young man named Edi Lechner (played by Peter Preses) who has been out of work for six years and is obsessed by the dream of finding employment. In the mid-1930s, when the play was written, unemployment in Austria was rife (around 25%), with youth unemployment a particular problem. For Edi’s girlfriend Fritzi, played by Marianne Walla, the idea of Edi ever having a job is so alien she laughs in disbelief when, in scene one (shown in the photographs below), he describes the work he used to do on machines before being made redundant.

Lechner photo002

Miller 3/1/1/5. Photograph of Laterndl performance of Soyfer’s Lechner Edi, 1940

Six years after he last worked, Edi is still bitter about losing his job, and blames the machinery he once used and controlled but which later replaced him. When one such machine, a robot called Pepi (played by Jaro Klüger), appears on stage and announces that now he too has been made redundant, Edi is angry and disbelieving, and accuses Pepi of stealing his job. Following Edi’s logic, Pepi concludes that the inventions and discoveries of technological and scientific progress are the root causes of Edi present unemployment. The solution he proposes, quickly taken up by Edi, is to undo those pivotal moments in history when such advances were made. Pepi offers to use his time-travelling capacity to transport Edi and Fritzi back in time and persuade the scientists, inventors, explorers and others responsible for progress to reverse their steps. This will, they naively conclude, rid the world of the curse of unemployment.

Peter Preses and Marianne Walla in 'Der Lechner Edi' 1940

Miller 3/1/1/5. Photograph of Laterndl performance of Soyfer’s Lechner Edi, 1940

The photograph below captures a moment of the trio’s journey back through time. It is interesting to compare the Laterndl photograph with this photograph of the first production of the play at the Viennese cabaret theatre, Literatur am Naschmarkt, in October 1936.2 The Laterndl photo suggests that the Kleinkunst style of limited simple decor and costumes was in this play taken even further than it was in the genre’s original context.

Lechner photo001

Miller 3/1/1/5. Photograph of Laterndl performance of Soyfer’s Lechner Edi, 1940

Soyfer’s ‘Wanderlied der Zeit’ (‘Song of Time’) accompanies the travellers on their trip through time, as they pass first through the years of the First World War. The programme above indicates that E.H. Meyer composed the music for the production and that the words were ‘spoken’ by Leo Bieber. A recording of the song from the 2014 Bloomsbury Festival using Meyer’s setting can be heard here.

The song has been interpreted by Horst Jarka as reflecting on the transience of human existence and the passing of time over which humans have no control.3  The last verse, Jarka argues, urges the protagonists to revolt against the crippling nature of this transience, and to gain clarity of vision about the past. However, at this stage in the play, Edi’s understanding of his position is still clearly shaped by his sense of predestination about historical development. As they travel further and further back in time, from Luigi Galvani to Galileo and to Christopher Columbus, Edi’s frustration increases as his sense of impotency grows in the face of the apparent inevitability of historical development. The photograph below shows Edi talking to a sailor (Martin Miller) on board Columbus’s ship, where he tries to persuade the explorer not to discover America, but is ultimately forced to accept Columbus’s argument that if he, Columbus, does not do so, someone else will.

Lechner photo004

Miller 3/1/1/5. Photograph of Laterndl performance of Soyfer’s Lechner Edi, 1940

Eventually Edi finds himself back at the very beginning of time: at the gates of paradise, just as humankind is about to be created. The photograph below shows him pleading with the guard (also played by Martin Miller) either to give him a job or to let him petition ‘management’ to abandon the plans for the creation – Soyfer’s Marxist slant on a biblical tale.

Lechner photo006

Miller 3/1/1/5. Photograph of Laterndl performance of Soyfer’s Lechner Edi, 1940

The final song, the ‘Moritat im Paradies’ (‘Ballad at the gates of paradise’), sets out Edi’s vision of the inevitable misery that will arise if humankind is created. Each verse of the song evokes a different figure of human unhappiness, as shown in the photograph below: a profiteer, a laid-off, homeless worker, a poverty-stricken mother, a prostitute and finally a vengeful killer brutalised by his experiences in WW1. Only by halting the birth of humankind in the first place can the experiences of such tormented lives be avoided, Edi asserts.

Laterndl performance of 'Der Lechner Edi' 1940

Miller 3/1/1/5. Photograph of Laterndl performance of Soyfer’s Lechner Edi, 1940

Edi’s attempt to prevent the very birth of the human race is the pinnacle of his sense of impotency over historical development, but in ‘unmaking’ humankind he is of course negating his own existence. Only Fritzi’s last-minute intervention, her affirmation of life, prevents the pair from being ‘uncreated’ along with the rest of the human race. Following her wishes, ‘management’ decides to go ahead with human creation, but on the understanding that humans have free will and a choice over their development. Soyfer’s message of empowerment becomes clear as it finally dawns on Edi that rather than trying to prevent historical development, he himself must actively steer the direction of change. The play has been seen as a metaphor for Soyfer’s rejection of the sense of fatalistic determinism which had weakened opposition to fascism, a message underlined by the play’s last line: ‘it’s up to us!’

1 See Österreichisches Kabarettarchiv ‘Zur Geschichte des österreichischen Kabaretts: ein Abriss’ , accessed 21 March 2014.
2Salzburg University, ‘Österreichische Exil-Literatur seit 1933’, accessed 21 March 2014.
3 Horst Jarka, Jura Soyfer: Leben, Werk, Zeit (Vienna: Löcker Verlag, 1987), p. 299.

Commemorating Jura Soyfer

Last month marked the 75th anniversary of the death of the young Austrian cabaret writer, Jura Soyfer, in Buchenwald in February 1939. This is the first of a short series of blog posts aiming to show how actors at the Austrian exile theatre in London, the Laterndl, devastated by the news of Soyfer’s death, commemorated Soyfer with performances of his songs and plays. The posts will also highlight the importance of the collection for holding early records of Soyfer’s work.

ABC review

Miller 6/1/1. Newspaper review of the cabaret production, Von Bagdad nach Vineta, at Vienna’s ABC cabaret theatre, autumn 1937 (original source unknown)

A number of the leading actors in the exile theatres, including Martin Miller, Rudolf Spitz, Jaro Klüger and Peter Preses, had worked with Soyfer in Vienna in the 1930s during the period of Austrofascist rule before the German annexation of March 1938. Soyfer had been the main writer behind the cabaret production at Vienna’s ABC Regenbogen Café, Von Bagdad nach Vineta (From Baghdad to Vineta) (reviewed in the above newspaper article), in which Martin Miller had performed (for more information see a previous post). The names ‘Fritz Feder’ and ‘Norbert Noll’ used in the article were in fact Soyfer’s pseudonyms.

Miller 5/1/2. Programme (copy) for the Laterndl’s first show, Unterwegs

Miller 5/1/2. Programme (copy) for the Laterndl’s first show, Unterwegs

The Laterndl’s dedication to performing Soyfer’s work began with their first cabaret production, a programme for which is shown above. Unterwegs played from June until August 1939 under Martin Miller’s direction at the Austrian Centre near Paddington. Alongside the items by exile writers like Hugo F. Königsgarten and Rudolf Spitz, the programme lists Soyfer’s ‘Lied des einfachen Menschen’ (literally, ‘Song of the simple people’), sung by Martin Miller with Kurt Manschinger on the piano.

Miller 5/1/2. Programme (copy) for the Laterndl’s first show, Unterwegs

Miller 1/2/41/4. Script of ‘Lied des einfachen Menschen’ by Jura Soyfer

With his ‘Lied des einfachen Menschen’ Soyfer lamented the degrading and dehumanising effects of unemployment, which was rife in 1930s Austria. It is the only text to have survived from his play Pinguine. Ein Polarnachsttraum (Penguins. A polar night’s dream), first staged in Vienna in 1936, again with Martin Miller in the cast.1 The following recollection by Franz Bönsch, one of the Laterndl’s founding members, describes the effect of the performance on of the song on the exile audience:

In the Laterndl people cried together and laughed together. Unforgettable were the sobs which emanated from the audience […] when Jura Soyfer’s song was heard. ‘We are the name on the passport, we are the echo of what once was finely said, the rumour of a rumour that’s long dead’ – and there was something like a deep exhalation of breath as the song continued: ‘A poor, half-finished sketch is all we are, a glimpse of humans in their final state. A tune suggested by the opening bar. Your call us wretches human beings? Wait!’ 2

Front cover of Young Austria's Zwischen Gestern und Morgen (London: Austrian Centre, 1942)

Front cover of Young Austria’s Zwischen Gestern und Morgen (London: Austrian Centre, 1942)

‘Ein einfacher Mann spricht’ (‘A simple man speaks’) was published by the Austrian exile group, Young Austria, in Zwischen Gestern und Morgen in 1942. It was just one of five poems by Sofyer published by the group, an indication of Soyfer’s significance for the exiled Austrian youth groups in London. It was also translated into English by John Lehmann, who had spent time with Soyfer in Vienna in the 1930s, and who later published the translation with the title ‘Song of the Twentieth-Century Man’ in his Collected Poems 1930-1963 (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1963).

Miller 1/2/4/1/4. English translation by John Lehmann of Sofyer's 'Lied des einfachen Menschen'

Miller 1/2/4/1/4. English translation by John Lehmann of Sofyer’s ‘Lied des einfachen Menschen’

The Laterndl opened in its new home at 153 Finchley Road at the beginning of January 1940. The company then dedicated four full evenings (15, 22, 29 January and 5 February) to staging Soyfer’s work,  marking the passing of nearly a year since Soyfer’s death on 16 February 1939. Again production and direction was led by Martin Miller. Two of the plays performed on these evenings were the two central pieces staged in Vienna in autumn 1937 mentioned in the review above: Vineta, die versunkene Stadt (Vineta, the sunken city) and Der treueste Bürger Bagdads: Ein orientalisches Märchen (The most faithful citizen of Baghdad: an oriental fable). The script of the latter (below), a short, one-act play which was bitingly satirical about the antisemitism of the Austrian authorities, a point which the Viennese newspaper reviews had all ignored.3 A third play staged as part of this tribute to Soyfer, Der Lechner Edi schaut ins Paradies, will be the focus of my next post.

Treuste Bürger Bs5

Miller 1/2/4/3/2. Typescript of Soyfer’s Der treuste Bürger Bagdads

The reaction of the exile audience members to the production is illustrated by the letter below written to Martin Miller from another exile writer one day after the first performance. Fritz Gross wrote that ‘the Jura celebration was a great experience. May I present to you and the friends who contributed to the success of this unforgettable evening the enclosed poem as an expression of my deepest thanks’. Enclosed with the letter was a poem of nine stanzas, inscribed ‘Für Martin Miller. 16.1.40. Fritz Gross’.

Gross letter001

EXS.2.GRO.2. Letter from Fritz Gross to Martin Miller concerning the commemoration of Jura Soyfer, 16 January 1940

Finally, I showed an extract from the speech below, ‘Jura Soyfer: eine Würdigung’ (‘Jura Soyfer: an appreciation’) in a previous post. I did not know at the time who wrote it or when it was given, but I have since discovered that it was written and presented by another Laterndl writer, Albert Fuchs, on the first anniversary of Jura Soyfer’s death.4 The speech has been described as the first attempt to set out Soyfer’s wider significance as a political writer rather than solely as a writer of cabaret sketches.5  As the most gifted Austrian writer of his generation and a great literary hope for the future, Soyfer would, according to Fuchs, have become the Austrian socialist poet.

JS Würdigung001

Miller 1/2/1/6. Typescript of ‘Jura Soyfer: eine Würdigung’ by Albert Fuchs, 1940


1 This is not to say that this is the only copy of the song. For information about further copies please contact the Jura Soyfer Archive.
2 Franz Bönsch, ‘Das österreichische Exiltheater ‘Laterndl’ in London’, in Österreicher im Exil 1934 bis 1945: Protokoll des Internationalen Symposiums zur Erforschung des österreichischen Exils von 1934 bis 1945, ed. by Helene Maimann and Heinz Linzer (Vienna: Österreichischer Bundesverlag, 1977), pp. 440-450 (p. 447.
3 Horst Jarka, Jura Soyfer: Leben, Werk, Zeit (Vienna: Löcker Verlag, 1987), p. 343. The quotation from Soyfer’s song is the translation by John Lehmann mentioned later in the post.
4 Another typescript of the speech is in the Dokumentationsarchiv des österreichischen Widerstandes in Vienna.
5 Jarka, p. 502.

Refugee life and organisations

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 

Letter from Austrian Self-Aid, 1938

Miller 2/151. Letter from Austrian Self-Aid, 1938

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.

British Council carol concert programme (front), 1939

Miller 5/3/3. British Council carol concert programme (front), 1939

British Council carol concert programme (inner), 1939

Miller 5/3/3. British Council carol concert programme (inner), 1939

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.

Letter from the British Council, 1939

Miller 2/17. Letter from the British Council, 1939

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.

Austrian Centre info sheet, Jul 1942

Miller 1/2/3/2. Austrian Centre info sheet, Jul 1942

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.

Miller 5/4. "Zeitspiegel" (no. 46, 15 November 1941)

Miller 5/4. “Zeitspiegel” (no. 46, 15 November 1941)

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.

Miller 5/3/7. Flyer for a series of discussion evenings hosted by the association, 'Das kommende Österreich'

Miller 5/3/7. Flyer for a series of discussion evenings hosted by the association, ‘Das kommende Österreich’

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).