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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.
After leaving Reichenberg in 1931, Martin continued to tour theatres in Austria and beyond for a further three years. He was based at the Stadttheater in Aussig (by then, Ústí nad Labem in Czechoslovakia) from 1931 to 1933, at the Deutsches Theater in Mährisch-Ostrau (Ostrava, Czechoslovakia) from 1933 to 1935, and at the Theatre Municipale in Strasbourg from 1935 to 1936. The newspaper reviews in the collection of the productions in which he performed give some indication of the diverse linguistic communities to whom he was performing.
Shown above are: a Czech review of a production of Jakob Wassermann’s Lukardis in Mährisch-Ostrau in 1934, in which Martin played a Russian revolutionary; a French review of a production of Fritz Schweifert’s Marguerite durch drei in Strasbourg in 1935/36, in which he played one of the leading lady’s three deceived suitors; and a Yiddish review of a production of Die Grenze. Ein Schicksal unter 600.000 (The Border. One fate amongst 600,000), translated from Danish and adapted by Awrum Halbert (under the pseudonym Albert Ganzert), performed at the Jüdische Kulturtheater in Vienna in 1936. In this play, the Jüdische Kulturtheater’s most successful production, Martin played a respected businessman who provides a role model for his grandson when his Jewish background is exposed and he is hauled before the courts in Nazi Germany.1
Martin had maintained professional and family links with Vienna over the years that he worked away. From about 1935-1936 until his exile in 1938, he worked on a more steady basis in Vienna. By this time he was not just acting but also directing the plays he was in, for example at the Neues Theater in der Praterstrasse and the Theater der Schulen in der Volksoper. The image below shows some of the reviews he kept of the productions on which he worked at this time.
In 1936 Martin joined a small number of actors who performed regularly at the Jüdisches Kulturtheater in Vienna. The theatre had only just been established, and it employed mainly German Jewish actors in exile from Nazi Germany. It had one of the most politically active repetoires in Vienna at that time; its plays (like Die Grenze, mentioned above) often dealt with antisemitism and events in contemporary Germany.2 In 1937 Martin starred here again in another play focusing on anti-semitism: Ashley Dukes’ adaptation of Lion Feuchtwanger’s novel, Jüd Süß. The image below shows Martin Miller as Herzog Karl Alexander and Lisl Einberger as Naemie, the daughter of Josef Süss Oppenheimer. The caption reads ‘Naomi evading the hands of the Duke’; the first line is written in Yiddish and the second in Hebrew.3 The newspaper source is not known.
As well as acting in regular plays, Martin also organised events at which he performed as a solo artist reciting from poems or acting out characters from plays. Perhaps this allowed him to focus on the character portrayals for which he had become known. The invitation below is for just such an evening at the Jüdisches Kulturtheater on 23 May 1936, at which Martin read and acted out characterisations of a range of Jewish figures in literary sources from Shakespeare to the Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler. The handwritten message from him reads ‘it would be nice if you were there!’; unfortunately it is not known to whom this is addressed. A review in the collection praised this exploration of Jewish suffering over 400 years, and suggested that Martin was one of the best character actors of Jews in Vienna.
As well as his work at the Jüdisches Kulturtheater, Martin now also began to perform in Vienna’s cabaret scene, which was rapidly becoming one of the few public spaces where political dissent could be expressed.4 Below is a review of a 1936 cabaret show in which Martin worked alongside Jura Soyfer, Friedrich Torberg and Peter Hammerschlag at the cabaret theatre, Literatur am Naschmarkt. The reviewer’s comments on Martin’s individual contribution roughly translate as
Martin brings forth a storm of laughter with his stunningly successful dramatic parodies of actors from Ferdinand Onno to Hans Moser, Alexander Moissi and Werner Krauß and to Max Pallenberg and Albert Bassermann.
The objects of Martin’s impressionist skills were all successful German or Austrian theatre actors in the 1930s, well-known at that time. Of those who had been based in Germany, all except the antisemitic Krauß had already left the country and gone into exile in Austria. Krauß, by contrast, had by this time had been honoured by the Nazis with the status of Staatsschauspieler (actor of national importance); he was soon to lend his acting skills to the Nazis by starring in one of the most antisemitic propaganda films ever made, Jud Süß. It can perhaps be expected, then, that he of all them came off worst from Martin’s cutting satirical impressionist talents.
From September to November 1937, Martin performed at the ABC Theater in the cabaret show ‘Von Bagadad nach Vineta’. The central pieces of the show were Jura Soyfer’s sketches Vineta, die versunkene Stadt and Der treuste Bürger Bagdads. However, Martin’s individual contribution was also very well received by the liberal critics (possibly from the liberal Wiener Tag) who reviewed the show: ‘eine erlesene Delikatesse ist ein Vortrag Martin Millers, der vollendet kleine Wortkunstwerte Polgars bringt’ (Martin Miller’s presentation, which perfectly conveys the aphorisms of [Austrian journalist Alfred] Polgar, is a choice delicacy of the show).
Time was, of course, running out. Jura Soyfer, as mentioned in a previous post, had already been imprisoned in Dachau. Following the annexation of Austria in March 1938 Martin, as a Jew, was immediately forbidden to participate in the theatre. Cultural institutions in Vienna were were very quickly reorganised and ‘Aryanised’. On 11 March the Jüdisches Kulturtheater was looted and closed.5 According to Yates, ‘in the course of the summer of 1938 everyone working in the theatre had to provide documentary evidence of his or her ‘Aryan’ descent’.6 Eight months later, on 1 November 1938, Martin emigrated to Berlin.
1 Brigitte Dalinger, Verloschene Sterne: Geschichte des jüdischen Theaters in Wien (Vienna: Picus Verlag, 1998), p. 116.
2 Brigitte Dalinger, ‘Jiddisches Theater in Wien, Berlin und Prag’, in Berlin – Wien – Prag : Moderne, Minderheiten und Migration in der Zwischenkriegszeit. Modernity, minorities and migration in the inter-war period, ed. by Susanne Marten-Finnis and Matthias Uecker (Bern: Peter Lang, 2001), pp. 271-287 (p. 285).
3 Many thanks to Rachel Bracha, Archive Co-ordinator at Archive Coordinator, World ORT, for her translation of the caption for this photograph.
4 W.E. Yates, Theatre in Vienna: a Critical History 1776-1995 (Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 222.
5 Salzburg University, ‘Österreichische Schriftstellerinnen und Schriftsteller des Exils seit 1933’, http://www.literaturepochen.at/exil/lecture_5003_18.html, accessed 3 April 2013.
6 Dalinger, ‘Jiddisches Theater’, p. 224.