A Jewish cultural gem

Times Staff Writer

In 1930s Vienna, art fought a nightly war against prejudice at the Nestroyhof theater. With Adolf Hitler's rise in neighboring Germany and widespread pro-Nazi sentiment in Austria, life was increasingly precarious for Vienna's Jews.

But the Jewish theater troupe at the Nestroyhof aimed "through artistic endeavor ... to refute the arguments of Judaism's adversaries and show their cruelties," artistic director Jacob Goldflies wrote at the start of the 1937-38 theater season.

Hitler's annexation of Austria on March 13, 1938, brought a brutal end to such optimism and to Vienna's once-thriving Jewish theater scene. The Nestroyhof theater was forgotten, its graceful Art Nouveau moldings and wrought iron balconies hidden behind the shelves of a supermarket that had moved into the space.

Now, after more than half a century of neglect, the theater has been discovered virtually intact within the Nestroyhof building. However, it remains closed, blanketed in dust and lost to public view.

The theater is on the first floor of a privately owned apartment building, which is to be granted landmark status soon. The original building was designed at the beginning of the 20th century by Oskar Marmorek, a well-known Viennese Art Nouveau architect and Zionist Jew.

While Austria's current landmark-protection laws forbid the owners from destroying architectural details, it would not proscribe what the theater space could be used for or require the owners to foot the bill for restorations.

Warren Rosenzweig, the American founder and artistic director of Jewish Theater Austria, is fighting to reopen the theater but has struggled to gain official backing for the project.

"It's high time to do something for Jewish culture for the present," he said. "It is the only space that is fully recoverable, and the building is absolutely spectacular. But it is not possible to restore this building without government support."

Vienna's theaters have traditionally survived on generous subsidies from the city, which provides more than 50 million euros annually to the performing arts. Rosenzweig petitioned the city government to finance the Nestroyhof's restoration and reopening, but his proposal was turned down on financial grounds.

And while Rosenzweig recently received notice from the city that it would reconsider the Nestroyhof project, the government is revamping its funding system and aims to reduce -- not increase -- the number of theaters operating in Vienna.

"Vienna has a lot of theaters and, unfortunately, not an increasing number of theatergoers," said Saskia Schwaiger, spokeswoman for the Vienna city councilor in charge of cultural affairs. "Not every theater group can get its own theater."

Public, private investment

The feasibility of reopening a theater in the Nestroyhof, Schwaiger said, remains in question. "The requirements for a theater are different now than they were then -- access for the disabled, technical requirements," she said. "It would not just be a normal restoration. We have to ask if it makes sense to invest a high amount of money in something like that."

The cost of leasing and restoring the theater is estimated to be in the lower hundreds of thousands of dollars, an amount Nestroyhof supporters argue is a small price to pay to revive Jewish theater in the city. "As with any restoration it requires an investment, but in proportion to the importance of the project it is a reasonable investment," Rosenzweig said.

The Los Angeles-based Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, a nonprofit organization that supports Jewish arts around the world, has joined efforts to resurrect the Nestroyhof.

The center's president, John Rauch, was born in Vienna and remembers going with his grandmother to children's shows at the theater, before he fled Austria in 1938 at age 8.

He called the reopening of the Nestroyhof an important part of "reclaiming Jewish cultural venues in Europe and breathing new life into them with young creativity."

"A big question here is, how much does Vienna value its Jewish connection and does Vienna have the vision to become, like Paris or Prague, a center for Jewish culture?" he said. "I have been to Austria several times, and Austrians are not particularly keen on fostering that Jewish connection. But that is a decision that the Viennese ultimately have to make."

Rosenzweig, who moved to Austria from New York and founded the country's sole Jewish theater troupe in 1999, first learned of the Nestroyhof's existence two years ago. The owners of the supermarket that had occupied the space until the late 1990s had put up partition walls and a false ceiling, lashed with steel cables to the glass-paneled roof of the theater, concealing -- but also preserving -- the original structure and details. An architect, who had rented office space in what was once the theater's foyer, drilled through a wall to cut new windows, uncovering the old theater.

In its heyday, under ever-changing artistic direction, the theater showed at various times light fare, such as French boulevard comedies, as well as more ambitious works. In 1905, Karl Kraus, a satirist and one of Vienna's most influential intellectuals of the time, arranged for a private, invitation-only performance of Frank Wedekind's "Pandora's Box" at the Nestroyhof. Wedekind acted in the production; Austrian composer Alban Berg was in attendance and later based his famous opera "Lulu" on the play he saw for the first time that night.

In the early 20th century, several Jewish theaters began to spring up in the area of the city that housed the Jewish ghetto and after World War I remained home to a large percentage of Vienna's Jewish population.

These theaters primarily catered to the Yiddish-speaking Jews who had emigrated from the former Habsburg lands in Eastern Europe, but Vienna's leading artists also found reason to go. Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka wrote in his memoirs about frequenting the Yiddish theaters with Karl Kraus and architect Adolf Loos, describing the "unforgettable performances that distinguished themselves with originality and imagination."

Jacob Goldflies' troupe, the Judische Kunstlerspiele, began performing at the Nestroyhof in 1927. The company's primarily Yiddish productions included well-known Jewish dramas, such as "The Dybbuk" by An-Ski and popular revues like "To Tel Aviv" by Zionist Abisch Meisl, which called on Jews to emigrate to then-Palestine.

"They were ambitious, they tried to put entertainment and high culture on the stage," said Brigitte Dalinger, a historian of Yiddish theater.

But Vienna's vibrant Jewish Broadway became a distant memory as the theater troupes and their audiences fled abroad or died in the Holocaust. Many of the buildings housing the theaters were damaged during the war, including the Nestroyhof, which was restored in 1957. Others were later torn down. Of the eight Jewish theaters that existed before 1938, only the Nestroyhof remains.

If support to reopen the Nestroyhof can be found, Rosenzweig envisions an ambitious program for the theater that would creatively explore Jewish issues and foster critical discussion. "If there was even a tradition of Jewish theater it was that it was a reflection of what is happening here and now," Rosenzweig said. "Jewish theater was always contemporary."

Other Jewish cultural events that take place in different venues in the city, such as the annual Jewish Film Festival and the Yiddish Theater Festival, could also find a home at the Nestroyhof.

Rosenzweig said public interest in Jewish theater in Austria is high, even if official support has been less forthcoming.

"Our project has been met with such enthusiasm," he said. "Austrians still have a great need to positively come to terms with their past. But they also need the means. Jewish theater offers Austrians the chance to understand better what Jewish identity is and can be, the many aspects of Jewish experience."

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