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Glocalist - Oct. 15, 2004

The Nestroyhof Initiative


I. Re-establishing the Theater in the Nestroyhof

The initiative to re-establish the Jewish theater in the Nestroyhof presents a unique opportunity to restore a heritage site of major significance in a city whose contemporary greatness is largely inspired by the cultural history that the neglected landmark embodies. At least as important, the initiative suggests hope for the future of diversity and responsibility in Austria, while its success can contribute to Gentile-Jewish reconciliation.

II. Fin-de-Siècle Architect Oskar Marmorek

The Nestroyhof is a masterpiece by the most important Jewish architect of Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, Oskar Marmorek.

Born in 1863 in Galicia, Oskar Marmorek moved to Vienna with his family at age 12 and later studied architecture at the Technical University. Like his contemporary, Otto Wagner, he built some of the most beautiful Jugendstil apartment buildings in Vienna in an unmistakably distinctive and personal style. Besides the Nestroyhof, extant examples of his work include, among others, the Villa Wrchovzky in Grinzing, the apartment and business buildings at Windmühlgasse 30 and 32, Schottenfeldgasse 65, and Lerchengasse 3-5 ("Zu den drei Lerchen"), the "Rüdigerhof" at Hamburgerstrasse 20, and other buildings in Austria, Hungary, Germany, and elsewhere.

Marmorek made the acquaintance of another Viennese intellectual, Theodor Herzl, in 1895. The architect soon became one of the first members of the World Zionist Organization and was elected to its executive board. The friendship that developed between Marmorek and Herzl, together with their common Zionist goals, would forge an intimate cooperation that would last until the latter′s death in 1904. In Herzl′s final major testament to Zionism, his utopian novel "Altneuland" ("Old New Land"), the author modeled the character of "Steineck" - the fictional architect of the State of the Jews - on his close friend and associate, Oskar Marmorek.

Marmorek was also an active member of the Viennese Jewish community and, like Herzl, an outspoken opponent of the popular antisemitic movement that mushroomed with the rise of Karl Lueger as Mayor of Vienna in 1897 and would later culminate in the Shoah. In 1909, suffering from physical illness and depression - deeply disheartened by the rapidly rising tide of Austrian antisemitism - Marmorek took his own life at the gravesite of his father in Vienna. He was 46 years old.

III. The History of the Nestroyhof

It was the age of Arthur Schnitzler, Sigmund Freud, Martin Buber, Franz Kafka, Theodor Herzl, Gustav Mahler, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Max Reinhardt, Lise Meitner, Karl Kraus, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Viktor Adler, Arnold Schönberg, Stephan Zweig…

Formerly a center of indigenous and international Jewish culture and creativity, the theater in the Nestroyhof made a daily contribution to a flourishing intellectual, artistic, and social movement in Vienna that, by the 1930s, had included numerous theaters and independent ensembles.

Built in 1898, the Nestroyhof was the architect′s first major Jugendstil venture, yet it is as quintessential of the contemporary style of the day as it is exquisite and expressive in its detail and structural design. A high example of architectural innovation, the Nestroyhof is among the first multifunctional buildings ever created. Incorporating a mid-sized theater, commercial business and office spaces, and private apartments into a single complex, the building stands at the vanguard of 20th Century urban architectural design.

Erected in the heart of the Leopoldstadt, Vienna′s most densely and culturally active Jewish quarter, at the center of its thriving cultural scene in the Praterstrasse, the Nestroyhof was financed, owned, and occupied by Austrian Jews and was renown for its role in Viennese Jewish theater until its seizure by the Nazis in 1938 and its full Aryanization by 1940.

The theater in the courtyard of this Jugendstil gem was an integral part and central feature of the design from the start. Until 1938, themes of Jewish identity, culture, and experience were often portrayed on its stage in Yiddish, German, and other languages. Known at different times under various names, including "Intimes Theater", "Klein-Kunst-Spiele" and "Theater Reklame", the theater in the Nestroyhof was respected for nearly four decades for its many resident productions, but was also the host stage for visiting performances by artists and ensembles of international renown, such as Molly Picon, Maurice Schwartz and his Jewish Art Theater, the Vilna Troupe, the Ziegler-Pastor Yiddish Theater of Bucarest, and the Habima of Tel Aviv.

Numerous productions by Ernst Toller, Osip Dymov and others, focusing on themes of Jewish identity, were performed in German at the Initimes Theater. From autumn 1927 until March 1938, Theater Reklame was home to the famous Jüdische Künstlerspiele of Jakob Goldfliess, which presented a diverse program that was known not only for its artistic quality and creativity, but for the contemporary relevance of its themes. The ensemble brought people together in a daring human environment and did not shy away from the social and political challenges of the day. Not merely entertainment, but communication and even protest were courageously emphasized, as in the 1937 bi-lingual (German and Yiddish) production of Arnold Zweig′s "Die Sendung Semaels," about the ritual murder accusations against Jews in late 19th Century Hungary.

The theater remained in operation until the Anschluss, when it was taken by force. Some of the best loved artists of the Jüdische Künstlerspiele, such as Laura Glucksmann, Ben Zion Sigall, and Herman Weinberg were to die at the hands of the Nazis, while others, including Artistic Director Jakob Goldfliess, resident playwrights, Abisch Meisels and Samuel Harendorf, and the actor Doli Nachbar managed to flee to London, New York, and elsewhere.

The key themes in the life, passions, fears, and achievements of Fin-de-Siècle architect, intellectual, and Zionist pioneer Oskar Marmorek all unite in this historically unique site of Viennese Jewish heritage.

IV. The Theater in the Nestroyhof Today

Unlike the other Viennese Jewish theaters, the Nestroyhof survived 20th Century destruction by a series of lucky accidents. When the auditorium was converted into a supermarket after WWII, the market owners simply built an internal shell of added walls and a low drop ceiling, effectively preserving the balcony, glass roof, and sumptuous architectural detail, while hiding it from view for decades. Even the thousands who bought their groceries there, year after year, were unaware that they were pushing their carts down the aisles and on the stage of the great old Jewish theater.

The last supermarket tenant moved out in the late 1990s and the space remained empty and sealed off from public access. It was rediscovered a few years ago when an opening in a section of the wall between the drop ceiling of the former supermarket and the original glass roof of the theater revealed, among other things, the balcony, boxes, and balustrades that run along all three sides of the auditorium. The drop ceiling of the former supermarket is now gone, revealing a spacious, elegantly designed interior with a central auditorium and balcony level large enough to seat up to 250 people. Most of the original architectural detail is still intact.

V. The Nestroyhof Initiative

The Jewish Theater of Austria has been working for years to rally public support to restore this heritage site that is of such enormous significance for Austria and for the world. Despite widespread concern in Austria and internationally, the Federal Government is hesitant to enforce landmark protection of the site, and the Department of Culture of Vienna, which controls the city′s fully centralized cultural budget, claims that it cannot afford to support the restoration.

In late 2001, soon after learning of the hidden existence of the site, I first began to discuss the issues of landmark protection, restoration, and the reestablishment of the old Jewish theater in the Nestroyhof with Viennese government officials. In a letter dated April 5, 2002, I was informed that, for financial reasons, the Department of Culture was not prepared to help.

In July 2003, I turned to the public for support and, within weeks, broad public media coverage had made the Nestroyhof, so long forgotten, a household word among culturally informed Austrians. Since then, many Austrian citizens and internationals have voiced their support for the initiative to reestablish the site as a contemporary theater and international, intercultural center for performing arts, focusing on themes relevant to Jewish experience, identity, and values.

Outspoken supporters of the initiative have included, among many others, the President of the Jewish Community of Vienna Dr. Ariel Muzicant, Director of the Federal Theater Holding Dr. Georg Springer, Vienna Chief Rabbi Prof. Paul Chaim Eisenberg, and Archbishop of Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, as well as the late Federal President Dr. Thomas Klestil. In April 2004, the Jewish Theater of Austria submitted a detailed proposal to the City of Vienna for its plan to restore and reestablish the Nestroyhof.

The rediscovered courtyard theater embodies a rich but tragically disrupted history and proposes a viable future for contemporary culture. Vienna is famous still today for the great Jewish heritage that was criminally obliterated in 1938. It is a heritage that belongs to all Austrians. The Nestroyhof now signals hope and opportunity for progress.

The reestablishment of the Jewish Theater in the Nestroyhof is not just an exciting possibility – it is vital to the health and future of the Austrian community and of Europe, and is long overdue. A 21st Century Jewish theater betokens a new era of artistic and cultural enrichment, diversity, and interaction for Vienna. It can contribute significantly to the growing economy of the city′s central, yet culturally neglected Leopoldstadt – its commerce and its tourism - and can inspire international admiration and attraction.

As of this writing, in September 2004, the Federal Government is still undecided about granting landmark protection for the Nestroyhof and the Jewish Theater of Austria awaits the decision of the Viennese government concerning its formal proposal to restore the theater to its original purpose. Unless this unique site is renovated and preserved now, it may be lost forever. In the 21st Century, destroyed for the second time.

Copyright © 2004 by Warren Rosenzweig

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