Jewish Renaissance - Oct. 01, 2007

The Jews of Vienna

courtesy of Jewish Renaissance Quarterly Cultural Magazine

As I arrive for my appointment with WARREN ROSENZWEIG, I am surprised to see a prominent illuminated sign ‘Jewish Theater of Austria’ above a large vulnerable glass window. I wander in through an open door to find the theatre’s director at the back of the office.

When I express my wonder at the absence of security (in contrast to the stringent measures at the synagogue), Warren takes me outside and points out the even more prominently labeled police station on the opposite corner. “We have had no trouble – perhaps this helps.” He had other reasons for the choice of the site. Over the street is a building which houses an extreme rightwing fraternity; Another right-wing fraternity is situated around the corner. At the end of the road is the council office for that area of the city. “I felt we needed to make a statement.”

I asked Warren how he, a New Yorker, came to be living in the city. “It was love,” he said. “What other reason is there?” He met his now wife, Sonja, while working on a film set in the city and promised her when they married that, after trying out life in New York, they would return to Austria if she wished.

“When I first came here, in the 80s, I often found myself confronted with my Jewishness in a way that I had never experienced growing up in New York. If I picked up a package at the post office, a worker might ask: that’s a Jewish name isn’t it? Or want to discuss something going on in Israel. It wasn’t usually negative – except sometimes in the countryside – but being Jewish was anything but ‘selbstverständlich’... Vienna in the 80s was culturally sleepy, but Waldheim brought the spirit of denial out into the open. The Waldheim phenomenon was also good for Austria as it helped to get the history books rewritten.”

He expresses his cynicism at the number of Austrians who claim to have resistance fighters in the family. “There can’t have been that many,” he says. “I think it’s important to confront the truth. It has benefited the German psyche to accept responsibility. Since the 90s, Austria has expressed some guilt, but has not accepted responsibility. There is still much work to be done.” Warren, in the theatre since he was a boy as actor, director, writer, believes that theatre can help to bring about healing.

Eight years ago Warren set up the Jewish Theater of Austria which performs in cities throughout Austria and abroad. He was inspired by the vibrant Jewish theatre scene of the pre-War years. As well as Yiddish theatre companies, there were German-language ensembles like the Jüdisch-Politische Cabaret and the Jüdische Kulturtheater which engaged with contemporary issues and attracted audiences beyond the Jewish world.

Warren sees his theatre in the same vein, as a tool for “reintegrating Jewish culture as a part of Austrian culture ... counteracting prejudice and mystification”.

As we talk, a man appears at the door and asks: “When will there be performances here? I live nearby”. Warren tells him about the planned schedule, which includes a play to be performed in the street-facing window with the audience beyond the glass. I can’t resist asking “Why are you so interested? Are you Jewish?”. “No,” he says, “but in Austria we have a troubled past, I think this is very important.” He volunteers that an uncle was involved in the aryanization process but his father was in the resistance. His source of information is unclear. His parents would not talk about the War. “I asked my mother but she was very resistant. She told me that we must concentrate on rebuilding our lives.” He says he learnt nothing at school about the Holocaust. “Our history lessons stopped at the First World War but my children are being taught. They ask in a very strong way about what was going on.”

INGE MAUX is one of the stars of the Jewish Theater of Austria. She has invited me to the Hotel Sacher, symbol of all that is most delicious about traditional Vienna. The plush velvet of its blue salon makes a perfect backdrop for Inge’s dramatic gold turban and red cloak. She beams warmth and enthusiasm. Her first words are about others she thinks we would be interested in writing about; “I make so many connections,” she says. “I love to do that.”

Inge was brought up in a small Austrian village. “I was already an outcast as a child. Other children would put on my desk pictures from Israel and say ‘that looks like you’. And I felt there was much fear in my family. Only afterwards I recognised that my grandmother was talking Yiddish and knew why we separated milk and meat”.

At age 14 Inge went to acting school. “They asked me if I was Jewish and I said ‘no’. One director said ‘I can’t give you a part. I can’t always cast you as Anne Frank’. Another offered me money to have my nose fixed. Then I lived with a young lady who sang international songs, including Jewish songs. They were familiar to me and I liked them.” She started singing Jewish songs herself. Her mother reacted with horror. “She was so frightened. ‘No, you must not do it. It will come again’. And my grandma, who looked like Golda Meir, she also said ‘you must not do it, it is dangerous’. And I found out they had been denounced by neighbours.”

Inge and her mother go on holiday together. “Each time I find out something more about my family. It is psychotherapy for both of us. Now in old age my mother says she wants to leave Austria. Until now her fears were suppressed.”

Now Inge firmly identifies with the Jewish community and plays many, though not only, Jewish roles. She is well-known on the cultural scene in Vienna and further afield in the German-speaking world.

She regrets that “cultural life is not as vivid as it was even in the 50s, 60s, 70s. All cabaretists were Jewish, Karl Farkas, Hugo Wiener and Gerhard Brunner, one of the last ones who came back. Gerhard died a few months ago and it was recognised he was the last of the great ones. The loss is great and though we have wonderful new writers, the spirit, the really big spirit, the sharp intellectual spirit and the great wit is not there”.

However, she is full of enthusiasm for the work of Warren Rozenzweig and particularly for his production, Pessach Ramadan, where short stories by David Mamet and Huda Al-Hilali are woven into an harmonious whole. Wouldn’t it be great, we agree, if it could be brought to the UK. Watch this space.

Copyright © 2007 Jewish Renaissance