by Richard Weihs (* October 6, 1956 in Wels), an Austrian author, musician and actor, with a focus on Viennese dialect.
A commonplace that is probably popular at all times says that any cabaret, no matter how satirically exaggerated, is always far outdone by real existing politics. And the true story of the naming of a small square in Vienna-Mariahilf after the great cabaret artist Fritz Grünbaum seems to me to confirm this thesis quite vividly.It was in the spring of 1979 when I protested with hand-painted posters against the planned development of a large plot of land on the Linke Wienzeile. In such a green-poor residential area, I thought (and later thousands of other residents of Mariahilfer), the construction of a public park would be much more urgent.
The history of the “Bürgerinitiative Denzelgründe” (Citizens’ Initiative Denzel Grounds), which stretched over decades, cannot be discussed in detail here – it would fill a thick book. But it is certainly no coincidence that not only I, but also the founding member Regina Hofer later became active in cabaret. And Josef Hader once remarked that I was the only cabaret artist who had achieved something politically.
In any case, after protracted political struggles, our initiative succeeded in having a provisional park set up on the grounds, which we helped to design and cared for sacrificially in our spare time for five years. And as it is with provisional arrangements in Vienna, after a short time they tend to establish themselves as unchallengeable permanent facilities.
When, after a few years, it finally looked as if our provisional park would be granted the official status of an officially managed municipal facility, an interesting spectacle took place in the Mariahilfer district parliament: the representatives of the ÖVP and SPÖ, who had previously favored various construction variants instead of the park, now hurried to determine a name for the future facility.
Since the sixth district of Vienna has the nice custom of naming parks after artists who have lived or worked here, the Black and Red Party requested that the park be named after the actor Alexander Girardi or the dancer Fanny Elßler. However, this was rejected by the municipality because of already existing namings.
The only voice against these intrusive patronage services was mine: At that time I had been elected as the first green district councilor of the “Alternative List Vienna” into the Mariahilfer district representation and represented there the opinion that the naming for the park was clearly entitled to those citizens, who had fought for it by their efforts of many years.
No sooner said than done: I researched possible namesakes and finally came across Fritz Grünbaum. He had worked in the immediate vicinity of the park in two locations on Linke Wienzeile: In the “Literatur am Naschmarkt” (the later “Ateliertheater”) and in the “Hölle”, a cabaret in the basement of the “Theater an der Wien”.
Grünbaum was even director of the “Hölle” for a short time. From that time comes the famous scene in which the local boss Grünbaum engages himself as a conferéncier. After he has pushed his own fee down to the lowest level in tough negotiations, he angrily shouts to himself: “But I’ll tell you one thing: it won’t bring me any happiness! And both in the sketch and in real life, he was right: Soon after, he went broke with “Hell”….
So at a citizens’ meeting at Café Drechsler, I suggested naming the park after Fritz Grünbaum. My suggestion was generally met with enthusiastic approval, and Kurt Pint, the head of the ÖVP district, who was impressed by it, at least for a short time, then said to me affably: “All right, just bring it in at the next meeting!”
And so I did, but not without pointing out in the explanatory statement that Grünbaum had also written libretti for the then Mariahilfer Revuetheater “Apollo”, which today is known far beyond the district borders as the “Apollo Cinema”. With this, I thought, I would emphasize the district connection of the artist even more and increase the chances of my application. However – it should come quite differently.
At that memorable district council meeting, the VP and SP jointly proposed that the park be named not after the cabaret artist Fritz Grünbaum, but after the popular “folk actor” Rudolf Carl, who had lived in Köstlergasse, not far from the park. Grünbaum was denied success despite a committed plea on my part: he lost the match against the real Austrian Carl by a score of 1:29.
Rudolf Carl had been known to me so far only from a dialect poem by H.C.Artmann: In the inventory “wos an weana olas en s gmiad ged”, among other things, “da rudoef koal en da gatehosn” is also mentioned. During my subsequent research, however, it quickly became clear to me how deeply Viennese that Mr. Carl must actually have been: as a self-declared illegal Nazi, he was briefly banned from performing after 1945, but was soon able to resume his earlier successes and finally died a natural death, respected by all.
Fritz Grünbaum, on the other hand, had made himself doubly unpopular with the Nazis as a Jew and sharp critic of the Nazi regime. Consequently, after the occupation, he was immediately taken to the Dachau concentration camp on the first “transport of celebrities”. While still on the train, his “cheeky tongue” was maltreated by the boots of an SS man to such an extent that he was almost unable to pull the swollen organ back into his mouth. And in the concentration camp he died miserably.
In the meantime, the year was 1988 and it was the fiftieth anniversary of the occupation of Austria. So the year had been declared officially a “commemorative year”. I tried to make a small contribution to this by informing the media about the unedifying grotesquerie surrounding the naming of the park and by launching a petition for a “Grünbaum Park.
The campaign was a complete success: within a few weeks, not only hundreds of people from Mariahilfer signed, but also dozens of prominent cultural figures and many victims of National Socialism, among them Bruno Kreisky, who had shared a straw bag with Fritz Grünbaum in the Gestapo emergency prison Karajangasse.
The Viennese SP now hastened to rectify the embarrassing faux pas with Mr. Carl: A majority of the municipal council passed a resolution to name the park (the future existence of which had even been decided in the meantime) after Fritz Grünbaum. And thus the matter had come to a good end after all. I thought.
But the Mariahilfer district leader Kurt Pint thought differently: enraged by his defeat with the völkisch actor, he managed to prevent the naming of the park, which had already been decided, until it finally had to be opened without a name after the redesign had been completed – a unique precedent in Vienna.
Of course, this nameless state of affairs was not sustainable in the long run. In the meantime, however, Helmut Zilk had become mayor of Vienna and decided to take up the matter. It was a good coincidence that Henry A. Grunwald, son of the Jewish operetta librettist Alfred Grünwald, who had been expelled by the Nazis, was the American ambassador in Vienna at the time.
“A green forest counts for much more than a single green tree – the Greens can’t say anything against that!” thought the resourceful Zilk, ignored the bitter protests of the Grünbaum supporters, had the Wienzeile festively flagged and solemnly christened the green area “Alfred Grünwald Park” in the presence of the American ambassador.
But the poor green tree could not be completely cut down – after all, a biting article about the bizarre affair had even appeared in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”. So they remembered the mention of the Apollo revue theater as the artist’s place of work in my motion, which had been so shamefully voted down. And the Mariahilfer district council unanimously decided to name the square in front of the Apollo cinema “Fritz Grünbaum – Platz”.
At that time, however, this square consisted only of a traffic island in the middle of an intersection, on which there was a poor concrete shell with unsightly plants and a light pole. Two street signs with the new name were now attached to this light pole at an angle of ninety degrees, covering all four cardinal points and thus unmistakably announcing to the whole wide world the great honor that had been paid to the artist.
The paltriness of this installation was also unpleasantly noticed by the district’s Social Democratic Party – moreover, there was not a single building in sight that could have been given a plaque with the name of the square and house number. So one went on the search – and became, as already the old proverb encourages, finally also fündig.
In the Esterhazy Park, located at the Grünbaum intersection, stands an imperishable memorial from the time of the “Thousand-Year Reich,” a monstrosity made of meter-thick reinforced concrete: And this flak tower now bears the number Fritz Grünbaum Platz 1 by resolution of the district parliament.
* Addendum 1:
A well-known monologue by Fritz Grünbaum is entitled “Designs for a Grünbaum Monument.” In verse form, he anxiously ponders what kind of monument posterity would one day erect to him. He first thinks of an equestrian statue, then of different kinds of statues (naked and clothed), but finally comes to the conclusion that after the sinking of his name into eternal oblivion, it will anyway only be animals that would take pleasure in his monument of whatever kind:
” … The dogs on the earth and the birds in the air!
And high above me the swallows are circling,
And at the pedestal the dogs lean quietly,
And all the creatures at the starlight flashing
My monument at night to use for wetting
So the animals make their love known to me:
From above the birds, at the pedestal the dogs!”
Of course Fritz Grünbaum only thought of screeching and flapping animals. After all, he could not have imagined that his monument would be so enormous that it would not only rise high above the rooftops of Vienna, but also harbor a “house of the sea” inside: Home to a rich assortment of fish – and snakes.
Fritz Grünbaum, like his colleague Hermann Leopoldi (whose real name was Kohn), performed at the Grandhotel Panhans in Semmering. On March 11, 1938, the two of them, together with Karl Farkas and Grünbaum’s wife Lilly, attempted to flee to the Czech Republic in a train overcrowded with refugees. However, the train was stopped at the Czech border and sent back – Edvard Beneš had had the border closed to refugees. Leopoldi was then imprisoned with Grünbaum in the Gestapo emergency prison in Karajangasse and in the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps – fortunately for him, his wife, who was already in the USA, and her parents were able to buy his release.
Less fortunate was the well-known cabaret artist and film actor Paul Morgan, who was born Georg Paul Morgenstern in Vienna. Together with Grünbaum and Leopoldi, he had been deported first to the Dachau concentration camp and then to the Buchenwald concentration camp. He should have been released, since exit permits had been arranged for him, but before that he was maltreated to death during “punishment drill.”
As a special “perk,” the concentration camp commandant allowed Fritz Grünbaum and Hermann Leopoldi to carry their friend’s body on a stretcher from the infirmary to the gate of the concentration camp. Fellow prisoners hummed Morgan’s favorite song, “Who’ll cry when you part?” And the iron lettering embedded in the camp gate read, “TO EACH HIS OWN.”
While collecting signatures for a “Grünbaum Park,” I met Fritz Kleinmann, who as a sixteen-year-old had been imprisoned with his father Gustav in the Buchenwald concentration camp (later he voluntarily followed his father to Ausschwitz, escaped on a death march, and weighed 35 kilos when he was liberated). He told me with tears in his eyes that Fritz Grünbaum was immensely popular in the camp because of his cabaret performances – on his 60th birthday they would have saved food from his mouth for him so that he could eat his fill once again.
After Grünbaum’s death, the Jewish psychoanalyst and resistance fighter Ernst Federn wrote to his wife Lilly: “What a great artist your Fritz was, only a few people know anymore. For only a few have survived the concentration camp who have seen him perform in the camp. That is great art, which in a crowded room, as a stage a table, without all utensils of terrible hardships tired people in a sea of cheerfulness to dive knows. He knew exactly what tremendous help he was bringing to his fellow sufferers with his art, and he never said no when asked to participate, no matter how burdensome it might be to him.” Lilly Grünbaum was deported to Maly Trostinec the following year and murdered.
It was not until many years after my campaign for a “Grünbaum Park” that I learned, at a Grünbaum exhibition in the Austrian Theater Museum (“Grüß mich Gott!”), where Fritz Grünbaum had lived until his deportation to the concentration camp: On Rechte Wienzeile diagonally across from my apartment building – and across from what is now “Grünwald Park.” I involuntarily got goose bumps like a grater.
This apartment also housed the artist’s extensive art collection. It comprised over four hundred works, including over eighty paintings by Egon Schiele. Their restitution has still not been completed to this day. In 2015, the descendants of Fritz Grünbaum announced a lawsuit and regretted that the Republic of Austria refused to “fulfill its obligation under the State Treaty and return looted art.”
On May 24, 2022, after six and a half years of proceedings, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that two Schiele paintings owned by a New York art dealer were to be restituted to Grünbaum’s heirs. Grünbaum’s family member and co-heir Timothy Reif commented:
“This decision confirms the urgent need to remember the terrible injustice that happened 81 years ago and to restore a small part of it. The proceeds will go to the Trust for the Life and Work of Fritz Grünbaum to support young people in the performing arts, as Fritz Grünbaum did during his lifetime.”
Admittedly, the Austrian museums Albertina and Sammlung Leopold still own at least ten more Schiele paintings from Fritz Grünbaum’s collection. To this day, the Austrian state refuses to grant the requests of his heirs for restitution of the paintings.
On the occasion of Fritz Grünbaum’s 125th birthday, I organized a small celebration on Grünbaum Square. The commemorative speech was thankfully held by the curator of the Grünbaum exhibition in the Theater Museum, the historian and now museum director Dr. Marie-Theres Arnbom. And I then read out the real satire I had written about the history of the naming of the square – not without pointing out that I had only written it down, but had not made it up. Because, as the learned Viennese used to say in such cases: “You can’t invent something like that!
For the original German Version see: