Longest Running Salon, Still Going Strong

By Marjorie Backman

Published June 05, 2008, issue of June 13, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

You could call it New York City’s longest-running soiree. For more than 60 years, a German-speaking salon has gathered each Wednesday, attracting artists, intellectuals and literary types — Jews and non-Jews, mostly to the left of center, who’ve sought to maintain their ties to Germanic culture despite disaffection for the political extremism of the 1930s.

CHAT AND CHEW: Regular participants in Stammtisch, a weekly meeting of German-speaking Jews in New York, circa 1982.
CHAT AND CHEW: Regular participants in Stammtisch, a weekly meeting of German-speaking Jews in New York, circa 1982.

In 1943, two refugees from Nazi regimes — dissident writer Oscar Maria Graf from Germany and his Viennese Jewish friend George Harry Asher — bumped into each other and dined at a German restaurant in Manhattan. They decided to meet weekly, in the style of a Stammtisch, the German and Austrian custom of gathering a group regularly at a certain table in a restaurant, coffeehouse or bar.

“These were people who refused to let Hitler take their language away,” said Janet Gerson, a member of the group.

Graf, a Bavarian Catholic, had famously complained to the Nazis during the book burnings that the authorities should burn his works, too. After he was put on a list of intellectuals to be rescued, Graf arranged the same for Asher.

Initially meeting at several Manhattan restaurants — the Blaue Donau, the Kleine Konditorei, the Heidelberg and the Forester — the group later gathered at Asher’s home before moving to its current quarters, the Yorkville apartment of German Jewish émigré Gabrielle Glueckselig, a former jewelry designer. Her small apartment, filled with European knickknacks and paintings, as well as artwork by her brother-in-law, graphic artist Leo Glueckselig, has been almost elastic in fitting all the guests. A gregarious storyteller, Leo informally screened members for the group. Gaby’s late husband, poet Fritz Glueckselig (who wrote using the pen name Friedrich Bergammer), figured among the group’s original circle of famous writers, along with Hans Sahl and Ernst Schöenwiese. In the early years, Bertold Brecht sometimes engaged in lively debates with Graf.

These days, weekly attendance, ranging from nine to 20 or 30, frequently includes German poet Margot Scharpenberg. Everyone brings a supper dish to share, or homemade German pastries or wine (champagne on birthdays). When Glueckselig rings her bell, the newcomers introduce themselves and all gather to discuss a topic, such as the latest exhibit at the Goethe-Institut, Austrian politics or a recent opera at the Met. Sometimes there’s a reading.

One March evening years ago, the Stammtisch took over the Vienna Cafe on West 77th Street for an Artist’s Grand Costume Ball. “Costume or none — we want you,’” a poster declared. Ecstatic! Erotic! Exotic! Romantic! Uninhibited, old world gayity! [sic]” Tickets cost just $1.60.

Another time, the German city of Wiesbaden invited Glueckselig to return to her hometown to be honored with a medal. The town appreciated her work of tracing her Jewish family history of gold- and silversmiths in Wiesbaden back to the 17th century. “Wiesbaden tried to make up for what the Nazis did,” Glueckselig said. Since she couldn’t travel, the town came to her, filling the residence of New York’s German consul with the Stammtisch in attendance. This spring, Glueckselig again celebrated with the Stammtisch, marking her 94th birthday.

Asher and Graf are long dead, and only Glueckselig can claim to be from the Stammtisch’s early years. In the 1980s and ’90s, as members aged, the ranks were replenished by younger visitors: a student writing about Viennese artists, an East German journalist, a Swiss scholar writing her environmental psychology thesis on what happens to a Jewish community that’s displaced.

One visitor, University of Salzburg history professor Albert Lichtblau, who has interviewed Holocaust survivors worldwide though he’s not Jewish, ended up publishing a book of Leo Glueckselig’s memoirs. In 1993, he brought 30 Salzburg students.

In 1995, Yoash Tatari, an Iranian exile working for Cologne television, was so intrigued to discover World War II-era immigrants speaking German in New York that he created a film, “Glueckselig in New York. Der Stammtisch der Emigranten.

In the mid-’90s, the Stammtisch debated its very essence: Could the young arrivals really join the group? The decision: The Stammtisch could only benefit from the new energy.

“We’ve been like children. We’ve adopted each other,” Gerson said. Frequently helping Asher in his later years was Michael Spudic, who was raised Catholic and is a klezmer musician who sometimes plays accordion at the Wednesday gatherings.

Over the past dozen or so years, a new hip generation of Austrians and Germans has discovered the Stammtisch while in New York to perform their alternative military service. Since 1991, the Gedenkdienst project, or the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service, has sent off Austrians to help preserve the history of the Holocaust; some of them work at New York’s Leo Baeck Institute, which documents German Jewish history. Germany’s program, Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, resulted in Marian Meinen joining the Stammtisch last September while working at Washington Heights’ Isabella Geriatric Center, where some Holocaust survivors reside.

The Stammtisch elders, many childless, befriend the young Germans and Austrians, forming relationships that outlast their New York stay. So the Stammtisch has become a rare island of intergenerational friendship in the United States.

“I would never have a chance to meet a 20-year-old from Austria or Germany,” said member Trudy Jeremias, 82, a jewelry designer. “Here there’s no age gap. We’re all friends.” Jeremias escaped to the United States from Vienna after Kristallnacht when her grandfather, a banker, was able to obtain affidavits for visas.

“It’s an amazing institution,” Jeremias said. “It’s full of surprises. One never knows one week to the next who’s going to be there. Something unusual always seems to happen.”

“Wednesday night to me is taboo for anything else,” said Marion House, 85, who fled Berlin via the Kindertransport and now advocates for survivors seeking reparations.

Miriam Merzbacher, 81, considers herself a newcomer, since she’s been going to the group regularly for just over a year. A Theresienstadt survivor and retired teacher, she attended religious instruction at an Amsterdam synagogue with Anne Frank.

Deported to Poland from Berlin during World War II, Hilde Olsen served as an executive secretary to an industrialist. She typed a list of Jews, then added her name, and that’s how she ended up being on Schindler’s list and was able to join the Stammtisch.

For Kurt Sonnenfeld, 82, a Jewish refugee from Vienna who fled on foot through Switzerland and France and then became a social worker in New York, the magic of the Stammtisch is in the mix — of those residing in the United States and those just visiting; of Austrians and Germans; of different generations and religions, and of the varied vantage points for witnessing the Holocaust. The gathering “represents a certain regularity,” he said. “You look forward to going… where you enjoy the groupness of it really.”

“The food is not the major focus, but it helps,” he added. “You’re not only having intellectual nourishment.”

Plus, there’s always dessert: perhaps Jeremias’s hazelnut cake, or Palaschinken (German crepe suzettes) prepared by Sonnenfeld and Arnold Greissle, composer Arnold Schoenberg’s grandson. “That sort of brings people back to their cultural roots,” Sonnenfeld said.

Marjorie Backman is a writer and editor who lives in New York City.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.