Gaby Glueckselig’s 100th birthday, celebrated last week at the Leo Baeck Institute for German Jewish History, represented a convergence of New York past and present, German and Austrian culture, experience and youth.
For 25 years, Glueckselig’s name has been almost synonymous with the Stammtisch, a weekly German-language gathering that was started by two refugees, Bavarian author Oskar Maria Graf and his friend, Vienna-born artist George Harry Asher, around 1943. The group of both Jewish and non-Jewish émigrés who didn’t want to give up on their culture and language met in restaurants on the Upper East Side every Wednesday for decades. In 1988, Glueckselig offered to host the intergenerational gathering, usually consisting of 10 to 25 people, in her Yorkville apartment.
Glueckselig’s group has enjoyed a revitalization in recent years. A goldsmith by trade, Glueckselig became a volunteer at the Leo Baeck Institute after retiring in the late 1980s, helping to archive photos and manuscripts. There, she met the young Austrian men who were fulfilling their mandatory year of civil service at the Institute, and invited them to the Stammtisch. Together with historians, journalists and émigrés of all ages, they have become a fixture at the weekly meetings.
Vienna-born Trudy Jeremias, 88, a regular since 1990, said that the intergenerational mix has made the group more interesting. “I would have never had the opportunity to meet young people from Austria,” she said. At the same time, however, she observed that the nature of discussions has changed. Early members included people who wouldn’t shy away from intense political debates, such as Alex Olsen, a Trotskyist in prewar Berlin, and co-founder Asher. “Now it’s more that everyone talks to the person next to them,” Jeremias said.
When I first joined the group a couple of weeks ago, a small silver bell was rung. It meant that everyone was supposed to be quiet while I introduced myself. I was asked in which part of Vienna I had grown up (someone had lived near my street) and which school I had attended (followed by nodding). The members of the assembled multitude wanted to know if I intended to stay in New York longer (yes) and, when I mentioned the Forward, if I spoke Yiddish (no).
That Wednesday happened to fall during the week of Passover. Because I had been told that the gathering was potluck, after a long and thoughtful stroll through the supermarket, I chose a box of kosher for Passover macaroons. I needn’t have bothered worrying about religious sensitivities. Even though some of the members, including Glueckselig and her late husband Fritz, an antique dealer and published poet, are Jewish, the Stammtisch members, as Jeremias told me, don’t see it as a Jewish institution.
Austrians, Germans and Americans with a love for the German language mingled with ease. Michael Spudic, 54, a musician from Queens who has come to the meetings since 1992, praised the members’ openness. “When Germans come here they are very sensitive to the rejection element,” he said, “and they are accepted here as well.”
Kurt Sonnenfeldt, 88, from Vienna, who came to the United States via France in 1940, sported a tie with a Klimt print. “I wanted to continue being part of the culture I grew up in,” Sonnenfeldt said when asked what has drawn him to the Stammtisch. “Some never want to hear about it anymore.”
At the party, which was attended by around 50 people, Sonnenfeldt gave a moving speech praising the hospitality and sense of humor of his old friend Glueckselig. Sonnenfeldt recalled a Stammtisch discussion about the fact that older and younger members related to each other so well, about which Glueckselig dryly commented: “It pleases me much more that the Austrians and Germans get along.”
Anna Goldenberg is the Forward’s arts and culture intern.