Gisela Werbezirk, Viennese Star in America
Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives.
“Actress Gisela Werbezirk Arrives In America” announced the Forverts in a 1938 headline, with a photo of the cherubic face of the Viennese comic film and musical theater star.
The Forverts identified her to readers as a hyphenate Jew — “the German-Jewish actress” and located her amidst her fellow artists-in-exile who, it was noted, were “currently escaping Hitler’s Germany.” Leaping over what that might have entailed, the item ended by citing a forthcoming performance by Werbezirk along with “other actors rescued from Nazi barbarism.” You could catch their acts at Nathanson’s National Theatre in the epicenter of the Yiddish theatre district on Second Avenue and Houston Street in New York City — she’d truly arrived.
If you weren’t a fan of Vienna’s burgeoning comedic theatre scene of the post war years, with its ethnic flavors, you may have missed an epic review of her particular talents by Ludwig Hirschfeld in 1921 with the career making headline “Die Werbezirk.” In his “portrait of a comedienne” for Vienna’s Freie Neue Presse , the Viennese newspaper whose correspondents included Zionist founder Theodor Herzl, Hirschfeld lauded Werbezirk. Facing the onslaught of Nazism in Vienna of 1938, the paper ceased publishing and later, when public Jewish intellectuals, writers and artists were rounded up, Hirschfeld too was arrested.
Werbezirk herself clearly was no stranger to the powerful effects of art, even when coated with a healthy ladleful of camp. Cast in the 1924 Austrian film “ Die Stadt ohne Juden ” (“The City Without Jews”) she was witness to violent anti-Semitic outbursts at screenings. The film, based on a satiric novel by Hugo Bettauer, depicts a Vienna that is so tired of its meddlesome Jewish citizens, it forces them to leave for Palestine and/or elsewhere, only to find the city’s inhabitants bereft without Jews and their myriad contributions. A year or so after the film’s release, in 1925, Bettauer was murdered by a member of Vienna’s Nazi party.
If you read the Forverts the day of Werbezirk’s arrival, you’d have scanned headlines urgently conveying the dire situation of Germany’s Jews — “Jews Terrified of New Nazi Pogroms.” You may have read Ab Cahan’s editorial illustrating what he viewed as the public’s collective shudder in response to the “wild Nazi beast” and world leaders’ calculated lack of one. The German public, he noted, was watching and there was a limit to mankind’s patience for “politics, keeping of accounts, and diplomacy” in the face of such atrocities.
Werbezirk came ashore in New York City only six months after Austria welcomed Hitler to annex it in the Anschluss, and barely one month since Kristallnacht’s officially sanctioned murderous rampages. Vienna’s loss was America’s gain. Werbezirk’s arrival that November found the pages Forverts’ filled with ads l’koved tenksgiving — celebrating Thanksgiving. Cranberry sauce was on sale — two cans for 23 cents. And next to an article featuring the latest news about the “Jewish tragedy in Hitler’s Germany”, was an ad for Joyva brand halva — the best in America.
Wierbezirk found work as a character actress in Hollywood, though frequently uncredited. As soon as 1939, barely one year since arriving, she reportedly had one such role as the grandmother, in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.’”Fearless, she continued working steadily, appearing as Mrs. Schmidt’in a 1945 Danny Kaye film “Wonder Man.” Her last known film role was as the witch Al-Long in a 1951 deliriously campy feature called “Bride of the Gorilla” —featuring such all American actors as Raymond Burr and Lon Chaney.