NEW YORK — Through war and peace, New York City’s iconic German-speaking salon has held punctual, weekly meetings for almost 80 years. But now, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, its nonagenarian members are keeping up with the times and making an unprecedented move to online meetups.
In true yekke tradition, senior members Trudy Jeremias, 94, and Arnold Greissle, 97, are eager for the restoration of their usual order and are suspicious about dire news reports covering the pandemic.
“It’s sometimes exaggerated on TV, and the fear of the virus has to pass,” they agree.
Such weekly gatherings — always held at the same time and place — are lovingly called Stammtisch, or “regular’s table” in German. It is a cherished custom that was brought to the United States by German and Austrian Holocaust refugees in 1943.
Still today, reconnecting once a week over the culture of their native Austria and discussing current affairs in their mother tongue has practically become essential for many members. In addition to keeping them in touch with their culture, the sessions also provide a welcome routine.
Introduced to New York society in 1943 by Vienna-born artist George Harry Asher and Bavarian author Oskar Maria Graf (who famously declared solidarity with Jewish authors whose books were burned by the Nazis in 1933), those meetings first took place in established German coffee houses and restaurants on the Upper East Side, such as Die kleine Konditorei, Rolf’s, and Heidelberg. The Yorkville neighborhood in particular had continuously absorbed high numbers of European immigrants, with a peak during World War II.
In the 1970s, the almost ritual-like Wednesday evenings were relocated to the apartment of Gaby Glueckselig, who can be credited for making them into a celebrated event. When she died in 2015, Jeremias took over.
Attracting like-minded Jewish and non-Jewish artists, authors, and intellectuals who had experienced the persecution and racism of the Nazis firsthand, the Stammtisch especially appealed to those leaning toward the liberal side of the political spectrum. Renowned German playwright Bertolt Brecht, known for his Marxist influences, is said to have attended.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the 1990s saw the German government reopen reparations discussions with Holocaust survivors. Regular Stammtisch member Marion House, born in Berlin in 1923, was instrumental in facilitating the dialogue between the New York-based émigré community and German lawyers.
Decorated German author Margot Scharpenberg, 95, was one of the last people to regularly recite her own works at the gatherings in the early 2000s. Young German and Austrian students and professionals came to hear Scharpenberg in those days, before the Stammtsich became increasingly political during the presidency of George W. Bush.
The Stammtisch has seen another political flare up recently with the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police in May 2020, and the ensuing nationwide protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement against racial injustice. Now its members discuss — in German — how radically, or not, to reform the American criminal justice system, or whether to abolish it completely.
“The tendency in this country has always been to do nothing. It’s better to glorify than to remain inactive,” said Jeremias, a former jewelry designer. “Things would explode if you didn’t give people an outlet to demonstrate for their causes.”
Born to Jewish parents in Vienna in 1925, the softspoken but quick-witted woman emigrated to New York in 1939 with her family. A European at heart, Jeremias has never completely gotten rid of the feeling that she is only a visitor in America.
Politics and police
“This might come across as very German, but I think that the police have to be respected, and its purpose is to protect the people,” said Greissle with his lilting Austrian accent, criticizing the looting in American cities, but nonetheless horrified at the recent police killings. “Unfortunately, the police is very badly needed in this country, even in a democracy.”
Greissle, a former Pan Am ticket sales executive, was born in 1923 in Mödling, outside of Vienna, in the house of his famous Jewish grandfather, composer Arnold Schoenberg. His father being an “Aryan,” but also an “almost-Communist,” and “violently opposed to the philosophy of the Nazis,” the family fled to New York on a visitor’s visa in 1938, and then stayed permanently. As an American soldier during WWII, Greissle was stationed in North Africa and Italy.
At the prospect of the next American presidential election in November 2020, Greissle and his 88-year-old wife Nancy Bogen, an American-Jewish author, scholar, and digital artist, are disillusioned. Incumbent President Donald Trump is not very popular among the couple. “I am not going to vote,” Greissle said.
Jeremias opted for a mail-in ballot. In her view, Trump has behaved tremendously incompetently over the last few months. “All of us at the Stammtisch would have actually liked to vote for Bernie Sanders. It was a very big surprise that he withdrew,” she said. The reason they supported Sanders was not his Jewish background, but his politics.
Openly gay politician Pete Buttigieg, a former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, was also a favorite.
Being out of the closet in 19th-century Austro-German society was inconceivable for the general public as well as in Jewish and enlightened circles, and today’s historical archives reveal few personal details that would indicate anything other than the accepted heterosexuality.
Jeremias has recently come to believe that her unmarried uncle, a man of certain means who cared for the elderly in the family and who perished in the Holocaust, was gay. She has his collection of keys from the 14th century, symbolizing home and belonging, with her in America.
A human side to history
“A lot of times, I think, in history, the human element is lost,” said Michael Simonson, 51, archivist and director of public outreach at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, the world-leading archive for the history and culture of German-speaking Jewry. “At the Stammtisch, you get the actual emotion. You don’t always get that from reading archival documents.”
With only three original members of the Stammtisch left, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the danger infection poses for the older population has raised the question of what will happen when this human element will be lost, and whether or not it makes sense for the younger generation to continue this tradition of meeting regularly.
But there is some new blood: Thomas Strasser, 46, came to New York from Vienna in 2003 to teach physics at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, and he has attended the Stammtisch every Wednesday evening since. It’s thanks to his initiative that everyone can connect now connect digitally.
“It’s become like a surrogate family for me, and it’s the only time of the week when I can chat with friends over a meal in my mother tongue,” he said.
It’s become like a surrogate family for me
Strasser signed up for the Austrian government’s Gedenkdienst (Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service) project in 1997. This allowed him to complete his compulsory national service at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum from 1999-2000, working on the deciphering and translation of documents for the museum press.
“What is so fantastic about the Stammtisch is the fact that age is not important. Nineteen-year-olds and 90-year-olds can talk to each other as peers,” Strasser said.
This year marks 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, but some of the elderly people Strasser meets still hesitate to speak to Germans or Austrians their age because it reminds them of how they had to leave their home country as children.
“I think it hurt the senior members to see how little changed after the war, with so many officials going back to the same public positions. But to talk to unbiased and young people has given them a lot of hope,” Strasser said.
Who are you calling a Holocaust survivor?
Jeremias doesn’t want people calling her a Holocaust survivor.
“That’s not me, I wasn’t in a camp,” she said, adding that it’s okay to call her a contemporary witness. “It shouldn’t be the main reason to talk to someone, only because they’re a survivor.”
Over the years, Simonson has encouraged many interns at the Leo Baeck Institute to go experience the Stammtisch, but has also seen the regulars take umbrage at being stereotyped as Holocaust survivors by visitors.
“You are forced to see these people as just people, with strengths and weaknesses, and loves, sadness, happiness, just normal,” Simonson said.
It is their exceptional life experience which makes it so enlightening to talk about history, politics and culture, he said.
“The important thing is that all the stories have been recorded in the archives,” Simonson said. “But the personal element will be gone at some point, and now we can still ask questions that a book won’t answer.”
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