LOS ANGELES — When the Austrian government co-sponsored Vienna in Hollywood, a first-of-its-kind symposium recognizing the large number of Jewish artists and professionals who helped shape Hollywood’s Golden Age, I had good reason to attend: My great-grandfather Sol Wurtzel was a pioneer Hollywood producer and worked with many of these emigres, including actor Peter Lorre and Dr. Paul Koretz, a prominent Viennese entertainment lawyer who fled after the Anschluss.
The symposium, which took place on December 10 and 11, was sponsored together with the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, the University of Southern California (USC) and the Max Kade Institute in Los Angeles.
The Academy Museum also launched a similarly named six-week film series in conjunction with the symposium, titled “Vienna in Hollywood: Émigrés and Exiles in the Studio System.” Running through January 31, 2022, the series explores the work of Austrian-born Jewish film artists who fled Nazi persecution in Europe to seek refuge in Hollywood.
Attending the symposium, I found it curious but gratifying that the Austrian government would now want to call attention to its country’s purge of Jewish creatives, a laundry list of household names including directors Billy Wilder, Erich von Stroheim and Otto Preminger, as well as actors Hedy Lamarr, Peter Lorre and Paul Henreid — all of whom migrated to Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s.
When Nazi Germany annexed Austria in the 1938 Anschluss, Vienna became a crucible of Third Reich antisemitism. For 40 years, Austria presented itself as the first victim of Nazism and denied its culpability in Hitler’s Final Solution to rid Europe of its Jews. Prior to the Anschluss, Austria’s Jewish population numbered approximately 190,000 (three percent of the total population). After World War II ended in 1945, roughly 4,000 Jews remained. About one-third of Austria’s Jews died in the war and the rest, like those who found success in Hollywood, escaped. A 2019 European Jewish community census counted about 20,000 Jews in Austria (0.1% of the population). The Austrian Jewish community remains small but is growing.
Over the last three years, though, the Austrian government has taken steps to acknowledge and rectify its history of Nazi collaboration and antisemitism.
In September 2019, the Austrian parliament unanimously approved an amendment to its citizenship laws in line with its “ongoing endeavor for reconciliation with all those who suffered under the totalitarian Nazi regime in Austria.” This amendment enables eligible descendants of Jewish families to apply for Austrian citizenship.
In January 2021 the Austrian Embassy in Washington, DC, announced a new national strategy against antisemitism. And last month, Austria admitted its WWII complicity by opening a public memorial listing the names of all 64,440 Austrian Jews killed in the Holocaust.
Austria’s involvement in the Vienna in Hollywood symposium furthers this trend of recognizing and renewing the country’s Jewish history.
“At no point can we forget that many who came had to flee or face certain death from the Nazis. We don’t intend to culturally appropriate these talented Jewish refugees or lay claim to them as Austrians, but instead to shed light on how Vienna shaped these film professionals who made Hollywood what it is today,” said Andreas Launer, Austria’s current ambassador to Malaysia.
Launer conceived of the Vienna in Hollywood concept in 2017 while serving as consul general in Los Angeles. Austrian native Doris Berger, the Academy Museum’s senior director of curatorial affairs, began working with Launer on the wide-ranging project in 2018.
On the first day of the symposium, presenter Robert Dassanowsky’s talk on the Hollywood-Vienna co-production pact of 1936 struck a personal chord. Dassanowsky, a professor of film studies at the University of Colorado, spoke at length about Koretz, one of Vienna’s most respected lawyers and the preeminent expert on international copyright in the film industry prior to WWII. Koretz and his family formed a friendship with my family that spanned four generations. My great-grandfather, a Fox Studio production head, first met Koretz in Vienna in the 1920s while scouting European talent and expanding Fox’s European footprint.
Koretz served as a conduit linking Europe’s major film hubs of Vienna, Berlin and Paris with Hollywood. In 1936, he worked with MGM and 20th Century Fox Studios to forge a co-production pact to save the Austrian film industry from collapse as Nazi Germany monopolized European film production. After Germany invaded Austria in March 1938, the co-production pact became a pipe dream.
Nonetheless, Koretz hoped to stay in Austria’s capital and continue his lucrative law practice. But he faced an insurmountable obstacle — he was Jewish. My great-grandfather worked behind the scenes to secure the Koretz family British visas and save them from falling prey to the Nazis. He succeeded. The Koretz family fled Vienna for London in 1938. They moved from England to Hollywood in 1940 and built an Austrian-inspired home of timber and stucco in Hollywood Hills. Koretz remained exiled in Hollywood until his death in 1980.
Watching “Casablanca,” the inaugural film of the Vienna in Hollywood series, the Koretz family’s story of flight and loss came to mind. The film was screened in the museum’s David Geffen Theater. Replete with red carpet, 1,000 plush red seats and red velvet curtains, the theater itself evokes Hollywood’s Golden Age of European-inspired elegance.
The iconic 1942 film, directed by Hungarian-born 1920s Jewish émigré Michael Curtiz, features actors Paul Henreid and Peter Lorre — both Jews who fled the Nazis in the 1930s. Capturing the urgency of escaping Fascism, the film is laced with dark humor, tragic romance and a sense of amoral lawlessness.
“It’s no coincidence that so many of these talented Jewish film artists came from Vienna and were influenced by its culture. Vienna was a cosmopolitan, artistic and intellectual capital like nowhere else in Europe where free expression was encouraged,” said Launer.
After the Nazi Anschluss, Austria’s loss of its Jewish creative class became Hollywood’s gain as the emigres took Hollywood filmmaking to new heights in the 1930s and 40s. Both Launer and Academy curator Berger acknowledged the importance of memorializing Austria’s expulsion of its Jewish talent.
“I hope ‘Vienna in Hollywood’ serves to highlight what was quintessentially Viennese about these artists and how important open, democratic, cosmopolitan cities are to promoting intellectual and creative growth,” Launer said.
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