In Red Vienna, Stella Kadmon Was a Pioneer of Political Theater

Charlotte Morschhausen
Adam Baltner

As Austria turned toward Nazism, the Jewish socialist actress Stella Kadmon brought anti-fascist resistance to the stage.

Stella Kadmon, March 1927. (ÖNB)

“I begin without a single penny. When you don’t have any, you can’t go broke — so we have nothing to lose.” With these words, a young Jewish socialist actress from Vienna by the name of Stella Kadmon opened her very own cabaret in 1931. With a little dry Viennese humor and a lot of courage, she made her mark on the theater scene. Today, Kadmon has been almost completely forgotten outside of Vienna, despite her efforts advocating for a more egalitarian and open theater — a demand yet to be fulfilled, as the current debate about sexism and recent #metoo cases in the theater reveals.

Stella Kadmon swept across the Viennese revue stages of the 1920s, making a name for herself as the “Jewish Josephine Baker.” She then turned her back on this extravagant form of theater and opened her own venue, Der liebe Augustin, in the basement of a coffee house. Here, audiences took in a program that alternated between political agitation and entertainment, one that grew more socially critical as Nazism gained in strength.

Kadmon defended her theater against fascist ideology until being forced to flee in 1938. Yet neither during her Palestinian exile, nor after her return to Vienna in 1947, did this stop her from opening more theaters that addressed the horrors of the Nazi period.

A Woman’s Role in Red Vienna

After the end of World War I, the Austrian capital embarked on a unique project of left-wing utopia. With an absolute majority in city government from 1919–34, the Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) implemented comprehensive social reforms and created a model that sought to offset the economic consequences of the war.

According to Wolfgang Maderthaner, a historian and former director of the National Archives of Austria, the “proletarian collective was to form itself into subjects,” so that wealth redistribution, true education, and democratic freedom could be realized. The SDAP also promoted a version of women’s emancipation that entailed active professional and political engagement.

Nevertheless, feminists still had limited room for maneuver. While the concept of emancipated womenhood was expanded, the role of women as caring mothers was also symbolically overinflated. With few exceptions, women were still denied access to public office. Another source of tension was the relationship between assimilated Jews in the city and the German nationalist movement. Although Jews played a leading role in shaping cultural life, antisemitic agitation remained socially acceptable.

Against this backdrop, Stella Kadmon’s family of culturally interested Jews presented itself as deeply Viennese. Her mother Malvine — “as the daughter of a good family” — had seen her own parents forbid her studying acting, and thus became a pianist and music teacher.

Promised by her husband that she would be able to keep playing piano, Malvine followed him to his home city of Belgrade. Yet he did not keep this promise, prompting Malvine to flee back to Vienna with their first child and ultimately demand a divorce. From then on, she devoted herself entirely to Stella’s acting career.

Within the family, standing up for one’s own ideals was emphasized above all else; Judaism was of lesser importance. Along these lines, Stella’s brother Richard got into fights with antisemites as a member of the Jewish sports club SC Hakoah, while Otto, the youngest of her two siblings, distributed flyers against mandatory religious classes during his school days.

In the 1930s, her brothers then became active with Rote Hilfe, a Communist-affiliated organization that supported left-wing prisoners. Identifying as a committed pacifist, Stella Kadmon took part in the Social Democrats’ annual May Day demonstrations until they were banned in 1933.

From the Revue, Coming Down to Earth

After her acting studies at the Vienna Academy of Music and Performing Arts, Kadmon enjoyed her first successes on European stages. Typecast as a childlike and exotic seductress, she achieved her breakthrough while playing a young woman of color scantily clad in a loose-fitting leopard skin.

In a subsequent role in a major Viennese revue, she appeared as a stand-in for the African-American entertainer Josephine Baker, whose appearance in Vienna 1928 had created a great deal of hype. However, Kadmon was not able to generate the same level of excitement. The director of the revue fired her apparently without cause, calling her a “monkey who belongs in a tree.”

Deeply hurt by this insult, Kadmon started making more frequent solo appearances, singing and dancing in provocative outfits but never completely naked. Increasingly, her audience took this type of performance as an advertisement for sexual services, with one man even offering her a hundred-mark bill for an evening together during one of her tours — a considerable sum of money for the time. Kadmon reacted with shock, above all because her sense of herself as an emancipated woman had proven deceptive.

After attending a performance in the “Katakombe,” a famous political cabaret in Berlin, Kadmon decided to emancipate herself from the strictures of revue theater. She committed herself to opening her own cabaret — precisely what was lacking in Vienna, where the revue had come to symbolize a meaningless, capitalist theater.

Her dream became reality in 1931 with the opening of Der liebe Augustin, a venue where the broader public could enjoy intelligent entertainment, entirely in the spirit of Red Vienna. Yet at the same time, the dark atmosphere of the basement theater matched the mood among the artists of the day, who suffered immensely under the economic crisis of the 1930s.

Although the financial resources of the new theater were sparse, the cast knew how to compensate by drawing on a wide variety of artistic forms. Hence, the stage of Der liebe Augustin became a place where dancing, singing, drawing, parody, and above all, where laughter took place. In the so-called “Blitzen,” or flash format, audience requests gave rise to performance numbers that satirized current events.

The cast was an open collective composed of Jewish, non-Jewish, and international artists. There was no one director who determined the program alone. Because of this openness, Der liebe Augustin became a place of refuge for threatened or exiled German artists who could no longer perform in their home country following the Nazi power grab in 1933. Along these lines, in 1935, Kadmon staged a production of the fable Reynard the Fox in which the rabbit character Lampe was stylized as Austria and the cunning fox as Germany:

Lampe, if you seek success,

with a fox you shouldn’t mess!

If you see one, stay in check!

He’s surely looking to annex.

A series of other political cabarets followed on the heels of Der liebe Augustin’s clever resistance. Yet Kadmon’s bold pioneering work has gone largely ignored, apart from the work of the Austrian theater scholar Birgit Peter. Her research has highlighted how politically and artistically significant Kadmon’s purportedly trivial “entertainment art” actually was.

Little is known about Kadmon’s romantic life. After the end of the war and her mother’s death, her friend Anni Neumann took over her bureaucratic affairs and accompanied her on vacations. Neumann is only mentioned in a short chapter of a biography of Kadmon written by Henriette Mandl.

Whether Kadmon lived as queer remains an issue of speculation. Over the course of her life, however, she did maintain several romantic relationships with various men. One of the staff writers at Der liebe Augustin even referred to her as “beloved mistress” and repeatedly wrote exaggerated vamp characters for her to play. Another offered to flee with her in 1937 if she agreed to marry him. Kadmon refused.

Theater in Exile

In February 1934, the conflict between Viennese Social Democracy and the conservative Christian Social Party that controlled Austria’s national government resulted in short-lived uprisings known as the Austrian Civil War. The Social Democrats’ defeat in this conflict spelled the end for Red Vienna and ushered in Austrofascism. During this four-year period prior to its absorption into the Third Reich, the restructured Austrian “Ständestaat”, or corporate state, propagated a reactionary concept of humanity and democracy, ultimately paving the way for Nazi “annexation.”

Der liebe Augustin continued to serve as a refuge for dissidents before having to bend the knee to the Nazis in March 1938. As Kadmon recalls: “We sat in the basement at Der liebe Augustin, trembling and crying and beside ourselves with sadness. Hardly any audience was there. People didn’t dare go out in the streets anymore.” Shortly after open violence began on the streets of Vienna, both Kadmon brothers were arrested. Richard refused his release in April 1938, while Otto had already fallen into the hands of the Gestapo as an open Communist.

Nevertheless, Stella Kadmon managed to save her brothers from deportation to the Dachau concentration camp. Some of the police officers who were stationed at Der liebe Augustin in 1934 to enforce censorship ended up working for the Gestapo in 1938, including one officer with whom Stella had entered into a romantic relationship in 1937 and even caused to neglect his censorship duties. Following their release, Stella Kadmon fled with her mother and Richard to Belgrade. However, the family had failed to contemplate the restrictive immigration policies in Yugoslavia, which didn’t want to damage its diplomatic relations with Italy and Germany. Exiles with German citizenship sought state protection in vain.

After exposure by the Belgrade authorities put an end to their short stay, the Kadmon family had no other option than to flee to Palestine. However, they could only afford two visas. While Stella’s mother and brother fled, she as a single woman stayed behind and attempted to gain a residency permit through a sham marriage to her cousin. Deprived of her theater and thus her very identity, the 36-year-old found herself forced by political circumstances to enter an institution that she had always vehemently rejected.

Yet Kadmon was hardly swayed by this traumatic odyssey. Thanks to the financial support of her brother, she was finally able to travel to Palestine in the summer of 1939. Despite the adversity and the linguistic barrier, she opened a Hebrew theater in Tel Aviv as early as 1940, skillfully using the vacuum created by cultural upheaval in the city to make her name as a director. Simultaneously, she began to come to terms with her Jewish origins. As Birgit Peter has suggested, the experience of the Shoah ultimately may have caused Kadmon to turn away from cabaret and towards more serious theater.

Although viewed by the public as an icon of successful assimilation, Kadmon found it difficult to fully integrate in Tel Aviv due to her painful nostalgia for her home city of Vienna. Thus, on February 26, 1947, Kadmon and her family took advantage of the first transport organized by the United Nations. At the end of April, she arrived back in Vienna along with 170 other refugees.

Yet postwar Vienna had nothing in common with Red Vienna. The Austrian state did not encourage survivors to return, and most of them did not believe they could do so. While Kadmon’s companions had disappeared or been murdered, the broader Austrian public kept silent about the crimes of the Nazi era while reverting to its own traditional ways.

Kadmon nonetheless continued her artistic endeavors. She staged Bertolt Brecht’s “Fear and Misery of the Third Reich” in Vienna just as she had in Tel Aviv. Depicting spaces of resistance, the play became a parable for Stella Kadmon’s life, and she became a pioneer once again as one of the first people to demand that theater address the Holocaust.

This anti-fascist impetus was reflected in the renaming of Der kleine Augustin as Theater of Courage upon its reopening. Well into the 1980s, Stella Kadmon remained an important and defiant personality in the Viennese theater scene, which assumed a leading function in fostering feminist, anti-fascist, and left-wing discourse in Austria. In an important essay, the historian Frances Tanzer notes that in its attempt to connect a diverse theater to the cultural dynamic of Red Vienna, Kadmon’s art sought to link Jewish and non-Jewish life.

Courageous Rebellion as Necessity

With her theater, Stella Kadmon stood up to social norms and established her personal freedom. Throughout her life, she remained both a courageous opponent of fascism and an embodiment of Jewish cultural life. Moreover, Kadmon determined for herself how she would show and use her body by resisting (male) control and conventions.

Yet all the more remarkably, she never assumed the role of an overbearing director. Indeed, she never hesitated to rebel against entrenched structures — one lesson that can be learned from her story today. Given current conditions the theater world, this kind of resistance is urgently needed. Denouncing perpetrators is insufficient to put an end to abuses of power in theater. Rather, the hierarchical principle of artistic direction must be called into question. Such systems can be called into question by strong personalities integrated into collectives. Stella Kadmon’s life is emphatic proof of this.