The tragedy lies in the familiarity of the story. A major contributor to Viennese life and culture, café owner Otto Pollak lost his establishment under the Nazis, his freedom to the Theresienstadt ghetto, and his brother to Auschwitz. The Let’s Dance exhibition at the Jewish Museum tells his and Café Palmhof’s story.
- Features, for example, photos and documents from the Pollak estate and intriguing historical items from the old coffee house
- Just one room, so quick to get around
- Runs Jan 22 – Sept 18, 2020
- You only need an ordinary entrance ticket to the museum
- See also: Jewish Museum – visitor & tickets info – selected past exhibitions
(Café Palmhof – Press photo © Private collection Kinsky)
The small Let’s Dance exhibition, curated by Theresa Eckstein and Janine Zettl (and sponsored by Raiffeisen), tells the tale of Otto Pollak and his Café Palmhof on Mariahilfer Straße. Exhibits from his estate create a lovely impression of cultural life in pre-war Vienna.
A flourishing business
Mariahilfer Straße is one of Vienna’s top shopping streets, though most of the action takes place along the part inside the great Gürtel ring road.
Commercial life is a bit tougher for those with premises beyond the Gürtel. Before WWII, Otto Pollak was one of them, as owner of Café Palmhof at Mariahilfer Straße 135 (together with his brother, Karl). A coffee house by day, the café morphed into a music club at night. And a very successful venue it was, too.
Various bands and musicians performed, often with live radio broadcasts of concerts (you can listen to excerpts from one at the exhibition).
Pollak himself even sang occasionally. Franz Lehár was a guest, and Miss Vienna took place there in 1933. Café Palmhof became a vibrant cultural and social hotspot in early 20th-century Vienna.
The tragic side of the story began with two terrorist (Nazi) bombings in 1934 and reached its conclusion with the aryanisation of the business in 1938. Otto Pollak and his family eventually fled to his birthplace, Kyjov in southern Czechoslovakia, but were later deported to the Theresienstadt hybrid ghetto and concentration camp in 1943.
Otto and his daughter, Helga, survived the war. Karl Pollak was not so “fortunate”, having been moved on to Auschwitz to be murdered by the Nazis.
Although the authorities eventually returned the coffee house to Pollak, he felt unable to reopen the business. Today, a discount supermarket occupies the historical address.
Photos, letters, a menu, and more
The Let’s Dance exhibition presents small themed displays that illustrate Pollak’s life and the history of Café Palmhof.
So you have childhood and family photos, for example, but also concert posters for the café, the original coffee house cutlery and crockery, letters, diaries and more. The highlights for me:
- A large photo of the view down to Westbahnhof station from the café’s window – how things have changed in the intervening decades!
- The café guestbook open to a dedication from Hans Moser, one of Austria’s most renowned actors
- Photos of Café Palmhof’s interior, revealing the elegant and ever-changing decor
- A 1926 letter of thanks from Adele Strauss, third and final wife of Johann Strauss II
- A menu, where an espresso cost two Schillings (€0.15) or just one Schilling after the first. And a Schnitzel with salad would set you back three Schillings (€0.22).
But perhaps the most poignant exhibits are those hinting at the horrors of WWII and the Nazi regime, particularly Otto Pollak’s (long) list of those members of his family who never came back. After the liberation of Theresienstadt, Otto and Helga returned to Kyjov to await the return of other members of the family. Only one cousin did so.
Dates and tickets
How to get there
The main site on Dorotheergasse hosts the exhibition. Once you’re inside the museum, go to the first floor and look for the smaller Studio Exhibition room to the right of the stairs and lift as you come up from below.
Address: Dorotheergasse 11, 1010 Vienna