This Day in Jewish History

1941: A Cabaret Comic Who Mocked the Nazis Dies in Dachau

Fritz Gruenbaum, trying to cheer up his fellow inmates in the concentration camp: ‘Absolute deprivation and systematic starvation are the best defenses against diabetes’

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On January 14, 1941, the cabaret performer and art collector Fritz Gruenbaum died at the Dachau concentration camp.

Gruenbaum courageously made his contempt for the Nazis a subject of his nightclub routines right up until his arrest, in 1938. And he continued to perform for his fellow inmates until his death.

The present-day fate of parts of his art collection, which his heirs claim was confiscated by the Germans, continues to keep Gruenbaum’s name in the headlines.

Franz Friedrich Grünbaum was born on April 7, 1880, in Bruenn, Moravia, then part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire (today Brno, in the Czech Republic). He attended law school at the University of Vienna, but after he graduated he began working in the field that was his true love – entertainment.

He began by writing for a variety of clubs in Vienna, in 1903, and made his first appearance on stage as a master of ceremonies at that city’s cabaret Die Hoelle. In the years leading up to World War I, he performed on stages in Vienna and Berlin.

Gruenbaum was unafraid to confront his audience: In 1910, he slapped an Austrian officer who had voiced anti-Semitic remarks during a performance and found himself challenged to a duel, in which he was wounded.

Years later, in Berlin during Germany’s economic crisis, he paused in a performance to address guests seated near the stage: “My dear ladies and gentlemen, there in the front. It is bad enough that I have to see you eat in such a time, but also to have to hear you eat...!”

During World War I, Gruenbaum volunteered enthusiastically for the Austrian army, and served at the Italian front.

‘I see nothing, absolutely nothing’

In the 1920s and early 1930s, Gruenbaum wrote prolifically and performed, on stage and later in films.

In 1933, after Hitler came to power in Germany, the Nazis became a frequent butt of his comedy.

On the very day that German troops marched into Vienna, March 12, 1938, Gruenbaum performed at Café Simplicissimus. He groped his way onto a darkened stage, saying, “I see nothing, absolutely nothing. I must have wandered into National Socialist culture.”

Not surprisingly, Gruenbaum was immediately banned from performing. He and his third wife, Elisabeth (Lilly) Herzl, tried to emigrate to Bratislava but were turned back at the Slovakian border. He was arrested a short time later, and was sent to Dachau, outside Munich.

At both Dachau and Buchenwald, where he was also held briefly, Gruenbaum organized cultural activities, and through his own stand-up routines he tried to bolster the spirits of his fellow inmates.

Survivors later recalled him trying to cheer them with the news that “absolute deprivation and systematic starvation are the best defenses against diabetes.”

His last performance took place in the Dachau infirmary on December 31, 1940, New Year’s Eve. Gruenbaum was already very ill with tuberculosis. Two weeks later, on January 14, 1941, he died.

Lilly, Gruenbaum’s wife, went through the complex legal procedure the Germans required of relinquishing title to all her and her husband’s assets. In October 1942 she was deported to the Maly-Trostinec concentration camp near Minsk and presumably died there.

Gruenbaum’s art collection included 81 pieces by the Viennese Expressionist artist Egon Schiele (1890-1918). Two of these, “Seated Woman with Bent Leg” (gouache and crayon, 1917) and “Town on the Blue River” (watercolor, 1910), were offered for sale at auction in New York last November, at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, respectively.

In the case of “Town on the Blue River,” Christie’s and the estate selling the painting both acknowledged that it had been looted and agreed to give a percentage of the sale to Gruenbaum’s heirs.

Sotheby’s, on the other hand, relying on its research and on an earlier court ruling in a federal court in New York, concluded that “Seated Woman” had been sold legally in the 1950s, by Lilly Gruenbaum’s sister, Mathilde Lukacs-Herzl.

The disputed “Seated Woman” was sold by Sotheby’s for $1.325 million, within the pre-auction estimate range. “Town on the Blue River” went for $2.965 million, more than double the estimated sale price.