Karl Kutschera and the House Wien

Speech by Jer­ry Kay, grand­son of Karl Kutschera, on the occa­sion of the instal­la­tion of a memo­r­i­al plaque at Kur­fürs­ten­damm 26 on 22 Feb­ru­ary 2018


Why are we com­ing here today, and what do we com­mem­o­rate with this Gedenk­tafel (Memo­r­i­al Plaque)? For me the answer is easy. This build­ing was the place where my grand­fa­ther, Karl Kutschera built what he called ‘his life’s work’ from 1919 until he died in 1950. My Stief­gross­mut­ter, Josephine Kutschera Hilde­brandt car­ried it on until the ear­ly 1970’s. My father man­aged the busi­ness before emi­grat­ing to Amer­i­ca in 1938. I first came here in 1950 when I was three years old.

Prof. Goetz Hilde­brandt, son of Paul Hilde­brandt, Dr. Cor­nelia Dildei and Jer­ry Kay, grand­son of Karl Kutschera, in front of the com­mem­o­ra­tive plaque

But what exactly was Karl Kutschera’s life’s work?

He grew up in a small farm vil­lage of Upper Hun­gary, now Slo­va­kia. His par­ents owned an inn and farm­land. As a young boy, Karl fell in love with the atmos­phere in the inn, where towns­peo­ple and guests gath­ered. He saw a kind of mag­ic hap­pened when peo­ple came togeth­er over cof­fee, food and drink. They became hap­py. They became joy­ful. Some­times they even became cre­ative.

So at 13 he moved to Vien­na, the cap­i­tal of cof­fee house cul­ture to learn the busi­ness. He worked in cafés where writ­ers, com­posers, artists and intel­lec­tu­als sat with their cof­fee and wrote books, the­ater plays, news­pa­per columns or essays; they com­posed music, sketched pic­tures or ideas for build­ings. They dreamed up new inven­tions or sci­en­tif­ic con­cepts. And when they gath­ered around their Stammtis­ches (Reg­u­lar Tables), they not only made jokes and gemütlich (genial) cama­raderie, they dis­cussed, debat­ed and col­lab­o­rat­ed. My grand­fa­ther under­stood that this vital Euro­pean insti­tu­tion could be a pub­lic place to inspire and advance civ­i­liza­tion.

When he came to Berlin in 1900, Karl Kutschera want­ed that kind of café, along with oth­er famous Berlin cafés, the Roman­isch, the Café Des West­ens, — a place in the mid­dle of the city where peo­ple with great minds and tal­ents could come and escape the noise and clut­ter and clat­ter of the big city and be able to open up their minds and spir­its and souls to con­tem­plate new art and lit­er­a­ture, new music and fash­ion, new inven­tions, new ideas.

And then, a few years after the destruc­tion, humil­i­a­tion and chaos of the First World War, sud­den­ly mil­i­taris­tic, stodgy Berlin flow­ers in the Gold­en Twen­ties into a Welt­stadt and any­body who wants to be on the cut­ting edge has to come to Berlin.

And, yes, they came. In the chairs and around the tables in Café Wien, sat famous play­wrights, jour­nal­ists, cabaret, the­ater and film pro­duc­ers and direc­tors and actors and actress­es. Often they met at a large round table, their Stammtisch in the back and one of the things they did was pay for fifty up and com­ing artists and writ­ers a day of their choice to come and dine at Café Wien. It was­n’t until after Karl Kutschera died that one of the group con­fessed that the idea was Mr. Kutscher­a’s who paid for it, but swore them all to secre­cy. Kutschera want­ed it known as their gift.

Up in the bil­liard room, a young film writer, Bil­ly Wilder came with his direc­tor friend Robert Siod­mak think­ing up scenes for his first cred­it­ed film, Men­schem Am Son­ntag (Peo­ple On Sunday)–which pre­miered in the adjoin­ing movie the­ater in 1929. Dancer Josephine Bak­er showed up one evening in a group that includ­ed the­ater pro­duc­er Max Rhein­hardt. Box­ing cham­pi­on Max Schmel­ing enter­tained his Jew­ish friends often down­stairs in the Zige­unerkeller– before help­ing them escape to free­dom.

Albert Ein­stein sat in Café Wien con­vers­ing with world chess mas­ter and philoso­pher, Emanuel Lasker. Anoth­er Ein­stein friend and col­lab­o­ra­tor, Leo Szi­lard who had designed the first elec­tron micro­scope tried to per­suade inven­tor, Den­nis Gabor, the father of holog­ra­phy in Café Wien to build it in 1928. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Ger­man civ­i­liza­tion was not sol­id enough to with­stand the forces that led to Nation­al Social­ism, and Karl Kutschera and most of his fam­i­ly who had not left Ger­many, lost every­thing and were sent to Con­cen­tra­tion Camps. His two youngest chil­dren, his broth­ers and sis­ters, aunts and uncles, cousins, his col­leagues per­ished. But Karl and his wife, Josephine sur­vived and returned to Berlin, and Café Wien was returned to him.

What was he to do? Leave Berlin, sell the café and set­tle with sur­viv­ing fam­i­ly in oth­er coun­tries? No, he chose to stay in Berlin. He chose to believe that as hor­ri­ble as Ger­many had become, there still burned in some of the peo­ple a light of civ­i­liza­tion he had always worked to build in Berlin. His old­er son, my father who had left for Amer­i­ca did not agree with him. But Karl per­sist­ed and through the tough years after the war main­tained Café Wien as a sym­bol of what Berlin had been and still could be again. When he died in 1950, my Stief­gross­mut­ter (Step-grand­moth­er), Josephine kept it going and then mar­ried Paul Hilde­brandt; and togeth­er they helped cre­ate and host in their Film Bühne Wien and Café Wien the Berlin Film Fes­ti­val which brought the city inter­na­tion­al cul­tur­al stature once again.

This is why this build­ing is so impor­tant, not because of the celebri­ties, but because Karl Kutschera ded­i­cat­ed him­self to mak­ing Café Wien a place where peo­ple over a cup of cof­fee and a strudel, could ulti­mate­ly con­tem­plate how to make soci­ety bet­ter or at least, more enjoy­able.

  I want to thank every­one who helped to make this day pos­si­ble. Jer­ry Kay

Jer­ry Key’s speech on YouTube