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