Fritz Grünbaum was an Austrian-Jewish comedian, singer and cabaret star who never stopped cracking jokes, even after being deported to a concentration camp.
Born in 1880, Fritz attended law school in Vienna. After graduating, instead of practicing law, Fritz pursued his dream of being an entertainer. He wrote his first operetta in 1903, and in 1906 began a longtime gig as the master of ceremonies at Cabaret Die Hoelle in Vienna. Fritz told funny stories, sang songs, and made sure everyone had a great time every night.
In 1910, an Austro-Hungarian imperial army officer in the cabaret audience started heckling Fritz with anti-Semitic insults. Fritz left the stage, went over to the officer’s table, and slapped him, then calmly returned to the stage. The officer challenged Fritz to a duel. The two men fought and Fritz was injured.
Fritz joined the army in 1914 and fought for Austria-Hungary in World War I. After the war, he resumed his successful show business career, commuting between Vienna and Berlin. In Berlin, Fritz acted in movies and recorded pop songs. In Vienna, he was co-founder and master of ceremonies of the legendary cabaret Simpl.
After Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930’s, Fritz was no longer allowed to perform in Germany. He relocated full time to Vienna, where he used his nightclub act to relentlessly skewer the Nazi party. In 1938, he walked out onto a darkened stage and flailed around, crying, “I see nothing, absolutely nothing! I must have wandered into National Socialist culture.” The next day Fritz was banned from performing in Austria.
Germany invaded Austria, and Fritz and his wife tried to escape the country but were caught at the border and deported to labor camps. Fritz was later sent to Dachau, but he never stopped entertaining people. At Dachau, he mocked the Nazis and found levity in the grim absurdities of life in a death camp. One former inmate remembered Fritz comforting the other inmates “by arguing that absolute deprivation and systematic starvation were the best defenses against diabetes.”
Before his deportation, Fritz had been a well-known art collector specializing in Austrian modernist art. He had a large collection of works by Egon Schiele. After Fritz was deported, his prized art collection was looted by the Nazis. A fourth of the collection appeared in the 1950’s through a Swiss art dealer. The fate of the other 3/4 of Fritz’ collection remains unknown.
Fritz’ last performance was on New Year’s Eve 1940 in Dachau. He was desperately ill with tuberculosis, but summoned the strength to perform a comedy and musical act for his fellow inmates, most of whom were dying. One of the prisoners was excited when he recognized Fritz from his performances in Vienna. Fritz said, “I beg of you, Fritz Grünbaum is not performing for you, but instead it is the number [he recited his camp number], who just wants to spread a little happiness on the last day of the year.” Fritz died two weeks later.
For lightening people’s hearts, even in horrific circumstances, we honor Fritz Grünbaum as this week’s Thursday Hero at Accidental Talmudist. May his memory always be for a blessing, and may his missing art collection return to his family.
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