The Story of the Lighthouse

From the Institute to the Forum: Looking back at the double name change

By Manfred Keller

“A country’s reputation is not based on what has developed inside, but rather what has been achieved outside her borders.” (Excerpt from the General Introduction of the Austrian Institute Program, ca. 1946)

New York 1942: Siegfried Altmann, former director of the Israelite Institute for the Blind in Vienna, Frederick Taylor, officer in the K&K Army in WWI and later a member of the Vienna police force, and Irene Harand, resistance fighter and publicist, established the independent Austrian Institute with private funds.

Initially focusing primarily on political objectives, such as the rebuilding of the Republic of Austria, after the founding of the Second Republic the Institute’s attention shifted almost exclusively to culture. The Institute’s members, and the people who gave lectures there, were world-renowned scientists, artists, and intellectuals who had been driven out of Austria by the Nazis, among them Nobel laureates Otto Loewie and Victor Franz Hess, and musicians and composers Walter Bricht, Paul Wittgenstein, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

After 1945 exiled Austrians also began to take up contact with their old homeland. Events of the Austrian Institute were promoted by the Austrian Consulate, and Vienna’s Mayor Franz Jonas and Federal Chancellor Leopold Figl held lectures for the Austrian Institute. A convergence was emerging.

Wilhelm Schlag is another person who played an instrument role in the development of the Institute. He had been detained in Missouri and Nebraska as a prisoner of war and worked there as a farmhand and German teacher. In 1955 Austria’s Ministry of Education entrusted him with the establishment of an Austrian cultural institute in the USA. Shortly after his arrival in New York, still by sea in those days (the trip was simultaneously his honeymoon), he moved into a temporary office in the Shelton Towers on 49th Street in Midtown Manhattan and immediately took up contact with the Austrian Institute.

Schlag must have been deeply impressed by what he saw. Maybe it was the German-language readings in the middle of New York, maybe the hearty anecdotes from long forgotten times, or maybe the song gatherings that were so reminiscent of old Vienna. But without a doubt, he was moved by the people at the Institute – most of them Jews who had been driven from their homeland, had experienced the murder of their family members, and who despite the betrayal remembered their roots.

A close partnership that may well have evolved into a friendship ensued with Siegfried Altmann, who from 1958 was another important president of the Austrian Institute. Schlag referred to Professor Altmann as the “soul of the Austrian Institute” and was more than awed by Altmann’s education. Towards the end of the 1950s Schlag found a suitable home for the official new Austrian cultural facility that finally opened on 52nd Street in 1963.

But first a fairly significant problem had to be resolved. All of the cultural institutes of the Austrian Republic were referred to as the Austrian Institute – a designation that in New York had already been used for more than 20 years by the exile organization.

This is what prompted the first name change. With the opening of the official Austrian Cultural Institute, the exile organization surrendered its name and from that point forward called itself the Austrian Forum.

The partnership between Schlag and the exiled Austrians, not always sanctioned in Vienna, was to find a new basis with the opening of the Austrian Cultural Forum. From now on, many events were organized jointly. The Austrian Forum moved into a small office in the new official Austrian Cultural Institute, and members of the Forum were invited to Institute events. 

Even after the death of Altmann in 1963 and Schlag’s return to Vienna in 1967, the Austrian Forum continued to assert its position. With the presidency of founding member and dedicated resistance fighter Irene Harand its focus shifted. Harand gave the Forum a new voice, increasingly referring to exile, loss, and political responsibility. 

Schlag’s successors, among them Gottfried Heindl and Richard Sickinger, also succeeded in responding to the interests of the Forum, which later began to specialize more in musical events and even made sure to include good old Gemütlichkeit (coziness), a sentiment that otherwise remained virtually unknown in exile. Memorable gatherings included the “Wiener Jause” coffee klatches organized by Harand’s successor, pianist Margarethe Bush. In her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Vienna’s coffeehouse tradition was very much alive. People would get together over coffee and cake to chat and listen to sketches by Hans Bernfeld, later the president of the Forum. In the early 1990s, after Bernfeld’s wife resigned as the head of the Forum of exiled Austrians, it discontinued operations after 50 years of history. It was never officially dissolved.

The historic merit of the Forum is inestimable. In a time when the memory of Nazi terror and murder, displacement and war were still painfully present, it made efforts to promote active exchange with postwar Austria. The Forum, older than the Second Republic, served as a living link in this context.

In her dissertation Exile and Identity (1998), Brigitta Boveland speaks of the relationship between the Forum and Austria as the “story of people from the two sides of history reaching out to each other.”

In fall 1994, when the Austrian Cultural Institute of the Republic of Austria celebrated its last event in the meanwhile shabby building on 52nd Street, which then closed its doors and was torn down, Boveland was convinced that the 50-year history of the old Forum had also found its symbolic end. But she was wrong.

The second name change came with the opening of the new building. The new Austrian Cultural Forum welcomed its first guests in 2002.

Lighthouses shine. But they also warn.