One of the great stars of the 1920s, Paul Morgan co-founded one of the most illustrious cabarets of Weimar Germany, Berlin’s ‘Kadeko’. Despite invitations from Hollywood, and contacts with artists, intellectuals and politicians throughout Central Europe, Morgan refused to leave his homeland until it was too late. Arrested in March 1938, he died of exhaustion just months later in Buchenwald, where many of his former cabaret comrades were interned alongside him.

Born in 1886 in Vienna to an Austrian Jewish family, Georg Paul Morgenstern was baptized and raised Catholic. Certain since childhood that he wanted to pursue a life on the stage, Morgan studied theatre and writing, and began performing in small theatres and cabarets before World War I.

During the war the pacifist Morgan managed to avoid the draft due to his flat feet; he also got his first big break, replacing the enlisted Fritz Grünbaum at the cabaret ‘Simpl’.  In 1917 he married, and just a few years later began a successful movie career.   By the early 1920s, Morgan had become a star actor, singer, writer (he composed songs with such artists as Willy Rosen), and theatre-organizer.  Along with Kurt Robitschek, he opened the famous ‘Cabaret of Comics’ (in German, Kabarett der Komiker, shortened to Kadeko) in Berlin.

The cabaret was intended to be an innovative combination of variety show and intimate theatre, and became one of the central comedy stages of Europe.  In the late 1920s, flush with success, the two men moved their show to a large new theatre centrally located in the German capital; by now, most famous cabaret artists of the era had performed on their stage.  They expanded their scope, including guest appearances by famed international stars, while simultaneously trying to deny increasing pressure from the radical right.

Just a year after moving venue, the cabaret was blacklisted by several newspapers, which refused to print their announcements.  The two men found themselves under economic and social attack; soon after, the SA invaded their theatre, leaping on to the stage as the cabaret was performing an anti-Hitler satire.  This was the last straw for Morgan, who decided to leave Germany.

Invited to act in Hollywood, Morgan went to California for nine months, and tried out the cabaret scene in Switzerland, but ultimately he ended up back in Austria.  Although he found it difficult to support himself in the increasingly reactionary Vienna, he did not want to leave, hoping, like so many, to ride out what was thought to be a temporary right-wing government.  By 1938, Robitschek had managed to move permanently to the United States, where he unsuccessfully tried to reestablish the ‘Kadeko’ on Broadway. Morgan, however, was arrested, and sent to Dachau in March 1938.  Soon thereafter he was transferred to Buchenwald, where he participated in the informal performances that the prisoners put on in their barracks.  His wife, who remained in safety, worked desperately to get him papers, and finally managed to get him a visa for Holland; it ended up being too late.

On 10 December 1938, a block leader found food hidden in the beds of Morgan’s block.  As a punishment, the freezing prisoners were ordered to perform ‘punishment exercises’, doing strenuous aerobics in their inadequate clothing to the point of collapse.  Journalist and former inmate Bruno Heilig remembers that:

a man stepped out of the row, took off his cap, and went wobbling to the block leader, who was watching the punishment exercises. He said ‘I am sick – I have a fever ... ’  It is the actor Paul Morgan.  The block leader chased him back to the line.  The entire block exercises until the whistle blows.  Paul Morgan was brought back on a stretcher.

Sources

Hippen, R., 1988. Es Liegt in der Luft: Kabarett im Dritten Reich, Zürich: Pendo-Verlag.  

Stompor, S., 2001. Judisches Musik- und Theaterleben unter dem NS-Staat, Hannover: Europaisches Zentrum fur Judische Musik.  

Paul Morgan Photo from http://www.max-ehrlich.org/