Motivated by the desire to ‘spread a little happiness’ among his comrades, Fritz Grünbaum, the Austrian-Jewish entertainer and cabaret star, gave his final show before a group of dying prisoners while himself deeply ill. Before his 1941 death in Dachau, Grünbaum had enjoyed a remarkably successful and varied theatrical life. Born in 1880, he completed his studies in law, but always felt drawn to performance and cabaret. In 1906 he gave his first performance in Vienna, ultimately becoming a core member of the famous Viennese cabaret Simpl. He established active careers in cabaret in Berlin and Munich, and was part of an elite group of cabaret artists who defined cultural life in the Austrian capital.
Although his career in Berlin ended with Hitler’s rise to power, Grünbaum continued to put on political cabaret in Vienna. He insisted on staging pieces that openly mocked Hitler, the lack of freedom under Nazism, and the impossibility of dissent in Austria. In March 1938 he gave his last revue with the cabaret Simpl. The curtains opened on a darkened stage, and Grünbaum wandered out, crying: "I see nothing, absolutely nothing. I must have wandered into the National Socialist culture". The next day he was banned from performing again in Austria. When Germany invaded, Grünbaum attempted to flee, but was sent back with his wife while trying to get to Bratislava. He was eventually put in prison, and then transferred to a temporary SS holding facility.
In May 1938 he was deported to Dachau. There, he met among the prisoners Fritz Löhner-Beda, who had been brought to the camp in April 1938. One former inmate remembered how Grünbaum put on skits insisting that he would personally dismantle the Reich. He would comfort prisoners 'by arguing that absolute deprivation and systematic starvation were the best defenses against diabetes'. When an SS officer denied his request for soap, he joked that 'anyone who doesn’t have money for soap can't afford concentration camps'. He was soon transported to Buchenwald, where he was also active in cultural activity, only to be returned to Dachau, where he was to die.
It was on New Year’s Eve, 1940, that Grünbaum gave his last performance. Gravely ill with tuberculosis, he decided to put on a show for the entertainment of prisoners in the camp infirmary. Despite his sickly appearance, one of the prisoners recognised him from his glory days in Vienna. Grünbaum pleaded:
I beg of you, Fritz Grünbaum is not performing for you, but instead it is the number [and recited his camp number], who just wants to spread a little happiness on the last day of the year.
Soon after this final show he attempted suicide, but was 'saved' by the SS officers. Just two weeks later, on 14 January 1941, a death certificate was made up for him. He had succumbed, according to the Nazis, to a weak heart.
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.