Einzi Stolz, wife of the Austrian composer Robert Stolz, remembered Hermann Leopoldi thus:
Leopoldi was for us all some sort of creature from a different planet. Through a salvation bordering on a wonder he had survived the horrors of concentration camps Buchenwald and Dachau. He maintained his belief in the good in humanity and remained an optimist, who gave courage and confidence to many in times of difficulty.
One of the few surviving Jewish members of the vibrant cabaret scene of 1920s Vienna, Leopoldi was interned in two of Nazi Germany’s most notorious camps, obtained a last-minute release, and resumed his career first in New York and then in Austria after the war.
With a father (Leopold) who was a committed entertainer and pianist, Hermann, along with his older brother, was destined to pursue a life in entertainment. He was born on 15 August 1888 as Hersch Kohn; the family changed its last name to Leopoldi in 1921, when Hermann was already 33 years old. Leopold gave both of his sons extensive musical training. As a teenager Hermann was an accompanist and bar pianist, and put on his own shows in a unique style of musical comedy, accompanying his songs on the piano. During the war, Leopoldi enlisted, and was employed as a pianist and entertainer in variety shows that played for soldiers on the front.
In 1922, the two Leopoldi brothers, along with Fritz Wiesenthal, opened the ‘Kabarett Leopoldi-Wiesenthal’. In a city exploding with cabaret, it was recognised as one of the most successful venues, and it hosted well-known Austrian cabaret artists including Fritz Grünbaum. Despite enthusiastic reviews, however, the cabaret was forced to close in 1925 due to growing debt. Hermann nonetheless managed to continue his career, touring throughout central Europe. He became one of the best-known performers of the time, writing the music to many hit Viennese songs and chansons, and working with well-known artists like Fritz Löhner-Beda.
On 11 March 1938 Leopoldi embarked on a train journey to a scheduled performance in Czechoslovakia. The train, overflowing with hopeful refugees, was turned back by Czech border guards. Leopoldi and his wife, aware of their precarious situation in annexed Austria, had been arranging the papers for their emigration to the USA.
They had got everything in order when, on 26 April, the police arrived at his door to take him in for questioning. He was thrown in jail, and soon after sent to Dachau, where other greats of the Austrian cabaret, including Grünbaum and Löhner-Beda, were also interned. Later he and many others were transferred to Buchenwald, and it was here that he had the greatest impact on camp cultural life. He performed his own songs for other prisoners, and most famously, in response to a contest initiated by the camp commander, composed the 'Buchenwaldlied' (Buchenwald song) together with Löhner-Beda. Entered by a non-Jewish Kapo, the song was selected as the winner, although the promised prize was never distributed. Despite its optimistic mood and text, the song was popular with the camp personnel as well as with the prisoners. Years later Leopoldi remembered that the song
pleased the camp commander intensely; in his stupidity he did not see how revolutionary the song actually was. From this day on we had to sing the march morning, noon and night …. Rödl [the camp commander] liked to dance to the melody, while the camp music played on one side, and on the other side people were being whipped … Through our work colony the song was brought to surrounding villages, and soon it was known throughout the land.
While Leopoldi was suffering in Buchenwald, his wife and parents-in-law were trying frantically to get him a visa to the United States, where they had already arrived. After a large bribe and a great deal of luck, on 11 April 1939 Leopoldi received a visa and was released. He immediately boarded a ship to New York, and was greeted at the dock by family and New York reporters. Their positive articles about his arrival in the Big Apple greatly simplified his entrance into American cultural life. Rare among cabaret artist émigrés, Leopoldi quickly established a successful career in New York.
Leopoldi successfully performed both German and English language versions of his ‘Wiener Lieder’, and even ran a musical café called Viennese Lantern. This café, popular with Americans, but especially catering to the community of artists who had fled the Nazi regime, was according to Einzi Stoltz 'an oasis of authentic Vienna in the middle of New York, where for a few hours you could dream of a Vienna that was so far away and unattainable, yet lived on in your heart'. This love for his homeland, unabated by his internment and the destruction wreaked by the war, led Leopoldi and his wife to return to Vienna in 1949. Here he went on to help rebuild the cultural richness that the city had enjoyed twenty years before. Resuming the career cut short in 1938, he performed and toured all over post-war Germany, Austria and Switzerland. In a powerful sign of the transformative impact he had on the reconstruction of Austria, in 1958 Leopoldi was awarded the Golden Medal of Honour for service to the Republic of Austria. He died in Vienna of a heart attack in June 1959, at the age of 71.