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Helga Pollak-Kinsky (1930-2020)

Nov 25, 2020 | JMW News

The Jewish Museum Vienna mourns the loss of Helga Pollak-Kinsky (1930–2020). Helga Pollak was born on May 28, 1930 as the daughter of Frieda (née Meiseles) and Otto Pollak. The Pollak family originally came from the Czech Republic and traded in all types of goods. Helga’s father Otto volunteered as a soldier in the First World War. Otto Pollak received several awards for his bravery. A serious wound not only led to the end of his military service, but also meant a physical turning point. His left leg had to be amputated.

From 1919 on, he and his brother Karl ran Café Palmhof at Mariahilferstrasse 135 in Vienna’s 15th district. During the day it operated as a café, in the evening it became a concert venue, jazz club and dance hall. This entertainment hotspot offered space for 350 guests and gained acclaim for its innovative programming. In March 1938, Café Palmhof was “Aryanized” and transferred to a former waiter. The entire Pollak family was deported to Theresienstadt and other camps; Karl and many other family members were murdered. Helga Pollak was separated from her father and placed in the “Girls’ Home.” In her diary, she described everyday life, hunger, hardship, illness and her deportation in October 1944 to Auschwitz, then to a subcamp of the Flossenbürg concentration camp, where she had to do forced labor in a munitions factory. At the end of April 1945 she was brought back to Theresienstadt. Reunited with her father, they experienced liberation together.

After the Second World War, Helga Pollak moved to Great Britain to live with her mother (Otto and his wife had divorced before the Second World War). Otto Pollak got his house and café back, but he was a broken man. Despite many requests to reopen Café Palmhof and his good reputation that extended far beyond the district, Otto Pollak was unable to build upon his earlier life. The loss of his family and his experiences in the concentration camp did not allow that. He leased his premises to a leather factory. Today the legendary café is home to a Penny supermarket.

Otto Pollak’s daughter Helga married and accompanied her husband on the various stages of his professional life, such as to Thailand or Ethiopia. They ended up in Vienna, where Helga Kinsky worked tirelessly as a contemporary witness.

In 2020, the Jewish Museum held the exhibition “Let’s Dance. The Viennese Cafetier Otto Pollak,” where we brought Café Palmhof back into the collective consciousness of the city. This exhibition (based on an idea by Theresa Eckstein) would not have come about without the commitment of Helga Pollak-Kinsky and the many objects belonging to the family. At the opening of the exhibition, Helga Pollak gave a touching speech in which she also paid tribute to her father’s social commitment:

“My father did not get the first Silver Medal for Bravery because of a heroic deed in combat, but was sent to Vienna as a convalescent and during this time – it was just before Christmas – he organized a whole train with gifts and letters to be sent to the front. He received the first Silver Medal for Bravery for doing this. He was a very generous man. And he also had a very nice baritone voice and often – when asked – sang arias in the coffee house. I asked my father who his best customers were, and he said the prostitutes, they always ordered a bottle of champagne with the gentlemen; the worst customers were those who sat for hours with a small cup of coffee and read all the German newspapers. He was a wonderful father, especially in Theresienstadt. We were like two comrades. I am sad that my father does not see the exhibition.”

In May, we were able to celebrate Helga’s 90th birthday in a small ceremony at the exhibition that had given her so much joy. We are grateful and happy that Helga Pollak shared her memories of Café Palmhof with us, as well as her diary from Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, which is an essential testimony to the times. We will infinitely miss her loving, wonderful being and her open, humorous and elegant way.

Video of Rede von Helga Pollak-Kinsky bei der Ausstellungseröffnung "Café Palmhof"