The Hollywood Grande Dame Who Rescued Jews from Nazi Europe and Gave Them a Place to Call Home

February 27, 2020 | Mark Horowitz
About the author:

After having modest success on the German and Austrian stage, the actress Salka Viertel settled in Los Angeles with her husband in 1928, where her home became a sort of salon for Central European refugees. Thanks to her friendship with Greta Garbo, she was able to support herself as a screenwriter while playing a small but significant role in Hollywood history. Her memoir has recently been reissued, along with a newly published biography of her by Donna Rifkind titled The Sun and Her Stars. Mark Horowitz writes in his review:

Viertel, a builder of bridges, was instrumental in getting the voices [of this group of anti-Nazi, mostly Jewish refugees] heard. Her house on Mabery Road in Santa Monica, a short walk from the beach, was “filled with the dispossessed,” Rifkind writes, “drawn to her compassion and her European cooking.” There, they rubbed shoulders with studio grandees and, under her prodding, discovered common ground.

She had acquired her ingathering style years earlier, in a far corner of the Habsburg empire, where her prosperous Jewish parents maintained an open house, welcoming a steady flow of friends and visitors through the front door while distributing food and money to indigent Jews and starving peasants through the back.

In Los Angeles, Viertel provided a substitute home for those, like herself, who had lost their original one. But these were no ordinary refugees trooping through her living room. If she at times comes across as something of a name-dropper (and she does), can you blame her? The regulars at her Sunday parties included Charlie Chaplin, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Leon Feuchtwanger, Arnold Schoenberg, and Jean Renoir.

She [also] donated regularly to the European Film Fund, a Hollywood charity that rescued Hitler’s Jewish victims even as the U.S. government shut its gates. . . . The essence of her politics was charity and hospitality—a legacy from her mother. . . . The mitzvah of hakhnasat orḥim, Rifkind says, “the taking in of guests,” was her credo.

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