Life & Culture

Cafe nostalgia: the coffeehouses that tell Europe’s story

A Jewish man set up the first cafe in England – and in Europe coffee houses were central to Jewish culture, as Monica Porter’s new book details


Cafe Central in Vienna

Since the 17th century, the café in Europe has been a gathering place for innovators and mavericks – the writers, artists, philosophers and political figures who formed new movements that changed the world. The strong historic connection between Jews and European coffee-house culture brings to mind the Jewish intellectuals who frequented the famous cafés of Habsburg-era Vienna – Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, dramatist Arthur Schnitzler, writer Karl Kraus and theatre critic Alfred Polgar. And, of course, that archetype of the Austro-Hungarian café intellectual, novelist Stefan Zweig.

In his 1942 memoir, The World of Yesterday, Zweig reflected: “Our finest place of education for everything new was the coffee house … an institution of a special kind which is not comparable to any other in the world. It is actually a kind of democratic club, accessible to anyone for an inexpensive cup of coffee.”

The opulent Café Central, with its ornate vaulted ceiling and marble pillars, was (and still is) Vienna’s most celebrated coffee house. One of its habitués in the late 19th and early 20th century was writer and poet Peter Altenberg, now immortalised as a statue there. He practically lived at the café, which was even given as his address on his calling card. He said the best thing about being in a coffee house is that you’re neither at home nor out in the fresh air. (A poor poet’s home is likely to be cramped and cheerless, and any amiable man of letters would prefer a comfortable interior peopled with his chosen companions, to “the great outdoors”.)

Altenberg was a boozy, womanising eccentric. Always short of cash, he was good at charming people into paying for his meals, drinks and even the rent at his cheap lodgings. Cigarettes, on the other hand, he cadged from the café’s waiters. Yet he was a talented and important member of the Jung-Wien (Young Vienna) movement, composed of writers who eschewed 19th-century naturalism in order to experiment with new literary forms. A virtuoso of the closely observed short story about everyday life, Kafka remarked that Altenberg had a talent for “finding the splendours of the world like cigarette butts in the ashtrays of coffee houses”.

Leon Trotsky (then still known by his birth name of Bronstein) had fled tsarist Russia after the failed revolution of 1905 and two years later settled in Vienna to work as a journalist. He loved the central European ambience, the gemütlichkeit – cosy geniality – of its cafés, and became a well-known figure at the Central. He developed cordial relations with many of its writers, especially Altenberg and Kraus, and enjoyed playing chess with Polgar – by all accounts the pair were formidable opponents.

When the First World War broke out, with Austria-Hungary fighting against the Russian Empire, Trotsky was forced to flee Vienna for neutral Switzerland to avoid arrest as a Russian émigré. The Bolshevik Revolution broke out three years later, with Trotsky as one of its leaders. Back at his old haunt, the Central, head waiter Josef was unsurprised by the development: “I always knew Herr Doktor Bronstein would go far in life, but I didn’t think he’d leave without paying for the four mochas he owes me.”

While researching my book, A History of Europe in 12 Cafés, I learnt that the Jewish connection with the European coffee house goes back much further than the storied milieu of Altenberg et al. In fact a Jewish entrepreneur from the Levant, whose name is recorded simply as Jaccob, established the very first coffee house in England – on the High Street in Oxford, to be precise, in 1650. (Two years before the Greek servant Pasqua Rosée set up his historic coffee stall near the Royal Exchange in London.) Then, in 1654, a fellow Levantine Jew, Cirques Jobson, opened a second Oxford coffee house, right opposite Jaccob’s. There’s nothing like a bit of competition.

It was bold of the pair to settle in England and launch their businesses here. King Edward I had expelled the Jews back in the 13th century, so there was no Jewish community to support them. Happily, Oliver Cromwell soon allowed Jews back in (1656), and all was well. You can’t fault Jacob and Cirques for their business sense: their two premises are cafés even today.

Another remarkable discovery I made concerned another era, closer to our own: it was about the short-lived but meaningful role played by cafés in the Warsaw Ghetto of 1940-43. After the Nazis had banned most forms of public life there – synagogues, cinemas, libraries etc – what remained were the cafés. Most of these establishments were on Leszno Street and offered such a wide range of live musical entertainments that the busy throughfare was jokingly dubbed “the Broadway of the Warsaw Ghetto”.

Because the German authorities kept the inhabitants on starvation-level rations, most of the food in the ghetto came from smuggling. While the impoverished were dying on the streets, the cafés had an ample supply of black-market food, coffee and alcohol – almost as in pre-war days. The grandest was the Café L’Ourse. Its customers’ mandatory Star of David armband was the only indication that they were victims of persecution. This small, select crowd could enjoy the creature comforts and the company of their friends and associates, because they possessed the one thing capable of prolonging life: money.

The intellectual elite congregated at the Café Sztuka, which staged cabaret shows, topical political sketches and readings by well-known literary figures such as the poet and lyricist Władysław Szlengel. The music was provided by Władysław Szpilman, subject of the Roman Polanski film The Pianist; the glamorous pre-war singing star Wiera Gran, whom Szpilman accompanied on the piano; and the young soprano Marysia Ajzensztadt, “the Nightingale of the Ghetto”. The celebrated musician and composer Artur Gold, meanwhile, performed with a jazz band at the Café Splendid. But these establishments supplied something else besides nourishment for the body and soul: they were a conduit for continued existence. It was where speculators and black marketeers huddled around tables, quietly sealing deals. And it was where smugglers arranged their dangerous missions. Chancers also went there, hoping to contact someone who knew how to bribe a Nazi guard and help a Jew escape beyond the ghetto wall to the “Aryan” side. (A few, including Wiera Gran, succeeded.) But collaborators were also known to hang around in the cafés: you had to be on your guard.

The ghetto’s café scene was a brief, fiercely burning light in the darkness – an expression of anti-Nazi dissent. For a community about to disappear, it kept hope alive a little longer and offered a last chance to experience some of life’s diversions. It had its shady aspects and its critics, but was admirable for all that.

A History of Europe in 12 Cafes by Monica Porter, is published by Pen & Sword Books​

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