Ehre, Ida (1900–1989)

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Ehre, Ida (1900–1989)

Austrian-born, German-Jewish actress and theater director who founded the Hamburger Kammerspiele, one of West Germany's most innovative theaters. Born in Prerau, Moravia, Austria-Hungary (now Prerov, Czech Republic), on July 9, 1900; died in Hamburg, Germany, on February 16, 1989; married Bernhard Heyde (a physician), in 1928; children: daughter, Ruth Heyde .

A survivor of the Holocaust, Ida Ehre was one of only a small number of Jews who chose to remain in Germany after 1945. She became one of the best known and most respected theater personalities in West Germany, and her life and artistic career was long and full of drama both on and off the stage.

Born into a religiously observant Jewish family in Moravia in the Habsburg monarchy of Austria-Hungary, young Ida Ehre received her dramatic training at Vienna's Academy for Music and the Performing Arts. She began her professional acting career in 1918 in provincial Austrian theaters in towns like Bielitz, in Silesia (now Bielsko-Biala, Poland), appearing in the title role in Goethe's Iphigenie. Her abilities were quickly recognized, and within a few years she had advanced to leading theaters in Bonn, Königsberg, Mannheim and Stuttgart. In 1928, Ehre married a physician, Dr. Bernhard Heyde, and soon a daughter, Ruth, was born to the couple.

By the early 1930s, Ehre and her family had settled in the great port city of Hamburg, where her husband became director of a hospital. Her acting career blossomed, and she hoped to someday combine her acting work with directing and managing her own theater. These dreams were threatened in 1933 when the Nazi dictatorship was born and Jews like Ehre began to lose their jobs in both public and private employment. But until 1938, when the National Socialist authorities banned all public performances by Jews, she was one of the star performers at Berlin's Lessing Theater, which maintained a vigorous Jewish cultural presence in the German capital. Ehre's non-Jewish husband remained fiercely loyal to her, providing physical protection and emotional support to both Ida and their "half-Aryan" daughter Ruth.

By 1939, conditions for Germany's Jews had become intolerable, and the Heyde family made plans to emigrate. Bernhard Heyde resigned from his hospital directorship, and, in late August 1939, the family of three set sail for an uncertain future in Chile. Their timing could not have been worse, for the German attack on Poland which began World War II on September 1 necessitated the return of their vessel to its home port of Hamburg.

Although her husband and daughter lived in constant fear of Ida being arrested and sent to be "resettled" (i.e., murdered) in the East, it was not until 1943 that the Gestapo came for her. Ida was about to be placed on the train to Auschwitz when her husband's protestations to Gestapo officials brought about the desired result. Although she would be incarcerated in a prison camp near Hamburg, her own tenacity and her husband's continuing protests kept her from being sent to a death camp. As the Jewish partner in a "privileged mixed marriage," Ida Ehre survived because Nazi officials did not wish to create scenes that would weaken German civilian morale during the war. The courage of her husband made it possible for her to survive Nazi racism, and the family lived through not only Adolf Hitler's genocidal fury but also the terrible air raids of 1943 and the final blood-letting of spring 1945. In 1945, she and her family began to rebuild their lives. Virtually all of her Jewish friends and acquaintances who had not escaped Germany before 1942 had been murdered in the Holocaust. Her mother and sister Bertha had died in the "model ghetto" of Theresienstadt/Terezin.

Now in her mid-40s, Ehre was determined to resume her career in the theater. In June 1945, she approached British occupation authorities for permission to open and operate a theater company. After receiving clearance, she secured a venue, recruited actors and staff, and attended to countless small but necessary details. Hamburg was a city in ruins, but on December 10, 1945, a scant seven months after Germany's capitulation, Ehre's dream was realized. Naming her theater the Hamburg Chamber Players (Hamburger Kammerspiele), a venerable and honored name in local theater history, Ehre fought off depression by working 12-, 14- and 16-hour days. For the next four decades, she served not only as her company's director (Intendantin) but also as its producer and stage manager (Regisseurin). Besides this immense work load, she appeared in leading roles in many plays.

Determined to bring to her audiences the kind of plays that could not be seen during 12 years of Nazi dictatorship, Ehre constantly looked for innovative theater works. Opening in a building that the Nazis had "Aryanized" from its Jewish owners, the Hamburg Chamber Players signalled their determination to bring German theater back in touch with an outside world. On their first night, Ehre's ensemble presented the German premiere of Leuchtfeuer (original title: Thunder Rock), a work by the American playwright Robert Ardrey.

Within a short time, Ehre's theater was regularly presenting some of the newest and most challenging plays of the day, including German premiere performances of works by such eminent playwrights as Jean Anouilh, Max Frisch, Jean-Paul Sartre and Thornton Wilder. The most moving premiere took place in 1947 when Hamburg-born Wolfgang Borchert's antiwar drama Draussen vor der Tür (The Man Outside) was introduced. Fatally ill while he wrote his play, Borchert had died in a Basel hospital the day before its first performance in his home city.

In addition to her theater in Hamburg, Ehre often appeared on other German stages as well. She was particularly celebrated for her interpretations of Mother Courage in Bertolt Brecht's play of the same name, as well as in the roles of Mrs. Warren in George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession and Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. Starting in 1947, Ehre began to take roles in German films, and by the 1960s she was regularly appearing in major dramatic roles on German television. She was always willing to invest her time and energy in furthering the careers of talented actors, actresses, and stage managers who had yet to become famous; these included such later stars as Helmut Käutner, Hilde Krahl , Wolfgang Liebeneiner, Eduard Marks, John Olden, Hans Quest, and Hermann Schomberg.

As a Holocaust survivor living in Germany, Ehre was determined to remind Germans of the burdens their recent history had placed on their shoulders. An active member of the Hamburg and West German Jewish communities, she often spoke out in public on crucial issues of racial and ethnic hatred. In the mid-1980s, she demonstrated her support for the West German peace movement by staging—and starring in—Die Friedensfrau (The Woman of Peace), Walter Jens' update of Aristophanes' classic Lysistrata.

As one of the best-known and most eloquent citizens of the German Federal Republic, Ida Ehre received many awards, including the Schiller Prize of the City of Mannheim, the Grand Federal Cross for Achievement, and the Arts and Sciences medal of the city of Hamburg. Hamburg's university also awarded her an honorary doctorate as well as a professorship. She published the first edition of her autobiography in 1985.

In November 1988, Ehre was chosen to read Paul Celan's classic Holocaust poem "Death Fugue" as part of an hour-long nationally televised Bundestag ceremony to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the notorious 1938 Nazi anti-Jewish Kristallnacht pogrom. Overcome, Ehre was photographed covering her face, emotionally distraught, after her recitation before the German legislative body. The photograph became internationally famous because her distress had been misinterpreted as a response not to the poem, but rather to the memorial address given by the Speaker of the Bundestag, Philipp Jenninger, a poorly crafted presentation that was widely interpreted as a defense of Nazi racism. (It was not, but Jenninger had to resign his post due to the controversy raised by his clumsy comments on Adolf Hitler's "fascination" for countless millions of Germans.) Ida Ehre died in Hamburg on February 16, 1989.


"Aufbrüche und Katastrophen: Zur Geschichte der Hamburger Kammerspiele," in Neue Zürcher Zeitung. June 3, 1996, p. 20.

Ehre, Ida. Gott hat einen grösseren Kopf, mein Kind. New ed. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag, 1988.

"Ida Ehre," in Daily Telegraph [London]. February 24, 1989, p. 21.

"Ida Ehre," in Variety. March 1, 1989.

"Ida Ehre, 88, Is Dead; West German Actress," in The New York Times Biographical Service. February 1989, p. 167.

Italiaander, Rolf, ed. Mutter Courage und ihr Theater: Ida Ehre und die Hamburger Kammerspiele. Hamburg: Freie Akademie der Künste, 1965.

Johnson, Daniel. "Bonn's Speaker Resigns over His 'Nazi' Speech," in Daily Telegraph [London]. November 12, 1988, p. 9.

Schütt, Peter. "Theater für den Frieden," in Theater der Zeit. Vol. 41, no. 6, 1986, p. 71.

John Haag , Assistant Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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