Spira, Steffie (1908–1995)

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Spira, Steffie (1908–1995)

Austrian-born German actress and author. Name variations: Steffi Spira; Steffie Spira-Ruschin. Born Steffanie Spira in Vienna, Austria, on June 2, 1908; died in Berlin, Germany, on May 10, 1995; daughter of Fritz (formerly Jacob) Spira (1881–1943) and Wilhelmine Emilie Charlotte (Lotte) Andresen Spira, known as Lotte Spira-Andresen (1883–1943); sister of Camilla Spira (1906–1997); married Günter Ruschin (1904–1963, an actor), in 1931; children: son Thomas; daughter Rutta (died in 1941 as an infant).

On November 4, 1989, East Berlin's vast Alexanderplatz was packed with close to 1 million demonstrators—the largest public rally in German history. They had gathered to show their determination to achieve full democracy in their tottering neo-Stalinist state, the German Democratic Republic (GDR). As the 15th and last speaker of the day, Steffie Spira, a revered actress whose physical persona was that of a plump elderly oma (grandma), addressed the crowd:

In 1933 I went alone to a foreign country taking nothing with me. In my head however I brought along some words from Bertolt Brecht's poem Lob der Dialektik [In Praise of Dialectics] which say:

"No certainty can be certain
Those still alive can't say 'never'
He who is aware where he stands—how can anyone stop him moving on?
And from nothing will yet emerge: today."

I wish for my great-grandchildren to grow up in schools without roll-calls and political indoctrination or that they have to wear uniforms and carry torches as they march past the Big Shots [die hohen Leute]. I have one more proposal: Let us transform Wandlitz [the district of East Berlin reserved for high government officials] into a retirement home [Altersheim]! Those among them who are over the age of sixty can remain there if they do what I will now do—relinquish my place and depart [Abtreten]!

With these words, Spira became one of the most popular women in the GDR, expressing along with such others as Bärbel Bohley the desire of the populace for sweeping reforms and an end to the GDR regime's repressions. Five days later, the Berlin Wall ceased to exist as a dividing line between Germans.

Spira, Camilla (1906–1997)

German actress. Born in Hamburg, Germany, on March 1, 1906; died in Berlin on August 25, 1997; daughter of Fritz (formerly Jacob) Spira (1881–1943) and Wilhelmine Emilie Charlotte (Lotte) Andresen Spira, an actress known as Lotte Spira-Andresen (1883–1943); sister of Steffie Spira (1908–1995); married; children: two sons.

Born into a family of actors, the sisters Steffie and Camilla Spira both became actresses themselves. Their father Fritz Spira, a Viennese-born singer and comic actor, was noted for his humor, whereas their mother Lotte Spira-Andresen was more interested in serious drama. The Spira marriage was a mixed one: Fritz was of Jewish ancestry and Berlin-born Lotte of Lutheran background. As well, the family's move to Berlin in 1911 resulted in their daughters' spoken German becoming a colorful "bilingual" (zweisprachig) mixture of Viennese and Berlin accents. As a young girl, Steffie yearned to become a dancer, and was already enrolled to begin her studies in 1924 with Mary Wigman in Dresden. Unfortunately an accident, resulting from some horseplay with her high-spirited Viennese cousins, caused knee and tendon injuries so severe that they ended her dreams of a dance career. The stage now beckoned both Camilla and Steffie, and they soon found success in Berlin's theaters, Camilla becoming a singing and acting star in various operettas, including Ralph Benatzky's 1930 smash hit Im Weissen Rössl (White Horse Inn).

Steffie was also successful on the Berlin stage, as well as in several films. Financially, however, her situation was often precarious and, along with many other German actors, she was an active trade unionist, attempting to bring about a modicum of economic protection in a profession notorious for its lack of security. In January 1928, Steffie became part of German theater history by appearing in the small role of Hiobja in the successful premiere of Bertolt Brecht's Mann ist Mann (Man is Man), part of a cast that boasted such stars as Heinrich George and Helene Weigel . By the early 1930s, however, Steffie's life had begun to move on a different track from that of her sister. Whereas Camilla showed scant interest in Germany's increasing turbulence, made worse by economic depression, Steffie became active in the struggle against Fascism and Nazism. Particularly among the young, despair was the prevailing mood, and the future looked grim. Growing numbers of Germans, including Steffie, believed that only a thorough social revolution would halt Adolf Hitler and his legions of brown-shirted barbarians in their tracks.

Steffie made two decisions in 1931 that would alter the course of her life. She married Günter Ruschin (1904–1963), a young actor of Jewish ancestry and an ardent Communist, and she also joined the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands or KPD). From this point on, her life and art were inseparable from the struggle to transform Germany into a Marxist republic. Disdaining the world of the "bourgeois stage," she and her husband became members of Gustav von Wangenheim's Truppe 31, an actors' collective that traveled throughout Germany to present political agitprop productions satirizing the flaws of capitalism and warning of the imminent threat of Hitlerism.

The march of Nazism could not be halted either through theater performances or the ballot box, however, and on January 30, 1933, Hitler was appointed Germany's chancellor. Ironically, on February 2, 1933, Camilla sat through the premiere of her new film Morgenrot (Break of Dawn), a patriotic war epic, with Hitler and other Nazi leaders in attendance, and was praised that evening as "the perfect embodiment of German womanhood." (Camilla, a stunning blonde, had "perfect Aryan" features.) Within days of Hitler's accession to power, a reign of terror against political foes of the Nazis, particularly those on the left, swept through Germany. Truppe 31 was banned as "subversive," and brown-shirted thugs broke into and smashed the artists' apartment block on the Laubenheimer Platz in Berlin-Wilmersdorf where Steffie lived with her husband and infant son Thomas. During this time, her husband was arrested and thrown into a Nazi prison cell. Fearing for her own and her infant's life, Steffie fled to Zurich, Switzerland. Only because of a clerical error was Günter Ruschin released from prison, and he was able to flee Germany and join his wife and son in their Swiss refuge. Soon, the family went into permanent exile in Paris, where along with thousands of other émigrés they struggled to survive.

Life was precarious for Steffie and Günter, and both had little choice but to find odd jobs to pay the rent. Günter began an improbable career as a textile salesman while Steffie worked as a cleaning woman for rich French families, but in her spare time she continued to appear on stage, including performances at Die Laterne (The Lantern), a cabaret founded and run by and for German-speaking exiles from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Steffie continued to develop as an artist during these years and was also able to appear in non-cabaret roles, including a major part in the October 1937 world premiere of Bertolt Brecht's topical play on the Spanish Civil War, Die Gewehre der Frau Carrar (Mrs. Carrar's Rifles). On May 21, 1938, she performed one of the lead roles in 99%: Bilder aus dem Dritten Reich (99%: Pictures from the Third Reich), a selection of excerpts from another anti-fascist Brecht play that would appear in final form as Furcht und Elend des Dritten Reiches (Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, published in English as The Private Life of the Master Race).

Meanwhile, back in Nazi Germany, Camilla, no longer celebrated as "the perfect Aryan woman" because of her mixed parentage, was only able to keep her stage career alive by performing for the Nazi-approved Jüdischer Kulturbund (Jewish Culture League), which served both to maintain the morale of Germany's beleaguered Jewish community and provide the Nazi propaganda machine with evidence to convince a doubting world how truly "magnanimous" the Third Reich could be toward its "non-Aryan" subjects. Nazism took a toll on the entire Spira family. Fritz, who accepted a theater job in Poland, convinced Lotte to divorce him in order keep her own career alive in Germany. As a result, Lotte Spira-Andresen's acting career once again began to flourish, whereas her former husband sank into obscurity and poverty in Vienna, where he began to live in 1935. In November 1938, at the time of the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom, Camilla fled Nazi Germany with her husband and two sons. Although they hoped to reach the United States, that nation's doors had slammed shut, and they found themselves in Amsterdam, perilously close to the Third Reich.

The start of World War II in September 1939 resulted in "security measures" that authorized the arrest and incarceration of all German nationals in France, virtually all of whom were anti-Nazi refugees (most of them defined as being Jewish by the Third Reich) like Steffie and Günter. Husband and wife were sent to different internment camps, she first to prison in La Roquette and ultimately to a camp at Rieucros (near Mende, Departement Lozère), and he to a camp at Le Vernet. Both camps were notorious, but the greatest anxiety for the couple was being separated from their six-year-old son Thomas. A distraught Steffie did not know of his whereabouts or condition for almost a year, when she was reunited with him. In Rieucros, a camp created exclusively for women enemy aliens, Steffie played an important role in maintaining the morale of her fellow detainees by organizing plays, dramatic readings and other cultural events.

In early 1941, the situation brightened when the Ruschins received an American visa, but in August it was withdrawn. By then, U.S. diplomatic officials had decided that their nation's security would be gravely threatened by refugees with Communist sympathies. However, Mexico's consul-general in Marseilles, Gilberto Bosques, whose government was both anti-Nazi and a friend of Spanish Republican refugees still living in France, provided the family a visa to emigrate to Mexico.

Despite the fact that Steffie was pregnant and in precarious health as a result of her many months in Rieucros, she had little choice but to cross the Pyrenees via the route established by Lisa Fittko . In Madrid, en route to the relative safety of Portugal and embarkation to the New World, Steffie gave birth to a daughter named Rutta, who lived only a few days. Sailing from Lisbon on the freighter Serpa Pinto (Red Snake), the Ruschins arrived in Veracruz, Mexico, in mid-December 1941. For the next five-and-a-half years, they lived in Mexico City, where Steffie worked as a cook, cleaning woman, and nurse-companion to terminally ill patients. She and her husband also ran a lending library of German-language books which allowed them to socialize with fellow refugees but did little to put food on the table. During these years, Steffie continued to act as well as direct, becoming a member of the Heinrich Heine Club, a cultural center of German-speaking émigrés which chalked up a remarkable artistic record under unusual circumstances.

Meanwhile, as German troops swept across the Netherlands in May 1940, Camilla and her family tried to escape to England, but their train was bombed. Trapped in occupied Amsterdam, she continued to appear on stage with other Jewish actors. In May 1943, she was taken to Westerbork concentration camp, a transit facility for Dutch and other Jews destined for Auschwitz and the Final Solution. Camilla not only was able to continue to perform in Westerbork, whose commandant found her attractive, but was saved by her mother Lotte, who in Berlin managed to convince Nazi officials that her oldest daughter was not half-Jewish as they had believed, but "pure Aryan." She told them that Camilla had been born as the consequence of an affair with an Aryan lover, and that Fritz Spira had never been her biological father. The fabrication was successful, and consequently Camilla and her family were released from Westerbork in October 1943. Only weeks later, in December, Lotte died in Berlin. Fritz did not survive the year 1943 either, finding death in the Ruma concentration camp in Yugoslavia. Before the 1941 Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia, he had secured a visa for Shanghai, but was captured by the Nazis before he could escape. Camilla and her family survived the Holocaust by spending the remainder of the war in hiding in Amsterdam. In 1945, they emigrated to the United States, but being homesick they returned to Berlin in 1947.

That same year, 1947, Steffie finally succeeded in returning to Germany from Mexico with her husband and son. As much an idealistic Communist as ever, she hoped to participate in the building of a socialist society in the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany, which became the German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik or GDR) in October 1949. Starting in 1948, Steffie resumed her acting career on the stages of East Berlin, particularly the Deutsches Theater and the Volksbühne (People's Playhouse), where she became a favorite of Berlin audiences for such roles as Mutter Wolffen in Gerhart Hauptmann's Der Biberpelz (The Beaver Fur) and the rug merchant Frau Hassenreuther in the Bruno Besson production of Brecht's Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (The Good Woman of Szechuan). She also appeared in starring roles in a number of GDR motion pictures for the state-owned DEFA Studio, including Schneewittchen: Ein Märchenfilm nach den Gebrüdern Grimm (Snow White: A Fairy Tale Film Taken from the Grimm Brothers, 1961), Die Grosse Reise der Agathe Schweigert (Agathe Schweigert's Long Trip, 1972), and Die Beunruhigung (Apprehension, 1982).

Although Steffie was an active member of the all-powerful Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands or SED), in private she had growing doubts about the justness of its conception of socialism, particularly after the suppression of a GDR workers' uprising in June 1953, and the GDR's participation in the Soviet-led military suppression of Czechoslovakia's 1968 "Prague Spring" reform movement. The repressive atmosphere of the GDR affected her own life when Günter Ruschin lost his post as the Volksbühne's chief dramatic producer in 1959 as punishment for having presented Vladimir Mayakovsky's play The Turkish Bath in an anti-Stalinist version deemed subversive by SED bureaucrats. Broken in spirit, Ruschin suffered two heart attacks and died prematurely in 1963 at age 59. Another blow to Steffie's faith in the "real existing socialism" the GDR claimed to embody took place in 1984 when her son Thomas fled to the West. Years later, he recalled that although she could never support his decision, with the passage of time she was able to accept it.

For four decades, from the late 1940s to the collapse of the GDR in 1989, Camilla and Steffie Spira lived very different lives, although both were acclaimed Berlin actresses in their sectors of the divided city. Even before the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, they met only occasionally, and, when they did, it was rarely in a spirit that was warm or sisterly. During these years, Camilla was able to create a highly successful career for herself as an actress on the Berlin and West German stage, as well as in films and in later years on television where she was incomparable in "motherly" roles. For decades, West German soap operas relied on Camilla to be "Mutter Spira."

The world changed dramatically in 1989, not only for Germany but for the Spira sisters. On the 40th anniversary of the GDR, in October 1989, Steffie showed her bitter dissatisfaction with the regime headed by such unyielding hard-liners as Erich and Margot Honecker by displaying from her apartment window the GDR flag marked with a ribbon of mourning crepe (Trauerflor). After she gave her short but incisive speech at the mass Alexanderplatz demonstration on November 4, 1989—broadcast live over GDR television and reported throughout West Germany—she became a major celebrity. When the Berlin Wall ceased to divide Germans, the two sisters met and reconciled. Within months, they became superstars of the new, united Germany. Grande Dame Camilla and unrepentant Marxist reformer Steffie continued to disagree on many political questions, but now they did so on stage before enthusiastic audiences, or before film cameras to capture for posterity a unique moment in the troubled history of Germany.

The warmth of the two elderly sisters' feelings for each other reflected a national euphoria that began to evaporate even before the two German states were united on October 3, 1990. In September 1990, on the eve of unification, Camilla told a reporter from The New York Times that she recalled the fall of the Berlin Wall less than a year earlier as having been "very beautiful but I couldn't empathize." She continued, "I don't see why we have to be united. I have an uneasy feeling, an oppressive feeling." Steffie agreed with her sister's criticism of the speed of and need for unification, reiterating her lifelong faith in socialism by declaring "I am an internationalist. I've had such good experiences with people from many nations."

In their last years of life, the bond between the two sisters remained strong. With the publication of two books, Steffie became renowned as an author as well as an actress. Camilla remained the dignified embodiment of a now-vanished tradition of German acting. She also probed into the most painful parts of her life, which included a 1991 visit to Westerbork in which she struggled to maintain her composure. Both sisters enjoyed not only their renewed personal encounters, but also found pleasure in the their late fame. Steffie gave countless interviews to journalists and historians, while Camilla fought the infirmities of advanced age by remaining active as a woman of the stage. In her last public appearance, in March 1992, Camilla appeared at a commemorative evening to honor the achievements of Berlin's Jüdischer Kulturbund under the Nazi dictatorship, reading poems by the great German-Jewish Romantic poet Heinrich Heine. Steffie died in Berlin on May 10, 1995. Camilla died in the same city on August 25, 1997. After her death, Berlin made Steffie Spira a permanent part of its history by naming a street in her honor.


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Spira, Steffie. Rote Fahne mit Trauerflor: Tagebuch-Notizen. Freiburg im Breisgau: Kore, 1990.

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related media:

Bei uns um die Gedächtniskirche rum—Berlin Cabaret: Friedrich Hollaender und das Kabarett der zwanziger Jahre (2 CDs, Edel 0014532TLR, 1996).

Cramer, Horst, and Marlet Schaake. "So wie es ist, bleibt es nicht: Die Geschichte von Camilla und Steffie Spira" (film produced in 1990 for the SWR-Südwestdeutscher Rundfunk).

Menge, Marlies. "Zeugen des Jahrhunderts" (television documentary broadcast by ZDF Fernsehen, April 1993).

Schaaf, Stefan. "Exil in Mexico: Deutsche Künstler gegen Hitler" (radio documentary program broadcast by station RIAS Berlin, February 16, 1993).

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