Cafe Centropa and Its Unassuming Heroes

Die Gemeinde (July, 2007)

Marta S. Halpert

Ed Serotta, an American in Vienna, created the first virtual Museum of Jewish Everyday History in Central- and Eastern Europe

You wish to visit Cafe Centropa? Although it lies in the center of the city in Vienna, it is not easy to find. It exists only one time per month for four hours in a koscher restaurant called  Alef Alef in the Judengasse. During this very short period of time, it becomes a normal coffeehouse.

A colorful, happy band of people – very few of them are under 80 years of age – enjoying apple strudel fresh out of the oven and the crispy chocolate pastry and chatting lively above the clanging of coffee cups.

An entirely normal meeting of senior citizens?  Only on the outside. Even if Lilli Tauber, Erwin Landau and Max Uri could meet their small circle of friends elsewhere, a man by the name of Ed Serotta, an American in Vienna, keeps them from doing so.  These older people have told and entrusted him and a host of interviewers with stories about their lives, stories which took place during a very moving European century.  In so doing, invaluable records are being left for posterity.

The magic word is “Centropa.” It is named for a unique institution located in Vienna which highlights and chronicles the really normal, everyday life of Austrian Jewish men and women in the former territories of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. In order to outsmart the threat of times being forgotten, oldest methods with latest techniques are combined. In interviews lasting hours, everything is recorded which is associated with the fascinating, long-term memories of this generation. These irretrievable treasures of oral history will be made accessible through Centropa over the internet to the entire world. This virtual museum exists primarily from yellowed, personal photos which have never been published. When totally engrossed with the portraits, the holiday photos and village scenes, one senses and gets a glimpse into the history of Central- and Eastern Europe during the last 150 years. The unique online archive has contains already some 25,000 scanned photos and over 1,500 interviews from eight different countries.

Breakfast in Centropa’s Kitchen
In an apartment located in an older building in the Pfeilgasse in Vienna’s district Josefstadt, all of the large, white French doors are left wide open. A mix of languages greets the visitor. Here young historians, computer geeks, students and photographers speak with one another in English, French, Hungarian, Hebrew, and Serbo-Croatian. A giant black-and-white portrait of the Galpert family from Mukachevo in the Ukraine hangs in the narrow office entryway and shows the way to Serottas’ favorite place - a long, narrow Ikea table. Here he invites guests for breakfast such as Austrian politicians, civil servants in high administrative positions, ambassadors from throughout Europe and American sponsors, who then receive not always the lightest fare. They have all heard the creed espoused by the founder of Centropa: “There are many people and institutions who are involved with documenting the Holocaust, and rightly so. I have tried, however, on my many trips from the Baltic States to the Balkans to bridge that terrible horror by discovering how the Jews have lived and how they are living today – not how they died.”

The charming collector soon found others interested in his project, but funding was not so easy. Why should one promote in Vienna documentation of Eastern European Judaism?

Centropa’s initial support came from that of reporters in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania and Bulgaria. Serotta insisted “Vienna is the best place.” For many years Austrian State Secretary Hans Winkler took interest in the project. Then the National Fund of the Republic of Austria and other institutions followed. The circle of promotors soon spread. He was successful in attracting the attention of many private foundations in the USA where Serotta went on lecture tours or put himself up for hire as a tour guide for Eastern Europe. “As soon as he had someone sitting in front of him for breakfast and in front of the camera, this person was trapped,” recalled a former cohort.

Centropa is achored in Vienna but when using the German-speaking internet pages at:, one is geographically in a very diverse world. Tips  regarding individual countries where Centropa is active - such as in Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, the Ukraine, Slovakia and the Czech Republic - one finds also special topics regarding “Sephardic Jews” or “Soviet-Jewish Soldiers.” Those who don’t wish to research their ancestors can download Jewish recipes or travel tips.

But nothing attracts one more nor fails to take one’s breath away as the memories of some fifty Austrians. Tanja Eckstein, former bookseller, who came to Vienna in 1984 from East Germany, conducted the majority of interviews and after many years continues to remain in contact with the older people. “Some really blossom, become young again when they recall that which was positive and beautiful in their younger years,” says Eckstein, who also is idolized by those with whom she is chatting.

For more information, see:
CEC- Center for Research and Documentation of Jewish Life in Eastern- and Central Europe.
Pfeilgasse 8/15
1080 Vienna
Tel: +43 1 409 09 71