The Cosmo café in north London was for many years a home from home for refugees from Nazi Europe. Etan Smallman celebrates a vanished world of Wiener schnitzel, strudel and sanctuary, now being recreated for a new play
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“Fantasy darling, we’re dreaming too. A dream that never will come true. Although it’s very sad to say. We’ve got no patients anyway. Vienna forever has gone away. Our world has shrunk to this café.”
Four elderly ladies, in their finest hats and large fur coats, are sitting in the Cosmo, a smoke-filled café and restaurant at the Swiss Cottage end of north London’s bustling Finchley Road. They are eking out cups of black coffee, playing bridge and weeping for those who never made it out of Nazi Europe. Three are psychoanalysts, without anyone to analyse; their clients were all left behind.
The women are the artistic creation of Pamela Howard, the 80-year-old godmother of British theatre design, who has been waiting 60 years to produce this musical.
Staged in a church hall in collaboration with the Royal College of Music and the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, The Ballad of the Cosmo Café is the highlight of Insiders/Outsiders, a year-long, UK-wide festival celebrating the contribution of refugees from Nazi Europe to British culture.
The seed for Howard’s musical was planted in 1958, when, as a young art student, she found herself peering through the café’s windows, transfixed by the eccentrics inside. After finally plucking up the courage to enter, and while sketching the women in hats, she was approached by a friendly Polish artist who introduced himself as Lewandowski.
Howard asked how long he had been in England. “I’ve lived here for 30 years, and now I know how to go from Cricklyvitch to Vimblybush, and back again, vithout a hitch,” he replied proudly.
“And that’s one of the beginning lines in our production,” says Howard. “I wrote it down and I never forgot it.”
The show, conceived and directed by Howard, is written by Philip Glassborow, with contributions from former customers. The song titles alone evoke so much: “The Ballad of Breaded Mushrooms”, “A Room, Shared Bath, No Kitchen” and “Emigranto, Refugees-ish”.
They are all performed in the Sprechgesang style — halfway between speech and song. Unbeknown to the audience — who will be encouraged to join in with the choruses — members of the cast will be seated among them in the recreated restaurant.
The Cosmo opened in the 1930s and became both a home from home for the dispossessed and a memorial to a vanished world. By 1940, there were about 14,000 mostly Jewish refugees living in and around Hampstead. Wartime bus conductors would call out “Finchleystrasse — passports please!” as they drew up.
With its abundance of boarding houses and bedsits in the large homes vacated by wealthy families and their servants, this pocket of London was ripe for refugee incomers. But with many only having access to a bedroom and makeshift shared cooking facilities in the hall, the dislocated Jews turned to the Cosmo as a communal living room in which to recreate continental café society in NW3.
My grandfather, Sigmund Balsam, was its manager in the 1940s. Having been beaten up by the Gestapo and told he would be shot the following morning, he fled Berlin, abandoning his own beloved restaurant, and arrived in the UK in August 1939, a week to the day before the exits were sealed as Germany invaded Poland.
The Cosmo would be his launch pad in the UK — he went on to set up his own café across the road before establishing a restaurant in Mayfair.
On his retirement in 1980, after 50 years in hospitality, an article noted: “Mr Balsam did not mind if [his refugee customers] could not afford more than a cup of coffee. He served them with pleasure, because he himself was one of them.” In Swiss Cottage, he lived a stone’s throw from another Sigmund; Freud’s picture hung in the restaurant, and his ghost features in Howard’s musical.
Postwar, the refugees were joined by Holocaust survivors. Eva Schloss, Anne Frank’s stepsister, remembers it as a sociable place where “everybody spoke to everybody”. In the 1950s, novelist Fay Weldon regularly visited her mother, who worked as a cook at the Cosmo and “had to get there early to put on the cabbage at eight o’clock in the morning, where it would boil until lunchtime”.
“London at the time was not a cosmopolitan place at all,” says Weldon. “With the Cosmo, it was as if Europe had arrived in England, which was rather surprising and magical. It was a very Third Man-y sort of place. There was an air of conspiracy about it. It was absolutely and completely a one-off.”
It would provide inspiration in her later career. “Whenever I wrote of a grey, sorrowful character huddled in a corner, that was from the Cosmo,” she says.
Other customers included actors Dudley Moore, Maggie Smith and Kenneth Williams, who visited with his mother, novelists Frederick Forsyth, Iris Murdoch and the first female Booker winner Bernice Rubens, Nobel-winning author Elias Canetti and director Lindsay Anderson. Theodore Bikel, who would become an Oscar-nominated actor, entertained customers with his guitar and singing.
In the late 1980s, Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl with a Pearl Earring, went to the Cosmo for a first date with writer Jonathan Drori. “It was just wonderful that the date was there,” she says of their impromptu breakfast, “because there was something about the Cosmo — a unique atmosphere of a place of refuge and home.” They celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary this year.
Writer Will Self — who drank “many thousands of espressos” at the Cosmo after meetings at a local Narcotics Anonymous group — visited with his father in 1996 for an Observer newspaper review. “Dad’s omelette came with an interesting salad,” he wrote, “which, like Vienna after the second world war, was carved up into four independent zones: coleslaw, grated carrot, potato salad and cucumber.”
The establishment itself was similarly demarcated. A third of the space was a coffee bar, offering Kaffee und Kuchen (from Apfelstrudel to Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte). Legend has it that not only did the Viennese sit on the opposite side of the room from the Berliners, but patrons even divided themselves up according to their erstwhile city districts.
Meanwhile, the restaurant, with its starchy tablecloths, served up Wiener schnitzel, herring salads, Sauerbraten with raisins and beef goulash or, as Self put it, main courses “of the kind to make you want to float slowly down the Danube after lunch”.
Marion Manheimer’s father, Adolf, and mother, Madeleine, who fled Berlin and Vienna respectively in the 1930s, owned the Cosmo for 40 years from 1958.
“If you wanted to have a private conversation, you would sit in the restaurant,” she recalls. “If you wanted to interrupt someone else’s conversation, you would sit in the coffee bar.” Graziella, the long-serving waitress, would flirt with customers “in five different languages”.
Many were tricky to please. When Mrs Manheimer moved a cheap print of Franz Marc’s “Monkey Frieze” from the coffee shop to the restaurant, the outraged patrons started a petition to demand its immediate return.
Poet Bernard Kops, now 92 and still living in the area, recorded his first impressions in his memoir: “Through the glass I could see bums, failures, neurotics.” Nevertheless, he soon realised he had found a place in which he could “eat apple strudel with the poets”.
Not everyone was enamoured with their new neighbours. A letter published in the Hampstead and Highgate Express and featured in Art Aiding Politics, an Insiders/Outsiders exhibition at Burgh House & Hampstead Museum, illustrates the hostility shown by some.
“Sir — It is very pleasant to be back in the pleasant air of Hampstead although the district now appears to be part of the Continent,” writes Raymond Savage in 1950. “ . . . I wish to make it quite clear that I am not anti-Semitic as such. I am, however, dead anti-alien Jew.
“They clutter up the pavements and jostle you in the shops. Their manners are abominable and their behaviour in a country which has saved their skins, incredibly bad. Why should Hampstead have been singled out for this undesirable influx?”
The Cosmo closed in 1998 because of high rents and an ageing clientele, many of whom had long ago moved out to the suburbs. A blue plaque marking where the café once stood was erected by the Association of Jewish Refugees in 2013, only to be torn down by vandals a year later.
The plaque has been replaced and now sits above Sprinkles, an ice-cream parlour. It is almost the only trace left of Finchleystrasse on this stretch of road, which now boasts a McDonald’s, Starbucks and Costa.
Howard is sanguine about its loss. “Things move on. You can’t go on for ever being a refugee. I speak of my own family — you have to find your place and live your life. This isn’t going to be an evening of misery. It’s a story really about resettlement and hope. It is an optimistic message — you can remake your life.”
- “The Ballad of the Cosmo Café” is at St Peter’s Church Hall, NW3, November 16-17; insidersoutsidersfestival.org