It was a time of lamentation for the destruction of Europe — and a time of celebration for the shelter and embrace of the Upper West Side.
Haunted by the Holocaust, lucky to be alive, unknowing as to which of their loved ones would live and which would die on the other side of the Atlantic, the refugees flocked to the Café Éclair at 141 West 72nd Street to recreate the Old World.
Its customers were mostly German, Austrian, Czech and Hungarian Jews — the “Fourth Reich,” as they called themselves — and every day, dozens of them performed a ritual that their American-born neighbors initially could not understand:
They leafed through a guestbook at the front counter, turning page after page, scanning the signatures, hoping they would espy the names of their landsleit, praying that among those feared doomed they would find other exiles who had managed to escape the gates of Hitler’s hell.
Infrequently, miracles would happen. And in that traditional Viennese-style coffeehouse — over Sachertorte, petits fours and Kaffee mit Schlag, or coffee topped with whipped cream — family reunions would take place, starting during World War II and continuing through at least the 1960s.
And what better way to revel in such back-from-the-dead moments than with a Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte? The seven-layered, Black Forest chocolate sponge cake with its rich cherry filling, one of Germany’s most fabled desserts, was a signature item at the Éclair, and its equal doesn’t appear to exist on the West Side.
Opened in 1939 by Alexander Selinger, an Austerlitz-raised sugar broker from Vienna, the Éclair, under his ownership, endured until 1993, and after a bankruptcy filing in 1996, the café’s contents were eventually auctioned off. The site became a Krispy Kreme Donut Shop, and today, it is a popular Japanese gastropub called Izakaya Ida.
But in ways both tangible and intangible, the Café Éclair never really died: Consider that to this day, a portion of the Éclair sign, with its long and flowing metallic script, hangs proudly on a wall in the office of Landmark West! at 45 West 67th Street.
The preservation advocacy group, founded in 1985 to seek landmark status for buildings and historic districts on the West Side, salvaged the sign as it was being removed from the façade in the mid-1990s, said Sean Khorsandi, its executive director.
“We have artifacts and relics from the Upper West Side, pieces and segments of buildings, and hanging the Éclair sign in a vertical plain on the wall was the best we could do honor it,” Khorsandi added.
Intern Anna Siftar shares the enthusiasm. “It’s an object of beauty in the same way our buildings are objects of beauty,” she said. “It’s a part of our shared memory and the shared history of our neighborhood.”
That’s not all. In a cultural repository stored in its basement, Landmark West! maintains items that document the West Side’s rich architectural heritage, and its Éclair collection includes plates, saucers, ceramic ware, place mats — even two wire chickens that were part of the quirky decor.
CONDUCTORS, RABBIS AND LITERATI
Meanwhile, that guestbook, which time and again functioned as a Book of Life, can be found at the Leo Baeck Institute, which is devoted to the history and culture of German-speaking Jews, both online and in the LBI Library at the Center for Jewish History at 15 West 16th Street.
The signatures, collected between 1940 and 1992, include those of Budapest-born Rabbi Stephen Wise; Polish-born Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer; German-born conductor Bruno Walter; Prague-born novelist Franz Werfel; Hungarian-born conductor Eugene Ormandy; Munich-born writer Klaus Mann; and Austrian-born theater director Max Reinhardt.
Later signatories included Brooklyn-born Joan Rivers, Brooklyn-born Barbra Streisand and German-born Dr. Ruth Westheimer, LBI records show.
The Institute also maintains a virtual photo archive of the massive, multi-layered cakes baked at the Éclair for Ed Sullivan, on the seventh anniversary of his show in 1955; Jackie Kennedy, for an event to save Grand Central Terminal in 1968; and Bob Hope, on his 75th birthday in 1978.
But something is missing from this grand inventory. Photographs. Shots of both the interior and exterior of the Éclair have curiously been hard to come by. Which is doubly odd considering the original café was in existence for 54 years.
And that’s where readers of The West Side Spirit can pitch in.
Peter Schrag, the former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee and author with his father of a 2015 memoir, “When Europe Was a Prison Camp,” was himself a 9-year-old refugee in 1941 when his family came to America after fleeing Germany, Luxembourg and Brussels.
For his latest book — to be published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2019 and tentatively titled, “The World of Aufbau: Hitler’s Refugees in America” — he researched German-Jewish immigration to New York between 1933 and 1983.
The Aufbau — the German-language, Upper West Side-based journal for German-speaking Jews, published from 1934 through 2004 — was a veritable Bible for patrons of the Éclair and other refugee gathering places.
As Schrag sought to reconstruct that lost world and illustrate his book, he reached out to Landmark West!, hoping its members might have saved old pictures, and the group on February 12 sent out an eblast: “Help give the Éclair another moment in the limelight!”
A partial image showed up. But the quarry remained elusive. “The hunt continues,” Schrag said.
Why does it matter?
“Excepting only I.B. Singer, who wrote only in Yiddish and may have been its most regular guest, the Café Éclair came as close as any place to The Parnassus of the bourgeois of the German-Austrian-Jewish West Side,” Schrag writes in “The World of Aufbau.”
Now, it’s your turn. Do you have interior or exterior photos of the Café Éclair? Or stories or anecdotes about the place? Write to Douglas Feiden — firstname.lastname@example.org — and we’ll print your letters and share the pictures with author Peter Schrag.