The lavish, 62nd Viennese Opera Ball held on February 10 at the Waldorf-Astoria—an evening-into-dawn super gala—celebrated the 150th anniversary of Austria’s unofficial national anthem, Johann Strauss’ “Blue Danube” Waltz and also benefited the “Leonard Bernstein: A New Yorker in Vienna” project in cooperation with the U.S. Friends of the Jewish Museum of Vienna.
A New York institution since 1955, the Ball has considered itself a bridge-building cultural entity. Among the more than 500 white tie guests this year: Austrian ambassador to the U.S. Wolfgang Waldner; former U.S. Ambassador to Austria H.E. Alexa L. Wesner; Kiera Chaplin, the granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin; Michelle Obama’s hairstylist Johnny Wright; and the gloriously gowned philanthropist Jean Shafiroff who wore a strapless, eye-popping, silver-embellished magenta silk creation.
The evening was launched with an “aah”-eliciting horse drawn (not by Lippizaners) carriage, which brought International Committee member Laine Siklos and her two children onto the ballroom floor. West Point Cadet Color Guards bearing the flags of Austria and the United States marched in. Debutantes and their escorts performed a Polonaise and a Midnight Quadrille by choreographer Thomas Kraml and Michelin Star Chef Wolfgang Ban orchestrated the menu.
Vienna’s Jewish Museum, the first Jewish museum in the world, was founded in 1895 by a group of Jewish citizens and focused on the culture and history of the Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Closed by the Nazis in 1938 directly after the Anschluss, its inventory (6474 items) was transferred to the Ethnology/Anthropology of the Natural History Museum in Vienna with some if its items used for anti-Semitic propaganda. In the early 1950s most of the objects were returned, but some were not reinstituted until the 1990s. The museum reopened in October 2011 and now features the permanent exhibition “Our City! Jewish Vienna Then and Now.”
In the summer of 1990 I attended the first New York benefit for Vienna’s Jewish museum. Held at Manhattan’s Westbury Hotel by now defunct Jewish Presence Foundation, the honoree was Arnold Schwarzenegger. The dinner was prepared by Jaroslav Mueller, then head chef of Vienna’s Hotel Sacher.
With grand panache, Princess Michaela von Hapsburg presented Schwarzenegger with a Keter Torah crown with gilded silver bells “in appreciation of his involvement in improving relations between Jews and Gentiles and his support of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.” There was an audible “aah” in the room as Schwarzenegger, having put his cigar down. accepted the historic creation by 19th century master silversmith Adalbert Meyer.
Following the ceremony, as Arnold was offering me a slice of Sachertorte, I asked him how and where he intended to display this incredible one-of-two in the world extant Keter Torahs by Meyer.
Cigar in hand, he paused then said: “I’ll find a space on a shelf somewhere in my office.”
Then, a guest at a nearby table—in a loud whisper for all to hear—said: “Perhaps it would be nice gesture if he donated it to a Jewish museum.”
Masha Leon is an award-winning journalist and longtime cultural columnist for The Forward and other publications. She has won Poland’s Knight Cross of Merit Medal for articles relating to Polish-Jewish affairs, and is a frequent speaker on her history as a Sugihara survivor.