Jura Soyfer was the son of the industrialist Vladimir Soyfer and his wife Lyubov. The well-to-do Jewish family employed French- and English-speaking governesses for Soyfer and his older sister Tamara.
In 1921, the family fled from the Bolshevist revolution and arrived in the town of Baden near Vienna. They later moved to Vienna. At the age of 15, Soyfer began studying socialist writings and became a staunch Marxist. In 1927, he joined the Verband der Sozialistischen Mittelschüler (the Association of Socialist Mittelschule pupils). His early experience with languages meant that Soyfer soon developed a feeling and love for language and wordplay. In 1929, this led to his becoming a member of the Politischen Kabarett der Sozialdemokraten (Political Cabaret of the Social Democrats) where he gained his first experience in writing for the stage.
From December 1931, Soyfer wrote two weekly political satires, one in the Arbeiter-Zeitung (Workers' Newspaper) and the other in the social-democratic weekly Der Kuckuck (The Cuckoo). He also wrote two articles for the Politische Bühne (Political Stage, a socialist newspaper connected to the Red Players group of actors). These demanded that theatre become more politicised, and that it should stop producing mere distraction and entertainment. In this respect Soyfer approaches Bertolt Brecht's "epic theatre".
In August 1935, through the writer and theatre critic Hans Weigel, Soyfer was introduced to Leon Askin, an actor and director at Vienna's popular "ABC Theatre", a political cabaret. This is where most of Soyfer's pieces were later performed.
In 1937, Soyfer was mistaken for Franz Marek (de) (a leader of the Communist Party of Austria) and arrested. When it was discovered that Soyfer himself had also written incriminatory pieces, he was imprisoned for three months. On February 17, 1938, he was freed as part of an amnesty for political prisoners. He remained freed for only 26 days. On March 13, 1938, he was arrested as he tried to cross the Austrian border at St. Antonien Joch above Gargellen into Switzerland. He was later transported to Dachau concentration camp. Here, Soyfer met the composer Herbert Zipper, and together they wrote the famous Dachaulied, the Dachau song, which cynically took up the Nazi motto Arbeit macht frei ("work liberates"), written above the entrance to such camps.
In the autumn of that year, Soyfer was transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp where he died of typhus the day after his release was granted, February 16, 1939.
Soyfer's first work, Der Weltuntergang oder Die Welt steht auf kein' Fall mehr lang ("The End of the World", or "The world is certainly not going to last much longer") was first performed in the early summer of 1936; the last performance took place only a short time later on 11 July 1936. It shows humanity before the Apocalypse, the destruction of the world by a comet - the violent repression of the revolutionary masses and the blindness of the people waiting for the end of the world. In the end, the comet does not find the heart to destroy the world, which gives the play a positive ending, but also underlines the frustrating incorrigibility and stupidity of human beings.
His second work, Der Lechner Edi schaut ins Paradies (translated into English as "Journey to Paradise") depicts an unemployed person who sets off to find those guilty for his distress in the past, with the help of a time machine. Eventually he discovers that the cause for his condition is the creation of humanity. The play ends, however, with a call to people to make decisions, including political ones. In this way, Soyfer connects pathos with the typical element of cabaret, political criticism.
Soyfer's third play is Astoria, a reaction to the problematic use of the word Vaterland which had been discussed in Austria since 1918. "Astoria" is a non-existent land which is the focus of the hopes and aspirations of the characters in the play. Their utopic dreams are constantly destroyed by reality. This point is made clearly at the end of the play by a song of praise the actors sing about the country when they are actually being sent to prison.
In 1937 Soyfer wrote Vineta. In this piece he leaves behind traditional Austrian theatre and portrays absurd actions and speech which lead irretrievably to downfall and destruction. The protest against facts which are seen as unchangeable, and the idea of "not wanting to know" are both themes of the play. Vineta is a warning against war and against illusions which are created to suppress people.
Soyfer also wrote Broadway Melodie 1942 for the "ABC Theatre". It is an adaptation of Columbus by Kurt Tucholsky and Walter Hasenclever. Soyfer kept the original satire of the clergy and court society, but his political criticism of society is far more radical. The way the play sees events from the point of view of the lower classes makes it a classic piece of Volkstheater Wien (Austrian popular theatre); it becomes clear that, in the imagination of the playwright, the lower classes of society are actually superior to the upper classes (or at least should be).
During his imprisonment from 1937-1938, Soyfer began writing another play which was to be about Adolf Hitler. Nothing has survived of these drafts.
Stacheldraht, mit Tod geladen,
Barbed wire, loaded with death
The Original Complete Text from Translators Dachau München
1. Stacheldraht, mit Tod geladen,
ist um unsre Welt gespannt.
Drauf ein Himmel ohne Gnaden
sendet Frost und Sonnenbrand.
Fern von uns sind alle Freuden,
fern die Heimat, fern die Fraun,
wenn wir stumm zur Arbeit schreiten,
Tausende im Morgengraun.
Doch wir haben die Losung von Dachau gelernt
und wurden stahlhart dabei:
Sei ein Mann, Kamerad,
bleib ein Mensch, Kamerad,
mach ganze Arbeit, pack an, Kamerad,
denn Arbeit, Arbeit macht frei!
2. Vor der Mündung der Gewehre
leben wir bei Tag und Nacht.
Leben wird uns hier zur Lehre,
schwerer, als wir's je gedacht.
Keiner mehr zählt Tag' und Wochen,
mancher schon die Jahre nicht,
und gar viele sind zerbrochen
und verloren ihr Gesicht.
Und wir haben die Losung . . . .
3. Schlepp den Stein und zieh den Wagen,
keine Last sei dir zu schwer.
Der du warst in fernen Tagen,
bist du heut schon längst nicht mehr.
Stich den Spaten in die Erde,
grab dein Mitleid tief hinein,
und im eignen Schweiße werde
selber du zu Stahl und Stein.
Und wir haben die Losung . . . .
4. Einst wird die Sirene künden:
Auf, zum letzten Zählappell!
Draußen dann, wo wir uns finden,
bist du, Kamerad, zur Stell'.
Hell wird uns die Freiheit lachen,
vorwärts geht's mit frischem Mut,
und die Arbeit, die wir machen,
diese Arbeit, die wird gut!
Denn wir haben die Losung . .
Jura Soyfer's intent was not to present any complete solutions or conclusions: he believed that the problems he presented could only be solved in real life, in actual protest. His plays destroy illusions and call upon us to change society in its present form. He himself saw his own plays as a means for propaganda with a direct connection to the times in which he lived.
Soyfer's plays were published as a collection for the first time in 1974 thanks to the work of members of the organisation of exiled Austrians in England, "Young Austria". This took his works out of their original context and gave them a larger application: they were presented, for example, as timeless criticisms of the society of the communist GDR.
- Dachaulied, composed by Herbert Zipper - listen to music : "quasi una fantasia: Juden und die Musikstadt Wien" (Timms, Edward / Hanak, Werner / Botstein, Leon / Jüdisches Museum Wien )(with 2CDs)
- Dachaulied at gedenkstaettenpaedagogik-bayern.de, ingeb.org, literaturepochen.at (sound, 74-94)
- (German) Jura Soyfer Society
- "Jura Soyfer and His Time (Studies in Austrian Literature, Culture, and Thought)" by Donald G. Daviau, 1995 ISBN 1-57241-005-1
- "The legacy of Jura Soyfer, 1912-1939: Poems, prose and plays of an Austrian antifascist" (Engendra theaterbooks) ISBN 0-919830-07-2
- "It's Up to Us!: Collected Works of Jura Soyfer (Studies in Austrian Literature, Culture, & Thought)", 1996 ISBN 0-929497-55-4