Thoughts and Reflections on the Occasion of the 80th Anniversary of the Kristallnacht

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The Ringstraße in Vienna today

The Ringstraße in Vienna today

Around the same time as I started to make efforts to leave Austria, my father contacted a cousin, Marietta Lennard, living in England, with a request similar to mine in the advertisement. British regulations required the warrantor of a refugee to put up a sum of money guaranteeing that the refugee would not become a burden to the government. The cousin at first wasn’t willing to do so, but my father was able to arrange to have some money smuggled to her (this was fairly routinely done by South American consulates, at exorbitant exchange rates) and she finally issued the necessary guarantees.

My father followed me to England a few weeks after I had left, just before the Germans attacked Poland. He lived in London, by himself.

There was no way we could find for my mother, Paula, to leave. But to our relief, in February 1940, she received her U.S. visa and, while my father and I were still in England, she sailed for New York. Having no money, she accepted a job as a housemaid, with a Jewish family there who treated her quite shabbily.

My own stay in England proved to be an experience I will never forget. My sponsor was a young teacher in a mining town, with a very small income, a wife and a child. Yet, he unselfishly shared his not always adequate meals with me for about ten months. During my stay, I attended the Percy Jackson Grammar School where I was not only the only Jewish student, but the first Jew most of the other kids had ever seen. I recall that, after getting to know me a little, one student told me that I wasn’t at all like Shylock, the only Jew he knew about. But all the students and teachers were cordial and helpful. Also, in the same town, I met an English priest who had adopted an entire Jewish family – including grandmother and two children – into his modest home.

By comparison, the Orthodox Jewish community in the nearby larger city of Doncaster, where I tried to attend Hebrew School, made me feel like an intruder. They said very directly, that it served the assimilated Austrian and German Jews right to have Hitler do to them what he does.

Meanwhile, my father lived modestly in London, trying to make some money, illegally (he was not allowed to openly work). His experiences with many British people were similar to mine – to give just one example, when he ate in a modest restaurant and was about to leave, the waiter brought him a large dessert. My father protested that he didn’t order it and couldn’t afford it. The waiter said that the man at the next table, who had already left, saw that he was a refugee, had ordered the dessert and paid for his entire meal.

My father and I were united in July of 1940 and sailed together to the United States via Canada, where, for the first time in almost a year, we met my mother again, after crossing the U.S. border on July 14, 1940. The first item on our agenda was to try to get my grandmother, my mother’s mother, to the U.S. We were finally able to borrow enough money to buy her a visa for Cuba (one could buy visas for many Central and South American countries, if one had the money available outside Germany) and pay for her passage – we would worry later how to get her to New York. Before my grandmother could sail, the United States had become involved in the war.

Instead of sailing to Cuba, my grandmother was deported to Theresienstadt where she died after a short time. Her last months had been somewhat lightened by the food parcels my father’s Viennese business partner continued to send her.

I don’t know if we have learned much from what happened between 1933 and 1945. We, who had lived – often for many generations – in Austria or Germany, believed that the Jews had made too much progress to again be thrown out the way their ancestors had been so many times in the past. The Jews in the United States – with a few notable exceptions – rationalized that these Central European Jews were none of their business. In a way, they were isolationists, just as much as most non-Jewish Americans of the late 1930s.

It’s true that the majority of non-Jews in Germany – and, even more so in Austria – not only didn’t help the Jews, but were glad to see them suffer (or even helped make them suffer more). Yet, in my own experience, I can say that my family and I survived unmolested, thanks to the help of a few very brave and unselfish gentiles. I, at least, owe my life to a gentile Englishman who just wanted to help a Jewish boy, even though he couldn’t afford it. And there were so many others in England who did the same – many of my acquaintances survived only because they found temporary asylum in England.

We should also remember – as much as we may dislike admitting it – that the United States, including a large part of its Jewish population, saw no urgency in helping their fellow Jews in Central Europe. But then I must admit that, between 1933 and 1938, while Austria was independent, the Austrian Jews weren’t exactly jumping to the aid of the German Jews either.

So much could have been done for so many if just the Jews in other lands had acted more quickly when they learned what was happening.

(Photos: Accura Media Group)

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