A Jewish Teenage Girl Growing Up in Pre-Nazi Austria and forced to Escape to England

            October 2013    
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Anna in 1938


Anna's Story

Edited by Trevor Williams

I was an only child. I was born on September 20th 1920 on a Tuesday afternoon at a nursing home in the Pelikangasse in Vienna. My mother had lost her first child, a premature boy, ten years before I came along. We lived in the centre of Vienna in a first floor flat, which was situated in a huge courtyard, Heligenkreuzer Hof. All of the buildings belonged to the church and parts had been a monastery in days gone by. My postal address was odd. It was either Grashofgasse 3 or Schönlaterngasse 5 depending on from which side you approached.

My grandmothers were sisters and their maiden name was Hollander. They lived in Poland. My paternal grandmother, Esther Lamensdorf, was a widow when I first met her. Her husband had been a tailor. She seemed a very old lady to me then, dressed in dark clothes and wearing a wig, like all orthodox Jewish women in those days. Papa's eldest sister, Locia, lived nearby with her rather dour husband, Leopold. They had two daughters, who were much older than I was. When I visited them in Brzesko, I also met another cousin of mine, Max. He was tall and slim and worked as a dental mechanic. He was Aunt Locia's illegitimate son.

My maternal grandmother, Perl Blonder, lived in Niepolomice, a small village near Cracow. She and her husband lived in a white bungalow on the outskirts of the village. They owned and ran a bakery which was attached to the bungalow. Their baker's shop was in the marketplace in the village and my grandmother served behind the counter. Daily, some of the bread was delivered to outlying districts by horse and cart. The youngest son Leon, Mama's brother, was involved in the business too. He did all the deliveries. Uncle Leon was tall, blond, blue eyed and good looking. My parents and I used to spend the summer holidays there until my tenth or eleventh year. It was a working holiday for my father. He helped in the business and the shop. My grandmother also employed a servant girl in the house.

There was also a guard dog. I never dared to go near him, as he was a fierce animal. I remember one evening, when the servant girl met her boyfriend outside the garden fence. As they were having kiss and a cuddle, the dog pushed his muzzle through a hole in the fence and nipped the poor girl's heel. I still recall her cry of shock and pain.

When I was quite young, Leon suddenly arrived in Vienna on a visit. Grandmama Perl, who was the boss in the family, had sent him away from home because she had found out that he had got involved with a shikse (a non-Jewish girl). In an orthodox family this constituted a major catastrophe. When my Uncle Paul, another of the sons, who lived in Vienna and owned a jewellery shop, had a love affair with a non-Jewish woman, Grandmama also intervened. She arrived one day, and in the best tradition of a matriarch, put an end to that affair too. She was a great believer in hard work and discipline. She too wore a wig from the day of her marriage. I used to watch her take her wig off before she retired to bed. Her poor hair was grey and wispy. The wig was a replica of her hair when she had been young and her hair was curly and blonde.

There were two more married daughters, Helen and Hannah. Aunt Helen and her husband Samuel had two children: a girl Bronia, older than me, and a boy Roman (Romek). He was a few months younger. Both children were dark haired with brown eyes. I loved playing with my cousin Romek. We got on very well. Aunt Helen and her family lived with Grandmama for a few years until they moved into their own house not far away. They ran a small business from home, selling household goods. Uncle Sam used to make his own shoe polish. I was fascinated by that and helped him with it at times. Romek and I were inseparable and very rarely had disagreements. We went for walks in the nearby woods and fields, picked mushrooms under Mama's supervision, and also wild strawberries and bilberries.

Grandmama used to make loganberry syrup. This was a complicated process. The berries were put into a large linen bag with a tapering end and then inserted into a press, which squeezed the juice into a tub. At the end, all the syrup was bottled and stored in the end room of the bungalow. With its shiny tiled floor, this was the coolest room in the house. In the absence of a fridge, many perishable foods were stored there for short periods.

The youngest daughter, my Aunt Hannah, was also blessed with a boy and a girl, both younger than me: the girl Janina, Janka for short, the boy, younger still, Henry. Both children were curly headed. Janka was dark blonde while the boy was very fair with blue eyes. We used to sleep at Hannah's house while Aunt Helen still lived with Grandmama. Hannah's husband was a tubby little man, who dealt in horses and stayed away from home most of the week, travelling the country.

Grandmama had another sister, Henriette, who married a Frenchman called Havelik. They lived in Paris at Rue Victor Hugo 20. Nobody ever mentioned Henriette because she had committed the ultimate sin of marrying a non-Jew. When Paul was eight years old, Aunt Henriette arrived quite un­expectedly. There was always a tremendous amount of gossip surrounding her life, especially as she was living in Paris and Niepolomice was a tiny back­ward village. Grandmama had never mentioned her 'scarlet' sister to her children. Apparently, Henriette was childless and wanted to adopt Paul, take him with her to Paris and let him have a good education. He had always wanted to be a doctor. This wish must run in the family. Grandmama was less than keen to allow Paul to leave home and Henriette returned to Paris still childless. Paul never forgot his aunt and kept her address for sixty years. He told me that his aunt was a very good-looking woman and very elegant. He would have loved the opportunity of a lifetime.

One particular holiday stays in my mind, because Papa seemed to take more than a brotherly interest in Aunt Hannah. My dear mother was very sad and upset at the time. I do not think it went further than a crush and it all blew over once we got back to Vienna.

Papa, whose first name was Salomon, had two younger brothers and three sisters. The eldest sister was Locia, as mentioned before. Then there was Rose (Ruzia). She was an excellent tailoress and lived in Cracow with her husband and four children. The eldest daughter Francis (Fraria) married a singer. He was a tenor, who also sang in a synagogue as a cantor. The marriage was not a happy one. Francis was a very jealous woman and could not cope with the strains and stresses of show business. She was eventually driven to suicide.

One of Papa's brothers lived in Cracow too. At one time the brother borrowed a substantial sum of money from Papa and never repaid the loan. This was always a sore point and an embarrassment to Papa. They fell out over it. His brother was not a well man and died of TB.

Papa used to own a drapery shop in Brzesko until the Russians overran Poland in the First World War in 1914. A group of Russian soldiers stormed into his shop and robbed him of all his cash at gunpoint and threatened to kill him if he did not leave the shop. He and Mama fled to Vienna, where they found a small flat and there they stayed.

According to Mrs Kvapil, a very good friend of mine, I was a nice looking and pleasant child. I remember having a young nanny, who used to take me for walks in a pushchair. Mama was a sweet tempered pleasant, slim woman. She was the perfect mother to me.

The Kvapils lived in the same block of flats on the second floor and ran a philatelic kiosk in the inner city. They took it in turns to serve behind the counter. For young eyes it was a fascinating little shop with all those colourful stamps on show. Sometimes, I played with Martha, Mrs Kvapil's only child, who was a few months older than I was. Her mother was very fond of me and always made me very welcome. I was a slight little girl and a bit finicky until my tonsils were removed when I was six. Sometimes, Mrs Kvapil very naughtily tempted me with ham rolls which I wolfed down with glee. I knew of course that I was doing wrong but forbidden fruit always tastes sweet.

My favourite pastime was my almost daily walk to the City Park (Stadtpark) with my mother. There I could play while Mama enjoyed a chat with friends and acquaintances. The park was renowned for its beauty, lovely flowerbeds and a large pond with ducks and swans. To walk on the grass was forbidden. There were statues and monuments of all the famous composers dotted around. The most beautiful was the bronze statue of Johann Strauss. In the winter, you could buy hot roasted chestnuts at the entrance to the park, where a man in huge felt boots kept his brazier type stove going, much to the delight of the children. When I was older, I took a great liking to the diabolo, which I could handle with great dexterity. Sometimes I even drew an audience.

Papa carried on with business in a small way and never had a shop: fabrics were his line and he was an expert on good quality cloth. He was a very devout man and used to attend a small synagogue nearby. My parents were perfectly Western in their clothes and hairstyles, but adhered to the Jewish laws to the letter. The dietary laws were kept to rigorously and kosher food was a must. On Fridays my mother prepared the food for Saturday. She baked the traditional plaited bread (chola) and cakes and also a main meal. This was heated up on Saturday. The candles were lit at sundown and a prayer said. On Saturday we were not allowed to light a fire ourselves, so we employed a woman who came Saturday morning and did the necessary.

When the Passover came along, we fetched out a huge tea chest which contained our best china and cooking pots. These utensils were only used during the Passover festival for the one week of the year, when Jews ate unleavened bread (matzos) instead of ordinary bread. Apart from matzos, we were allowed normal fare. After the Passover, everything was washed very care­fully and stowed away for the following year.

School was a happy time for me. I was six years old when I started and made rapid progress with reading and writing. As soon as I had mastered these skills, I read everything I could get hold of: my mother's books, newspapers and magazines. Mrs Kvapil lent me her daughter's books, which Martha did not appreciate too much. My teacher in the infant school was a lady, Frau Lehrerin. She was a kind woman and most of the time I enjoyed my lessons. One day my treasured coloured pencils disappeared. After a frantic search, I discovered that they had been appropriated by the girl sitting next to me. My teacher had to be told and Frau Lehrerin returned them to me after a very embarrassing scene with the other child.

Towards the end of each summer term, my parents usually decided to go on holiday to my grandparents. I never understood why they could not wait until the end of the term. Mama always bought a pot plant, a hydrangea, for my teacher and I had to hand it over to her and so make my peace with Frau Lehrerin.

On the day of the long journey to Cracow, I could not eat a thing, as I was very excited. But as soon as we settled on the train, my appetite returned and Mama produced my favourite salami sandwiches. We started at 3.00 pm and did not arrive until the next morning. Then we had to change trains to get to the village of Niepolomice. While we stayed there, I used to pick up the Polish language in a day or so and even managed to read it.

Mama's three brothers lived in Vienna too. The eldest, Salo, was married to Aunt Josephine, who was a widow when Salo married her. She had a grown-up son by her first husband. Salo managed her large confectionary shop when they first met. She was a dumpy little woman who fell for my tall, very smart, good looking and charming uncle. There was a good deal of jealousy from her son. Their marriage did not please him at all and I recall quarrels and upsets. Whenever I visited them, I had a great time, helping in the beautiful and immaculate shop in the Mariahilfer Strasse, one of the main shopping areas in Vienna. I was allowed to weigh small bags of sweets and chocolates for customers. Whenever uncle Salo came to visit us at home, he always brought two large boxes full of goodies for us. He always smelled of eau de cologne.

The other two brothers, who were younger than my mother, both had jewellery shops in different parts of the city. Uncle Sigmund was married to Aunt Ida and they had one son, my cousin Fritz, who was ten months older than me. He was a pleasant and serious boy and his parents absolutely worshipped him. Uncle Paul was my favourite uncle. He went to India to work at one time and to the island of Bali. When he returned home on leave, he used to sit me on his knee and tell me stories about the jungle and how monkeys rushed down the palm trees and tried to grab his pith helmet. I was about five years old then. He gave me a book by Darwin, which I treasured for many years, but that went with the rest of our possessions in later years.

When I was about six years old I had to have my tonsils removed. This was a traumatic experience, as it was done under rather primitive conditions. Mama took me to the clinic and handed me over to a nurse, a giant of a woman. She sat me on her lap and held me very tightly, so I could not move at all. A pad of ether was pressed on my face and I felt as if I was suffocating. I was terrified. Then blackness. When I came to, I was lying down, feeling very, very sick, my throat hurt dreadfully and I was bleeding. After several hours, Mama was allowed to take me home in a taxi. She promised to buy me some ice cream, which I adored. It was not so good when I tried to swallow some. The soreness persisted for a week, but after that improved. I had all the usual childhood ailments, like measles etc. Papa would try to amuse me and play with me when I began to feel better. We played dominoes and I had a small game of roulette, which I found fascinating. I also possessed two dolls and a tiny pram. In the winter I had a sledge.

Martha and I used to explore the immediate neighbourhood together when we were only about five years old. As a Jewish child it seemed to me that I had many more don'ts than my non-Jewish counterparts. For instance, I was not allowed to go into a church and kneel. One day Martha and I came to a nearby small church and she persuaded me to go in with her. It all looked very strange to me. In the meantime our parents were looking for us. When we returned and Papa found out that I had been in the church he was very angry and smacked me. I was very upset about it because I didn't think I had done anything really wrong. I had only had a look.

When I grew older, I learned to ice-skate and Martha and I went skating together. She was by far the better skater. There were two skating rinks not too far away. I never managed many fancy routines but I adored skating nevertheless.

Attendance at school was from Monday to Friday 8.00 am - 1.00 pm, Saturday 8.00 am - 12.00 pm. Papa would not allow me to do any writing on a Saturday, the Sabbath, and I had special permission from the teacher to be exempt and borrow someone's exercise books, to copy the work at home over the weekend. I must admit I hated to be different from the other children, who regarded me with some curiosity because of this. When I left junior school, after passing my examinations to the grammar school, also winning a scholarship, I decided there was too much work to be done to carry on with the Sabbath taboo. Quietly, I slipped into the way of the other girls, who incidentally were mostly Jewish too, and did all my work the same as any other day of the week.

The last time we visited Poland, our stay was prolonged far beyond the beginning of the school term in September. I think my parents were contemplating staying there permanently. Eventually, they made up their minds to return to Vienna after all. I was rather upset about missing two months of schooling at the grammar school. It was my second year there and it coincided with the start of the foreign language courses. On my father's advice, I chose English, in spite of having had some private tuition in French when I was younger. To catch up with the rest of the class, I had to have private instruction in English. My tutor was a young woman who worked as a secretary during the day. Luckily I picked it up very quickly and never looked back. Our English teacher at school was a lady, Dr Kaplan. She was a brilliant scholar, who made our lessons interesting and very enjoyable. She had intended to be an actress, but had developed asthma and could not cope with show business life. Many a time she was late for lessons in the morning due to her condition. We used to look out of the classroom window to see if she was coming. She would arrive in a taxi and walk into the classroom hardly able to breathe. When she was well, she would read to us and we would all sit there spell­bound. Most of her summer holidays she spent in England, to practise her pronunciation.

I also loved drawing and painting. Geometrical drawings were my speciality. There was no shortage of cultural activi­ties and I loved them all. We all had students' season tickets for the opera and theatres. The opera house was a joy and the huge amusement park, the Prater, with the giant wheel, the Riesenrad, was fascinating.

In the summer, I used to go swimming and sunbathing at an open-air lido with friends. An old arm of the Danube, which was blocked off, was used as the lido. The Gänsehäufel (Goose hill) even sported sand. Sometimes, we went to the Kahlenberg in the Wienerwald (Vienna Woods) and enjoyed the fresh air and lovely surroundings. These hills are the beginnings of the Alps. They start with gentle slopes and then get higher and higher. Vienna was, to me, a lovely city when my family was still intact.

When I was thirteen years old, Uncle Paul got engaged to Susan. Paul met Sidi, short for Sidonia, as she was called then, through a marriage arranger, as was the custom in many Jewish families. Sidi was very much in love with my handsome and charming uncle. One Sunday, they both turned up at our flat and asked me if I would care to join them for a day's outing in Grinzing, as a chaperone. I accepted with alacrity, but soon found out that being a chaperone to an engaged couple was a little embarrassing and more like playing gooseberry. But as I loved Paul and had quite taken to his fiancée, it turned out to be a very happy day for all of us. The sun shone and we had a nice lunch.

Sometimes I visited my cousin Fritz. His father, my uncle Sigmund, was al­ways busy in his jewellery shop with customers and watch repairs. Uncle Sigmund and Aunt Ida had a rather stormy marriage. They lived above the shop. The property was quite spacious and Fritz possessed a home cinema. By present standards it would seem primitive, but then it looked wonderful to me. I had strict instructions not to touch anything while Fritz was out of the room at any time. To cut a long story short, I did the forbidden thing and touched. I got a nasty electric shock which flung me across the room. When Aunt Ida came in, she found me lying almost unconscious on the floor. It took nearly an hour before I was back to normal. At that time Grandmama was paying a visit and she seemed quite upset about my accident. She did not often show her feelings.

I stayed at the grammar school until 1938, the year of the Anschluss, the blackest year of my life. I enjoyed most of the subjects and managed to pass all my exams. There was plenty of homework to do. I had a few friends and we enjoyed our leisure time. There were occasional excursions with the class and two or three of our teachers. We addressed them as Herr Professor or Frau Professor in class. I remember one trip especially. It was Easter time and we took a train to the Semmering, in the Alps. The weather was beautiful in the valley, but as we climbed higher we found ourselves in the middle of a terrific blizzard. It was a very frightening experience and we were thankful when we managed to find our way to our hostel where we stayed the night. Once we were safe, our spirits rose and there was a lot of laughter and giggling. Two masters and one mistress kept an eye on us. Professor Weisskopf, who took us for religious instruction was one of the best speakers I have ever come across: he had a magnetic personality. The other master taught us Latin. The lady was our German and Literature teacher. That was in 1937. I was seventeen then. At Whitsun we had another excursion to the same area. The weather was warmer then and we enjoyed it tremendously.

Naturally, some of the girls had boyfriends. One of them was particularly sophisticated, or so we thought. She was lovely looking and used to boast about her affair with a married man. In our modern and liberated society she would hardly get a glance. In 1937, teenagers were very naive and innocent, especially if they had strict parents like mine. My parents were quite Victorian in their outlook on boyfriends. I was very shy and retiring then.

At that time, I began to be friendly with Mimi Kriss. She lived with her widowed mother and younger brother in a flat in Leopoldstadt, the district where most Jewish people lived. Leopoldstadt used to be the site of the ghetto in days long gone by. I visited Mimi fairly often. She had lovely auburn hair. Her mother did not object to boyfriends. Mimi was a year younger than me and her boyfriend was in his late twenties or even older. She had a pet name for him: Pinkie. He sometimes brought friends with him. I made a date with one of them for April 20th (Hitler's birthday). I was not too keen on that chap and never saw him again.

In the meantime, the political situation was worsening. Ever since Austria's 'little chancellor' Dollfuss (he was only just over 5 feet tall) had been callously shot down, our worst fears were becoming reality. I remember Dollfuss lying in state on a magnificent bier and thousands of people filing past his body as a mark of respect. I was amongst them. Under the next chancellor, Schuschnigg, Hitler's followers became stronger. The Anschluss, a polite word for a takeover, resulted.

Hitler's tanks rolled into Vienna on March 13th 1938. I shall never forget the horrible rumbling noise as they made their way along the Ringstrasse, which was not far from where we lived. This ill-fated event utterly transformed the lives of countless people, mostly Jews, but also some Gentiles. Suddenly Austria was turned into a second class country, supposedly a part of Germany. Changes happened overnight. People, whom we had known for many years and regarded as friends, turned their heads away when they saw us in the street. We were not welcome in cinemas and some shops or restaurants. Gentiles mostly wore swastika badges or uniforms. Only Mrs Kvapil stayed friendly and behaved in her old kindly way.

When the first Nazi meeting on the Ringstrasse, near the Stadtpark, took place, I went to have a look and actually heard the monster, Hitler, speak. I soon left for home. I was frightened of being discovered.

At school things changed quickly too. Our Jewish teachers disappeared and were replaced by Party-friendly ones. They had joined the Party secretly before the Anschluss. In my school, most of the girls were Jewish and our new teachers made our lives decidedly uncomfortable. It was my last year at the grammar school and matriculation was imminent. It was a traumatic time all round. Somehow we all got through our exams, but not with such good results as we had hoped. My plans for the future were definitely dashed. I had hoped to go to university. I had hoped to be a doctor. Now the only thing you could hope for was to get away with your life, before the dreaded knock on the door happened and you were dragged away by the Gestapo.

My uncle Sigmund suddenly disappeared. He was taken to one of the concentration camps, either Dachau or Mauthausen. His shop was confiscated and Aunt Ida and Cousin Fritz were made homeless. Ida and Fritz were frantic with worry. Fritz decided to appeal to the SS. He very courageously walked into the Gestapo HQ armed with his father's army records from WW1. Whether it was due to his appeal or not, I do not know, but soon afterwards Sigmund was released. Ida had managed to find a small flat and we visited them there. I hardly recognised Sigmund. He was a changed man. He was lying in bed, his previously wavy hair a stubble and his eyes were staring in a gaunt face. His body was emaciated and his nerves were in shreds. Nevertheless, his family were deliriously happy to have him home and nursed him devotedly. Gradually his health improved. But the euphoria soon evaporated. One day Ida and Fritz went shopping and never returned. The Gestapo had had their cat and mouse game. Poor Sigmund made inquiries everywhere, but to no avail. He never managed to trace his loved ones and did not get any information about their fate. He did get away from Vienna eventually and boarded a ship which ferried illegal immigrants to Israel.

In April 1938, during one of my visits to my friend Mimi, I met Max Bibring and fell for him. He was ten years my senior, but it did not seem to matter. He had two younger brothers and a widowed mother, who relied on him. She was not keen on a girlfriend for her eldest son. I thought the world of him. Max was a teacher by profession, but had turned to insurance, as the remuneration in this field was better. Being in love was a bittersweet experience under the circumstances. We both sought ways to leave Austria. My parents too tried to find a way out, but for them it was harder than for young people. Papa wrote to an aged uncle of his in New York and asked him if he could help to get an affidavit for me and them. Back came the answer that he was an old man and did not want to be bothered with a young girl, never mind the parents too.

All Jewish people were forced to wear a J emblem on their street clothes. The Nazis had their own private sport with some unfortunate Jews, who happened to be walking in the street. They forced them to scrub the pavements, a wall or whatever took their fancy, while they stood around laughing and jeering. When I was walking on my own one day, I had my face slapped by a young hooligan in uniform who then ran off. What a hero!

One day we suddenly realized that uncle Salo was not around. One rumour was that he'd gone to my grandparents in Poland. Later that country was overrun by the Germans too. I can only surmise that he suffered the same fate as the rest of the family in Poland. My school friends also melted away one by one.

Max was one of those unfortunate people who were stateless: consequently he was in no-man's land where a passport was concerned. No country would admit a person without a passport. After some months of agonising inde­cision, Max and his younger brother decided to cross the Austrian border illegally without papers. This was a highly dangerous undertaking and I was very unhappy about it. If you were unlucky and the border guards caught you, you could end up being shot dead or put into a camp. I made myself ill with worry and ran a high fever. I had to tell my parents what was going on. Normally, nobody talked about things like that, in case the secret got into the wrong quarter. Max came to see me before he went off. The outcome of the escape plan was that his brother managed to get into Belgium but Max narrowly escaped being caught. A few weeks later he tried again and managed to get to Antwerp, where he joined his brother.

My life was empty after he left.

I too had been trying to get away. My first thought was Israel, then Palest­ine. I went through all the preliminary applications and eventually received my entry permit to join a Kibbutz. I was ready to travel when the blow fell. Someone with a lot of influence and money had grabbed my place for his daughter. I was left stranded.

As time went on, more and more Jews were hauled off to concentration camps.

I racked my brains to find a way out of my dilemma. Then I decided to ...


Editor's Note

This account is based on part of my mother's (Anna Kings nee Lamensdorf) notes for her autobiography. She continued to keep these notes up to 2004.

I have edited the account to make it consistent and coherent but not changed the events, writing style or phraseology.

Anna's first husband died in 1970 and she then married John Kings, a widower. He predeceased her by a few months. Anna died the day after her 90th birthday in September 2010.

Trevor Williams 2013


from the October 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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