Roxzann Baker is the Project Coordinator and author of the Library’s educational website aimed at British students, The Holocaust Explained.  She holds an MA in Holocaust Studies from Royal Holloway, University of London, and will begin a PhD on the Jewish Relief Unit, Displaced Persons and the aftermath of the Second World War under the supervision of Professor Dan Stone and the Library’s Deputy Director and Head of Research Dr. Christine Schmidt in September of this year.

black and white image of young boy
Peter aged six, pictured on his rocking horse in his bedroom, 1937.
Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.
black and white image of young boy and girl playing on a swing
Peter and Hana on their garden swing, c. 1938.
Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

On 9 June 1929, a woman named Else Schulhof and a man named Hans Briess were married in the impressive Byzantine synagogue in Olomouc, Czechoslovakia, a town which, at the time, boasted a thriving Jewish community of over 2,000 people. Just over two years later, on 12 September 1931, their son Peter was born, followed by their daughter Hana on 25 February 1936. By June 1939, ten years to the month after Hans and Else were married, all four were refugees fleeing the Nazi occupation to the safety of England.

In honour of Refugee Week, this blog post follows the story of Hans and Else’s son, Peter Briess, who donated his extensive collection of family papers and photographs to The Wiener Holocaust Library.

Thinking back on his time in Olomouc, Peter recalls a happy childhood, “it was a wonderful, idyllic life”. His father, Hans, ran his own successful business trading grain, and in 1935 the family moved into a new, modern, Bauhaus style house that Hans had commissioned. The house was split into two apartments, with Hans’ parents, Theodor and Paula Briess, occupying the ground floor and Hans, Else, Peter and Hana occupying the first floor. Peter had his own bedroom, complete with a large handmade rocking horse, and his father built him and Hana a double swing to play on in their large garden.

We had a wonderfully close and harmonious family relationship with our extended relatives, aunts and uncles, and life seemed to revolve around the family… Who needed more?

Peter Briess, The House That Saved Us – We Were the Lucky Ones

Yet, while Peter enjoyed a pleasant and normal childhood, his parents Hans and Else became increasingly troubled about the growing strength of neighbouring Nazi Germany, with its radical, fascist, antisemitic policies and incessant demands for the Sudetenland (an area to the north of Czechoslovakia that Hitler felt belonged to the Third Reich). In September 1938, these fears were amplified as the leaders of Britain, France and Italy conceded the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany as part of an agreement known as the Munich Pact, in exchange for Adolf Hitler’s commitment to maintaining peace.

It was with this in mind that Hans decided to move his family abroad. In January 1939, Hans travelled to Britain on business and with the support of a family friend, Joe Gilbert, secured the financial sponsorship forms which were necessary for immigration at the time.

Two months later, on 15 March 1939, Peter woke up to find that Nazi Germany had abandoned the terms of the Munich Pact, invaded Bohemia and Moravia, and marched right into Olomouc: “I woke on that fateful rainy day, looked out of our front window and saw steel-helmeted and jackbooted German troops marching down our street, complete with guns and armoured cars. We had been invaded!”

A pre-war postcard showing Olomouc’s synagogue prior to its destruction.
A pre-war postcard showing Olomouc’s synagogue prior to its destruction.

The atmosphere in the town changed overnight, and local neo-Nazis set fire to the impressive, town synagogue that Peter’s parents had married in ten years prior. In response, Peter’s cousins Eva and Anita were sent on the safety of Kindertransport to London. It was at this point that Hans, unbeknown to Peter at the time, was arrested, imprisoned and questioned by the Nazi authorities in the local prison for a week in a small dark cell with several other male members of the family.

Shortly after Hans’ release, the family received an unwelcome visitor. Stood at the door to their recently built home was the local Nazi commandant, who informed the family that he was requisitioning their house. Although Hans had little choice in the matter, he negotiated. He would surrender his house and his business, but only on the condition that his family were granted exit visas which would allow them to leave the newly occupied Czechoslovakia. Somewhat miraculously, the commandant agreed, and in June 1939 Hans, Else, Peter and Hana left what remained of Czechoslovakia forever. Many of their close family were unable to join them, and Peter later reflected:

It [is] hardly possible for me to conceive of the pain and anguish that those left behind must have felt after our departure at the end of June 1939. It must have seemed like a great void had suddenly appeared in their lives. Paula and Dori especially must have felt the sudden descent into silence in the flat above theirs in the house at No 12 Na Vozovce, where once their grandchildren played in the garden and their own son lived… all suddenly gone.

Peter Briess, The House That Saved Us – We Were the Lucky Ones
One of the family members the Briess family left behind in Olomouc was Else’s brother, Erich Schulhof. Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.
As is evidenced by his CV, Erich was an extremely talented young man. After being detained for a period in Theresienstadt, Erich was murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz in 1943. Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

After a long and arduous journey through Germany and then Holland, the Briess family arrived by boat as refugees with very few possessions in Britain in July 1939 and moved into two small rooms in Cricklewood, North London. Although an unexpected and, for many, overwhelming, new chapter in life, Hans and Else approached the difficult challenge of setting up a home in a new country and new culture with courage and enthusiasm. The entire family immediately set about learning English. Hana and Peter were temporarily sent to a Jewish boarding school named Maculay House in Sussex, where their cousins Eva and Anita were living.

Hans, Else, Peter and Hana Briess with their cousins Anita and Eva Graetzer on holiday in Ilfracombe, Devon, in 1944.
Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

However, as the Second World War loomed, Hans worried once more for the safety of his family – concerned that the German air force would bomb the city of London. And so, a few months after their arrival in Britain, Peter, Hana and Else relocated again to Chagford in Devon. There, the three stayed in the small village on the edge of Dartmoor for two months while Hans attempted to arrange a more permanent home for the family north of London.

In late 1939, Hans succeeded, and the family were reunited in Harpenden, along with their cousins Anita and Eva who came to live with them for the duration of the war. It was here that the family finally found some stability in Britain, enjoying the rural delights of the English countryside as they carved out their new ‘normal’. Peter restarted his education once more at Hardenwick School, where he stayed until 1944, and quickly improved his English as well as excelling in French, History and Geography.

Although school, friends, and their new home meant that the children began to greatly enjoy their new life in England, it was still a stressful and difficult time for the family as a whole. On top of wondering what fate had befallen the large family they had left behind, for several years Hans, due to his status as a refugee, was prohibited from working and the family survived on savings and Else’s new dressmaking business, which became the primary family income. In 1940, the Battle of Britain commenced and Nazi Germany began to bomb strategic targets across the country. Although Harpenden was never directly bombed, the Briess family shared the country’s nightly fear of attack.

In 1944, when the family had managed to get away for a short but enjoyable holiday in Ilfracombe, Devon, word reached Else that her mother, Ida, and brother, Erich, as well as Hans’ mother, Paula, and sister and brother-in-law, Herta and Friedl Graetzer (the parents of Anita and Eva) had been murdered by the Nazis, along with many more members of the Briess family. While heart-wrenching, Peter remembered his parents’ and cousins’ remarkable strength in stoically digesting the tragic and heavy news.

Herta and Friedl Graetzer, parents of Anita and Eva Graetzer, on their wedding day in 1924. Both Herta and Friedl were murdered by the Nazis with Herta’s mother, Paula Briess, in a mass shooting in Baranowice, Poland, on 28 July 1942. Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

A few months later, news of the liberations of Nazi concentration camp began to seep into Britain, with Peter recalling “we went to the cinema to see the newsreels for ourselves and could not believe the barbarity and inhumane horror. To this day I fail to understand how a nation who were amongst the most educated, civilised and cultured people on earth could have treated their fellows in such a depraved brutal manner.”

Shortly after VE day, in July 1945, Hans Briess bought the family their first home in England, in Brent Green, London, after successfully establishing another business in the food trade, and Peter moved to Mill Hill school, where, in his final year (1948-1949) he was made Head of House and Prefect. In 1948 the family became naturalised British citizens, having made the decision to remain permanently in the country.  

After finishing school, Peter completed his eighteen months of compulsory national service with the RAF, before attending the Universite de Geneve in Switzerland to study for a Bsc in Chemistry. He went on to work briefly for his father’s business before starting his own successful pharmaceutical manufacturing company. Today Peter has a large family, spanning several continents, including his wife, Helen, and a son, David.

Reflecting on his experiences as a refugee, Peter wrote “how extraordinarily fortunate we were to have been living in the relative safety and security of England, rather than in war-torn Europe under the Nazi jackboot…and how much we owed the brave boys of the RAF who beat off the Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940…to say nothing of the foresight of our parents.”

So many, like Peter’s extended family, including his grandparents, aunties, uncles, and cousins, were not as fortunate. As Peter continued, “how much we have lost in terms of family and friends, and how much fuller our lives would have been”…”those terrible events resulted in the total destruction of a large part of my wider family, their culture, their homes and possessions, their businesses and their history. Those of us fortunate enough to have been saved owe it to those lost to record and remember what happened, and to teach generations to come.”

Anyone who has met Peter cannot fail to be charmed by his warm nature and wicked sense of humour – he is, in short, an extraordinary man despite his extraordinary childhood.

Unfortunately, many across the world today continue to experience similarly devastating circumstances which result in forced displacement. In fact, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are currently approximately 26 million refugees in the world, approximately 40% of whom are children. Being a refugee is not only difficult, but complex and often dangerous. And yet, when given the chance, and the haven of a safe country, Peter’s story, and that of his ever-capable parents, shows what incredible things refugees can go on to achieve.

As we mark Refugee Week, Peter’s story not only reminds us to reflect on the importance of this message, but also to remember and uphold the memory of those who were, as Peter so movingly describes, were not so fortunate – those who, ultimately, were unable to become refugees. 

Peter Briess (centre), pictured with the children’s author Professor Michael Rosen (left) and the Library’s The Holocaust Explained Project Coordinator Roxzann Baker (right), after speaking at the launch of the Library’s educational website, The Holocaust Explained, in March 2020. 

For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: refugees; personal narratives; Kindertransport; survivors.