In December 2018 we commemorate the 80th anniversary of the start of the Kindertransport operation, which evacuated almost 10,000 children with a Jewish heritage from territories controlled by the Nazis to the UK. For the most part, these children left their home countries and families behind. Many would no longer see the parents who made the painful decision to send them to safety again.
However in a few instances, gaining a place on a Kindertransport promised a reunion with a parent who had made the equally painful decision to leave first. A cache of 40 letters discovered recently in a UK loft and digitised for The Wiener Holocaust Library archive, documents the prelude to this more unusual experience from a child’s perspective.
The letters were written by a boy in Vienna to his mother, who was already in the UK, over the course of an agonising four-month separation. During this time each worked frantically towards a reunion that they could not be certain would happen as war clouds gathered.
The letters add to our knowledge of the ordeals that drove two-thirds of Austria’s Jewish population to flee abroad, the efforts they had to make to reach safety and how individual circumstances affected the prospects of success: In this case, only a last-minute intervention from a non-Jewish relative made escape possible.
Forced to leave
Hedwig Pöllinger, a divorced Jewish mother living alone with her child in Vienna, faced a painful dilemma in early 1939. She was a witness to and victim of the depredations visited on Austria’s Jewish citizens by the authorities and wider populace after the Nazis took control in March 1938. Her family’s business had been expropriated and Jewish places of worship destroyed, community members arrested and rights restricted.
The future looked bleak for her and for her 14 year old son, Otto Kurt, to whom she was close and affectionately called ‘Kurti’. She concluded regretfully, but much as the Nazis wanted her to, that emigration from the beloved city she had spent half her life in was the only option for them.
More traumatic than departing her homeland was the realisation that they would probably have to accomplish the journey separately in a world lacking asylum options for individuals, let alone families, fleeing persecution.
A terrible dilemma
The circumstances, including a vindictive non-Jewish ex-husband who would not have countenanced giving legal permission for their son to travel, meant Hedwig was presented with the first opportunity to flee in March 1939. She had secured a UK domestic service working visa, a route used by 20,000 mainly female Jewish refugees to the UK at the time.
We can barely imagine the predicament that she faced. Weighing whether to go alone she would have taken into account Kurt’s ‘Mischling’ status. This was a Nazi race law category for those of part-Jewish heritage. At the time it restricted higher education, employment and marriage options, meaning he was not under the direst threat.* She would also have taken into account the presence of relatives such as her siblings in Vienna, albeit all with plans of their own to escape. Finally, she would have weighed the potential of the Kindertransport to bring Kurt to Britain.
But the same questions would have inevitably haunted her until almost the last moment of their separation: Was leaving him the right thing to do, could she help him effectively from a distance and would her ex-husband see reason in time?
*Later, Mischlings with two Jewish grandparents like Kurt were subject to forced labour. However some Mischlings, either registered as Jewish at birth or born later than Kurt, were also treated by the authorities as if they were fully Jewish (as were Mishlings outside of western Europe).
The letters: a source of concern and hope
In his first letter on 18 March 1939 and subsequently, it is apparent that Kurt did not begrudge his mother’s choice, holding out the hope as he did of joining her soon.
However, she would have been worried by the details that he provided of his personal state, his mistreatment at the hands of ‘Aryans’ and his trials in securing the papers he needed to travel.
Firstly, he described how the misery of this enforced separation was having a serious effect on his mental and physical state. He pined continuously and expressed his sadness, whilst reporting hospitalisation for various illnesses. His symptoms cannot all have been related to the meagre and unhealthy rations at the school, where he had been a weekly boarder since his parents’ divorce was finalised in late 1938. Nevertheless, she sends him jam, a little taste of England, which he reports devouring.
Later, he noted how his clothes were becoming ragged but downplayed this with humour, describing himself as the ‘Vagabond of Vienna’. He introduces humour again whilst describing his changing physical appearance because she felt she was missing out on seeing him grow up. Also, he recalls happier times with his mother and hopes to recreate them soon, in an attempt to cheer them both up.
A society turning on its most vulnerable members
Secondly, Kurt documents pervasive mistreatment at the hands of ‘Aryans’, sadly including family.
Children with two Jewish parents had been excluded from school but ‘Mischling’ children could still attend. In Kurt’s case special dispensation seemed to be required from the authorities. At his new school the other boys somehow caught wind of his Jewish heritage and he reports being bullied for it.
Kurt also picked up on a general antipathy towards England and the sense that war was coming that would have made the bullying even worse, had they known his mother’s location. Hence he pleads with her not to write to his school address.
Kurt was not spared threats by his family either. Before ignoring him completely, his absent and abusive father started out by blackmailing Kurt to leave his mother to her fate, with promises to bring him up as a ‘proper Aryan’. This meant using his status to protect his son against antisemitic measures and expunging any traces of his Jewish heritage. Kurt does not even need to state that this is no option for him in his letter describing these developments to Hedwig. Later, Kurt reports how his father is suspected of sending anonymous antisemitic hate mail to his aunt, Hedwig’s sister Otti in Vienna.
Finally, Kurt describes how the Aryan purchasers of his mother’s apartment tried to claim contents which they had no right to. As a Jew, Hedwig had no recourse to the law and without the intervention of Otti’s non-Jewish husband, they would have succeeded.
Battling obstinacy, bureaucracy and a last minute escape
Finally, Kurt updated his mother regularly on his efforts to learn English and to secure the right papers to travel and urged her to follow up the leads she had mentioned pursuing in the UK. Unable to speak the language herself, she was trying all options to obtain sponsorship and a visa for him, whilst simultaneously trying to hold down a demanding job that was new to her.
The major sticking point for Kurt was the ongoing refusal of his father to sign off on his passport, but his father eventually didn’t want to see him. In desperation Kurt wrote to his mother about having to negotiate the bureaucracy himself, aware of his diminished standing as a Mischling. Should either Kurt or Hedwig’s efforts fail, Kurt’s fall-back plan was a dangerous escape over the Alps.
Eventually, Kurt’s non-Jewish uncle stepped in again and through some subterfuge, he became legally entitled to sign off on Kurt’s passport. Not a moment to soon: three days later, on 28 June 28,1939, Kurt heard from a Society of Friends* representative in Austria that he had secured a place on a Kindertransport. He sent a letter to Hedwig on the same day to tell her that he was “overjoyed.” It ended up being a very close call. His passport was only issued a day before his departure on 11 July 1939.
Like Kurt, everyone on board his train would be safe. But unlike Kurt, whose ordeal of separation would shortly be behind him, that of most of his young travelling companions was just about to start and would have no end.
*The Quaker Society of Friends was instrumental in organising the Kindertransport operation
The fate of Kurt’s peers
It is otherwise noteworthy that Kurt mentions the people in the same predicament around him and their own efforts to escape from Austria.
Kurt passes on the desperate entreaties from family and family friends such as Mrs Gans, for Hedwig to help find them or their children a job in the UK. His peers were also trying hard to flee, including Egon Kollmann who he mentions wrote to forty bishops in the UK. There are other people known to Hedwig who are mentioned in passing, such as Lucie Gold. She was a year older than Kurt and found herself in Vienna after the entire Jewish population of Gmünd, Hedwig’s hometown was hounded out.
We don’t know what happened to Mrs Gans’ daughter Gertrude but thanks to research in the 2018 book Jüdische Familien Im Waldviertel Und Ihr Schicksal (English: Jewish Families in the Waldviertel District and Their Fate) by Friedrich Polleross, we know that Egon married a Catholic and survived. Jewish people in mixed marriages who stayed were largely spared, which also included Kurt’s aunt Otti. We also learn that any plans that Lucie had were sadly thwarted – she was murdered in Auschwitz with her family in October 1944.
Kurt went on to have mixed experiences as a refugee in the UK. Although his schooling had come to a premature end, work was hard and his accommodation basic, he was grateful for his opportunity to survive – several relatives did not – and pick up his relationship with his mother to whom he remained very close.
He settled in Britain and became a British citizen in 1948. In 2018 one of his children found the letters that Hedwig had kept, originally in case her gamble failed and then as a record of how they overcame the odds together.
The Boy Alone in Nazi Vienna
Exhibition Type: Online Exhibition