Hans J Briess
born 2 May 1904
died 11 November 1973
born 29 May 1906
died 5 February 1990
Hans Briess was born in 1904 to Theodore (Dori) and Paula Briess in Olomouc, Moravia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After finishing school, and working in Prague & Hamburg, Hans joined the family business, a successful grain and seed trading company. He was a natural salesman and contributed greatly to the prosperity of the business, significantly increasing the company’s sales turnover. Later he was appointed to the Prague and Olomouc Commodities exchange as an expert in the field of pulses and seeds.
Else Schulhof was born in Olomouc in 1906 to Karl and Ida. Ida’s family ran a business that produced fine leather goods, and Karl and his brother Rudolf owned a factory for ropes and belts.
Olomouc at this time was a University City and centre of culture and the arts and many famous architects, composers and architects lived and worked in Olomouc. The population was ethnically mixed and harmonious. The city was prosperous with its economy principally based on grain and its by-products.
It was in Olomouc that Hans and Else met and married on 9 June 1929. Their son Peter was born in 1931, and daughter Hana in 1936. At the time, the rise of the Nazis and the Nuremberg Laws did not yet affect life in Olomouc and Hans felt confident and affluent enough to have a brand new house built for him and parents. A prominent local architect designed a sleek Bauhaus-style property near the centre of the town, completed in 1935. However, the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in March 1938, followed by Kristallnacht in November, brought the impending horror closer.
The Approach of War
In 1939 Hans started to plan to move the family first to England and later to Australia, however this became difficult following the invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Jews were targeted but only gradually and life seemed to continue with some form of normality although only later did it emerge that Hans and his father had been detained for a week in prison and interrogated about their political views.
A few weeks later the Nazis requisitioned the Briess house for the Gestapo Commandant. Hans demanded and was granted exit visas for the family in return. By then Hans was working on a plan to get him and his family out of the country, although fearful at the thought of all he would lose. He successfully managed to obtain the financial guarantees required by the British government as a first step.
Hans and Else stocked up on clothes for the children and were allowed to fill a small container with a few belongings to be shipped via Hamburg and destined for Australia which was their ultimate destination. Else had learnt dressmaking in order to be equipped with a bankable skill when they got to the UK. The Nazis arranged for Hans’s business to be taken over by an Aryan employee and he and his father lost all control. Shortly after Hans and Else’s 10th wedding anniversary, it was time for farewells. Their parents felt they were too old to join them in a new life in a strange country.
Life in England
The family arrived in London on 2 July 1939. As soon as war broke out, Hans sent Else and the children away to Devon while he learnt English and made arrangements for a permanent home in England. Hans had very limited means but smuggled with him some gold ducats in a toothpaste tube and had some funds from Dutch customers who paid their debts to him in London so he had a modest financial start. The family settled in Harpenden in a small rented semi.
Meanwhile Else opened a dress salon which became the main source of income for the family until Hans was able to earn a living. He was not initially allowed to seek employment but in 1943 was able to set up a small company called Economic Utilities Ltd sending a circular out to thousands of companies offering to buy their surplus stocks of any kind of raw materials. It was the start of a rapidly developing business and he later set up offices in central London.
Hans and Else worked hard to make a good life for themselves. Soon after they settled in Harpenden they took in the daughters of Hans’s sister who had managed to escape via one of Nicholas Winton’s Kindertransports in March 1939. The family grew to six and the children all got on famously. There was regular exchange of correspondence with the parents back home until about 1942 when all stopped. In due course Red Cross messages arrived and news filtered out of the fate of those left behind. Towards the end of the war cinema news reels revealed the horror of the camps. They lost all their grandparents, aunts and uncles. Later Hans and Else learnt of the total destruction of a large part of their wider family, their homes and possessions, their business and their culture. Hans spoke very little to his children much about his visit to Olomouc in 1946 which must have been heartbreaking. Fortunately he was able to recover many family photos, documents and letters.
Fortunately some more distant relatives did make it out and many built new lives in Israel, America, Australia and New Zealand. Hans’s naturalization and that of all the family came through in 1948 and he went on to have a successful business career in the City, and a comfortable and happy home life with Else and the children.
Hans sadly died suddenly of a heart attack in 1973 after a brief retirement. Else always felt that the Nazi interrogation and trauma he suffered had permanently affected his health. She kept her family close and died peacefully in 1990.
A Final Word
From Peter Briess, Hans and Else’s son:
“May I conclude by saying that my parents set the example – that as a family we were in a new world and making a new life. My sister and I were educated in Britain so it was easier for us than for my parents, and for my sister especially since she remembers nothing of the old country (having been only three when we came here). I at least had two years of school in Olomouc and am the only person that is able to look back objectively, Despite the limited recollections that I have, for my parents it was a bitter and painful memory and they often reminisced about the world they had come from, but despite that they settled happily in our new home and were ever appreciative of the hospitality and opportunity offered to them by Britain, this wonderful land of tolerance, eccentrics, dry humour and understatement. I also became a patriot, a monarchist and appreciative of the beauty and fascinating history of this great land.”
Peter’s book The House That Saved Us can be found at the Wiener Library.