The book is the account of my father and his family's survival of and escape from the Holocaust. From their beautiful home in Vienna, Austria to the many countries to which they fled and in which they were separated from each other, it is a story of immense courage, sheer determination and deep love. I truly believe that stories such as theirs should be shared, and should never be forgotten.
My father, Herman, was born on the 14th of April 1924 to parents who were both in their early thirties at the time of his birth. It still amazes me to reflect on the fact that, as a 39 year old woman in 2013, both my paternal grandparents were born in the 1890s.
My father’s parents, Sarah and Morris were born in Warsaw, Poland, but decided to make a life for themselves in Vienna, Austria, where they had their three children. My father was the middle child; his brother, Felix, was two years older (sadly now deceased) and his sister, Lilly, is two years younger. Morris was a successful jeweller, in partnership with his brother who had also moved to Vienna, and they spent their formative years living in a beautifully furnished, luxurious five-bedroom flat in the affluent 1st District of Vienna. Sarah would often spend her afternoons socialising with friends in cafes, the tasks of running the home and raising the children facilitated by the support of a live-in maid. The family would take regular holidays, delighting in the beautiful lakes and mountains in Austria and Hungary.
The children grew up in a modern orthodox Jewish household, keeping a kosher home and often enjoying traditional Friday night dinners with their aunt, uncle and cousins who lived nearby. My father fondly remembers the “convivial atmosphere” that prevailed, and the chicken soup, boiled beef, honey cake and pancakes that were his favourites. Gefilte fish (a poached mixture of ground fish) was a staple; the unfortunate carp would swim in the bath on Thursday before “getting the chop” on Friday! The family attended the Stadttempel Synagogue (also called the Seitenstettengasse Temple) every Saturday morning and on high holy days, and it was where my father and uncle had their Bar Mitzvahs; it was later to be the only one of ninety-four synagogues and prayer houses in Vienna not destroyed by the Nazis, and still stands today. Built in 1826, being a Jewish place of worship it was not permitted to be seen from public streets, so it was hidden from view by a row of houses, to which it was attached. This, ironically, saved it from destruction during the Kristallnacht in 1938 – to destroy it would have meant also setting the houses on fire.
My father remembers his early childhood with mixed emotions. He was surrounded by loving family, including his paternal grandfather who, having lost his wife, left Poland to live with them approximately ten years before the annexation of Austria. He was a great deal more orthodox than his son, refusing to attend the same synagogue, and spending his days frequenting a ‘shtiebel’, typically part of someone’s home allocated to prayers and religious discussions. He did not even learn German, but spoke Yiddish with family and friends. It is likely that his son’s decision not to live such a strictly orthodox way of life was of some considerable disappointment to him, but such a lifestyle would have been difficult for Morris – he frequently travelled for his jewellery business, mostly to Leipzig and Berlin in Germany, as well as owning two jewellery shops in Vienna. My father recollects spending the odd Saturday afternoon in one of the shops – hidden away at the back so as not to unnerve any potential customers!
There are fond memories of playing card games and chess with his siblings, and of being the naughtiest of the three. He had a penchant for throwing items out of windows, particularly when there were visitors in their home; never did this get him into more trouble than when he discovered his uncle’s false teeth and cast them into the back yard. Even reflecting on the ensuing smack and confinement to his room does not dampen his enjoyment when reminiscing about this. It was his father who was the main disciplinarian; he knew that his softer mother would not resort to the punitive measures that he no doubt deserved, but she did relate any misdemeanours to Morris upon his return home from work, so rarely did my father get away unpunished.