From the Centropa Biographies

Hannah Fischer
Born 1925 in Vienna

Country: Austria
City: Vienna
Date of Interview: July 2004
Name of Interviewer: Tanja Eckstein

The time from March 1938 until the end of the 1938 school year is unforgettable. Those were my last months in Vienna before emigrating. A lot of students were coming to the school who had been expelled from other schools for being Jewish. At that time I think there were over 50 children in the class. The children who arrived made a deep impression on me. They were all very depressed, because some of them didn’t even know that they were Jewish. They were often from baptized families, raised Christian, and suddenly they were Jewish. I won’t ever be able to forget that. The whole class looked after these children; we took them in completely. But there was already an atmosphere of dissolution; several knew they were going to emigrate. I was just a “school for the time being” for many of the students. Like all Jewish children, my brother was also expelled from his school and then had to go to a “collection school” [Sammelschule] for Jews in the 14th district.

My father had bought and worked a piece of property near the Aspanger Airport – this airport has been around since 1912. He bought it there because it was cheap. So every weekend we went from one side of Vienna to the other, to Essling – that was a long trip. We had to transfer at Schwedenplatz; the wonderful ice-cream parlor that’s still there was also around back then. Each time we received an ice cream for around 10 groschen [a  1⁄100 part of a schilling, the currency used in Austria till 2002]. At the end of March 1938 my father was arrested. The neighbor of the property in Essling was a Nazi – we knew that. And this neighbor wanted our property.

My father was thus summoned and asked to sign off that he was giving his property to the neighbor. My father refused to give his signature with the argument that he had purchased the property and was on the deed, and didn’t see any reason to hand it over to the neighbor. He thought that as a former front-line solider he would naturally be respected by the Nazis. The Nazis respect nothing. The arrested and interned him in the 20th district, in a school on Karajan-Gasse. That’s where Jews were collected and deported to Dachau.

Starting in 1936 my mother began placing Jewish girls in England as maids as part of an organization set up in cooperation with the Jewish Community. In 1938, a few days after the German invasion, our house was searched again. This search differed from the one in 1936 because it was much more brutal. They didn’t hold back slicing open our feather beads and destroying many objects. All the books were pulled out and partly torn. My brother and I were there. That was an important political education for us. My mother put a packet of paper in my hand and sent me to the toilet. Those papers would have been dangerous for her. I tore up everything and threw it in the toilet; it was gone. So they didn’t find anything that could have been really dangerous for my mother, but they did find the suitcase with all the documents for the England Action. They confiscated the suitcase because they thought they could make a case for spying or something out of it. Those were Nazi younglings who couldn’t speak English and weren’t very educated anyway.

Approximately 14 days after the search my mother was summoned to the district office on Hietzinger-Brücke. She took me along because she thought the Nazis would behave a bit more moderately towards her in the presence of a child. She was afraid, since my father was already imprisoned at this time. We went to the Superior Nazi and he shouted brutally at my mother: “The more of them you place, the better.” He behaved the way you would expect from a real Nazi. At the end he said, “And it would be best if you just take one of these permits for yourself.” My mother took this remark seriously. She immediately applied for a permit, took one of the maid positions for herself, and applied for our exit permits.

Today I am convinced that this Nazi wasn’t so malicious and wanted to give us a tip with his last remark. But since there were about two or three other SA officers present in the room, he could only do it in this brutal way. Afterwards my mother asked me to write down what I had experienced there, and somewhere I still have it.

My brother and I never saw our father again. When he was released from the concentration camp we were no longer in Austria.

Our mother brought us to the Westbahnhof train station. I can remember, I still have this feeling very strongly within in, I knew very well back then: I am coming back! We knew our mother was coming two, three weeks after us, but we didn’t know that she sent us earlier because she was afraid the war would break out and we’d be doomed. Many children went on the Kindertransports to England without their parents and never saw them again.

My mother came two or three weeks after us, after depositing a permit for my father at the English Embassy.

Maybe my father was released from Dachau because of the permit, but when he was back in Vienna – that was in July of August 1939 – the British Embassy didn’t officially exist any more. Officially they were on holiday – since that was time for holidays – but they never returned, since war was foreseeable. For some time my father stayed in Budapest illegally, but was then deported and returned to Vienna.

In September 1940 he was able to board one of four ships attempting to reach Palestine illegally. In the Romanian Danube port of Tulcea the passengers were relocated to three ocean steamships. Instead of the envisaged 150 passengers, there were – on the “Atlantic” for example – 18,000 fleeing passengers. The journey was very dramatic. The crew went on strike, demanded more wages, but nevertheless, after more than three months, my father reached port at Haifa. But after a short stay in the Alith internment camp near Hafia, the British transported the refugees – who had narrowly escaped death – to Mauritius by ship.

Mauritius was horrible. The people had lost everything and knew nothing about their relatives. Many died of tropical diseases. On Mauritius my father made a piece of land arable, dug a garden, and cultivated plants he found there. He at least knew we were in England and therefore in relative safety.

In London we were picked up by the “Jewish Committee For Refugee Children” and brought to Deal. Deal is a small city on the coast near Dover. There was a children’s home run by a Mr. Howard. Mr. Howard was the headmaster of a single-grade rural school. He had a large house with a big garden. He lived in the house, which was called “The Glack,” with his wife, his two children, and he took in refugee children whose parents were paying, as well as ones like us, who were sent by the committee. He made a big difference between those children whose parents were paying and those who were from the committee. Those of us from the committee had to help around the house and in the garden; the others were relieved of this duty.

My brother never had any English lessons in school in Vienna. I had had three years of English and could communicate. My brother, who in England took on his second name, Erwin, because instead of Rafael he was always called Ralf, which annoyed him, didn’t speak for two months. He spoke German, but didn’t say a single English word. After two months he spoke perfect English.

Exactly at this point we started going to the “Central School,” the main school in town. My brother went to the boys’ school and I went to the girls’ school.

Our mother was in London, but she worked in a household and couldn’t visit us. We of course complained to her in our letters, but it didn’t do anything, she couldn’t have us with her; it would have been impossible.

After a year, our stay in Deal came to a dramatic end. One day my brother had to help out in the garden again and something happened that didn’t satisfy Mr. Howard, so he took him to task. Mr. Howard was furious and slapped my brother. We weren’t used to anything like that. Mr. Howard was a small man and my brother, rather large and strong, hit him back. In the end this was very fortunate, since it was the reason we were sent very quickly to London. However, it was also the end of our life together, since Rafael went to a home for boys and I to a home for girls. Of course my mother spent her free afternoons with us. She would pick us up from the homes, we’d get something to eat or go for a walk in the park, and then she’d bring us back.

At the beginning of 1941 I had finished my exams and left school with the Cambridge School Certificate. If you attained a certain grade point average you would additionally receive the London School Certificate and could study in Cambridge as well as in London. In 1946 the Ministry of Education in Vienna recognized my credentials.

My brother was in the boys’ home and went to school for another year. Afterwards he began an apprenticeship as a precision mechanic in a large factory in London. The part of the factory he worked in was evacuated after Cheltenham and he stayed there for a fairly long time. He went to evening classes and became an engineer.

In the 1950s my brother and his family immigrated to Canada – close to Toronto. They had two more children, Tamara and Jonathan.

The Jewish Committee told me I would have the chance for position in the home of a “madam,” and that there I would learn everything you need to keep a good house. That was miles away from my vision for the future. I came away very depressed. Out on the street I ran into a friend of my mother. She said to me, “Listen, I heard that Anna Freud opened a children’s home in Hampstead and is looking for young caretakers. Why don’t you go there?” I had no idea who Anna Freud was, but children, that sounded good. So I looked in the telephone book and then went to 20 Maresfield Gardens – that was Anna Freud’s address – and knocked on the door. A woman, obviously the housekeeper, opened and said in her best English, “Vat do you want?” – upon hearing which I immediately knew she wasn’t from England. That was Paula Fichtl from Salzburg, who had been the Freud family’s housekeeper in Vienna. Although she wasn’t Jewish, she immigrated with the Freud’s. I said that I would like to speak with Miss Freud and was invited to come back the next day. The next day I was led into Anna Freud’s library, which was also Sigmund Freud’s library – her father. I would be admitted as a trainee for the work with the children in the home and to learn. I could also live in a house there and would get a bit of pocket money.

The home was financed by the “Foster Parents Plan for War Children,” an American foundation, and every month Anna Freud had to send a report on the work with the children, who ranged in age from infants to five-year-olds. Back then children in England were sent to school at the age of five.

For over two years I worked and learned in the home. After slightly more than two years I looked for another job, since being the youngest all the time bothered me.

First I went to a woman who had formed something of an extended family, but the methods she used weren’t what I had in mind. Everything sounded good in theory, but it looked different in practice. Then I had the fortune of being able to work as a preschool teacher in the Austrian preschool at the Austrian Centre.

My father looked for us after the war and my mother looked for him. I think my mother found him when he was still on Mauritius, since I got mail from him from Mauritius.

A few months after my return to Austrian in September 1946, my mother relocated to Palestine, to my father. He lived in Petah Tikva and already had a nursery and small shop. He had brought plants with him from Mauritius and was certainly very happy to be able to dedicate himself to this work. I don’t know exactly if that was his life’s dream; we never talked about it. I also don’t know if my father – after all his experiences – was still the man my mother knew. They lived together in Israel until 1952. He had his small flower shop and nursery and she worked as a translator.

After eight years I arrived to the Westbahnhof station in Vienna. It wasn’t recognizable. It was totally destroyed; only some huts had been erected for customs. It looked very dismal.

One day I met an acquaintance on the street who told me that she was going to a school for nursery school teachers. I wanted to do that too and went to the Vienna Youth Welfare Office. The director of the office, Anton Tesarek, was already very interested in psychoanalysis before the war. When he heard that I had studied with Anna Freud for two years he said I should give it a try. Within two months I prepared for the exam as a guest student – officially I was an external student - and then passed the exam. In 1947 I was hired as a preschool teacher by the city of Vienna. On the side I studied pedagogy, psychology, philosophy, and English and then in 1952 did my PhD.

Austria became my home again after my return. I would have had the opportunity to go elsewhere. Today I am really happy that I am in Austria. I wouldn’t like to live in America and England was never really home. I sensed anti-Semitism the entire time, but I also tried to do something about it.

Two or three years ago I received the Glöckel Medal from the city of Vienna for my pedagogical work. This award means a lot to me; I am really happy about that. But I wouldn’t talk about that without being asked, since awards, medals, and recognitions of any kind aren’t important to me. The only thing that was important to me was the work for and with the children.