Leaving Home Alone

Vienna. It's one thing to read about history but quite another to hear it related by those who played an active part in its making. Such an opportunity was given to the congregation of Christ Church and visitors on the evening of Thursday, 7 November. The event at Christ Church—the commemoration of the evacuation of Jewish children in 1938 from Austria to safe countries—was part of a programme organized under the auspices of the Coordinating Committee for Christian-Jewish Cooperation in Austria to mark the 75th anniversary of the pogram in Austria, with particular focus on Kristallnacht (the Night of the Broken Glass).

After an introduction by the Chaplain, the first speaker was our own Fred Gruber who was one of several thousand children who were selected to travel to the United Kingdom by train to escape the pogrom. The moving account of his evacuation at the tender age of 15, when he waved goodbye to his parents at the Westbahnhof, never to see them again, brought tears to many eyes. Fred needed the barest support to climb the steps to the altar where he delivered his factual yet emotional statement. The standing ovation he received from his audience was both a mark of respect for this hardy nonagenarian and appreciation for his eyewitness account of history unfolding.

Fred's presentation was followed by an equally fascinating talk by the author Gerda Hofreiter, whose book Allein in die Fremde* was the result of painstaking research and interviews with Kindertransport survivors. A retired teacher and history scholar, Frau Mag. Hofreiter provided us with facts and statistics about the Kindertransport, and provided a new insight into the events in Austria in 1938.

Her numerous slides, projected onto the wall of Christ Church to the left of the altar, brought to life her account of those individuals as well as others who were not able to take part in the Kindertransport and ultimately lost their lives in concentration camps. Inevitably, there had to be a selection process since countries could—although it may be hard for us to understand the reasons—only accommodate a limited number of refugee children. The fact that Great Britain was in a position to take far more than any other country is an revealing comment on prevailing attitudes at the time.

Sitting in the darkened church and listening to Frau Hofreiter enabled us to feel very close to the youthful faces magnified on the wall. Readings from letters and other writings by the children themselves were given by young Harry Smith, son of Andrew, and added a note of poignancy to Frau Hofreiter's dramatic and moving presentation. Frau Hofreiter apologised for her lack of fluency in English, yet her occasional linguistic stumbles added a note of authenticity as we recalled that for most of the youngsters, leaving their homeland entailed not only separation—often permanent—from their families, but a journey into an unfamiliar country with an unfamiliar language.

At the end of the evening, members of the audience had an opportunity to purchase a copy of Frau Hofreiter's book, although since I was busy taking photos, I was not one of the lucky ones. Still, I have ordered it on Amazon.de and look forward to learning about the Kindertransport in even greater depth.
This was the second event organized by Christ Church as part of the 75 year commemoration of one of the darkest chapters in Austria's history. In May this year, many people attended the unveiling of a plaque at the back of the church that marks the baptism of some 1,800 Jews in Christ Church by the Revds. Hugh Grimes and Fred Collard. Their baptism papers allowed all but a handful to emigrate safely to other countries and avoid the fate that awaited others of their faith.

Judy Castelino

aus: Crossways, the monthly newsletter of Christ Church Vienna, December 2013

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