From Feeling Ashamed to Loving Vienna

Judith Lecher

Die Presse (02/01/2008)

Report from a contemporary witness. As a sixteen year-old, Hertha Lowy was forced to flee from the Nazis to London. Austrian school girl Katrin Muckenhammer tells of her fate.

London/Vienna. “That is my Schnitzerl, isn’t she lovely?” Hertha Lowy proudly shows the pictures of one of her grandchildren. “I call her Schnitzerl because that is her favorite dish,” explains the 86 year-old exhilarated woman and shows more photos of her daughter Evy and her son Peter. “I remember when I came to London at the age of sixteen. I was all alone. Now I have a large family, and we are all very close.”

Many things in the Londoner apartment in the Swiss Cottage district reminds one of Austria. The pantry is full of Knorr and Maggi soup packages, or the ‘Paprika edelsüß’ from Kotanyi. “And my daughter-in-law is a genuine Viennese,” she tells laughing, while Katrin Muckenhammer accompanies her from one room to the next.

The fifteen year-old is one of twelve school children who have come to London as ambassadors of remembrance through the project, ‘Letter to the Stars,’ in order to document the life story of Austrian Holocaust survivors.

Hertha Lowy rummaged through her old school grades. Almost every entry is marked with ‘very good’ in a script, long faded. She shows the tournament cup which she won playing bridge. She still continues to play on a regular basis, she says. Then her voice becomes hushed. “That is the last photo I have of my Father.” It is a still pose taken of him in black and white, a documentation of a concentration camp in which her father was exterminated. Also her Mother and her sister lost their lives during the NS era.

Hertha Lowy was the only one who was fortunate to escape. Alone, she had to fight her way through to London. She describes how the whole time she thought Hitler’s invasion was only a bad joke. The Anschluss to Hitler Germany, and afterwards the following restrictions enforced upon the Jewish population in every day life, not as important as her old romance. “My Peter”, she utters the name of her former boyfriend in a tone as if still enraptured.

“At the time I was not aware of how dangerous the situation was,” tells Hertha Lowy. So very little that she, herself, was captivated and joined the crowd in cheering Hitler as he marched into the city. “I stood among the crowd and cheered with the rest.” She shakes her head as if hardly believing it herself. “At the time our family didn’t see Hitler as a threat. My father said nothing can happen to us because we are Viennese; he had fought also in WW I and used to proudly show his medal of bravery.

A Stranger’s Visa
And so, it was also less the fear for her life as youthful audacity which caused her to get a visa for Great Britain. Finally, she wanted to emigrate together with her friend, Peter. Lowy then looked in the telephone book for the address of a man who shared the same family name. She wrote him a letter, addressing him with Dear Uncle, and proceeded to point out the political situation and begged him to get a visa for her. “At the time I was really very brash,” she said.

And indeed, Mr. Lowy from Great Britain sent a permit to the unknown girl. Her parents knew nothing about it.

For the Jewish population the situation in Vienna was becoming more and more unbearable.” I can still see my father scrubbing the cobblestone streets with a toothbrush, she recalled. Her parents planned to escape to Czechlosovakia. But when they arrived at the border, Hertha ran away, back to Vienna to Peter.

Insolence as a Life Saver
In search of her father, a member of NS women brought her to her family in Prague. Apart from her diaries, which she had kept since she was thirteen, she packed nothing in her suitcase. “No shoes, no socks. That’s how I was at the time.”

In Prague Hertha Lowy was “deathly unhappy without my Peter.” When the Nazi Party annexed the Sudentenland in 1938, she decided to get also a travel clearance from the Gestapo to leave.

While the line of “Aryans” waiting before the office was becoming shorter day by day, that of the Jews was becoming longer. “And then I thought to myself: I will simply stand in the non-Jew line,” tells Hertha Lowy. Her audacity and her courage proved to work also in this case; despite the big red “J,” distinguishing the Jews’ passports from those of the others, she was able to get a clearance.

Although her worried mother tried to stop her from doing so, Hertha Lowy got on the train where she was to meet her friend. “My Mother fainted as the train left the station. It was the last time I saw my family.” Her mother, father and sister were deported to the concentration camp. Hertha Lowy had little idea what that meant at the time. “In those days none of us knew about the gas chambers.  We only heard about it after the war had ended.”

As for her first love, Peter, Hertha Lowy never saw him again. A meeting planned  many years later, however, never came to fruition. Peter was a short time before killed in an auto accident.

“This woman is unbelievable,” Katrin Muckenhammer repeatedly blurted out, after she said goodbye to Hertha Lowy. “She evokes so much joy of life. I was really nervous before meeting her.”

Some time later the office of ‘Letter to the Stars’ in Vienna received a letter from Hertha Lowy in which she thanks Katrin Muckenhammer for her visit. “I sense the  awakening of a new Austria, that I again could again be proud of being Viennese. English or not, I am still always a Viennese. In the past I often felt ashamed to have so much yearning for Vienna. Today I’m allowed to!”