When memories of her childhood in Vienna’s district Leopoldstadt leaves her melancholic, Sara Schreiber takes out a list which she always keeps with her in her purse. Written on it are the names and birthdays of all her great grandchildren – fifty of them in all. That is her way of standing up to the world.
At the end of June 1939 during the wee hours of the morning, one week after her 16th birthday, Sara Weinstock boarded a train at Vienna’s railway station Westbahnhof heading for Great Britain. Her mother cried; her father stayed at home. An orthodox rabbi, recognizable from afar as a Jew, didn’t dare allow himself to be seen during these times in Vienna without being in danger.
The Weinstocks were already trembling for their lives after the pogrom in November of 1938. The little temple in their house had been destroyed, and roles of the Thora and Betschemel had been thrown into the fire. The shop of knitted goods run by the Mother no longer belonged to them. The family lived from the sale of household belongings and from what the daughter earned from her sewing and needlework.
It was difficult for the sixteen year-old Sara to find a guest family. Her younger brother, who had already made it to London, went from house to house begging for help. People, themselves bitterly poor, took pity on him.
Sara Schreiber never saw her parents again. “They no longer made it,” says the eighty-six year-old in a very quiet voice. After her experiences in Vienna, she never wanted to go back. Since Friday a bronze sculpture in the hall of Vienna’s railway station Westbahnhof has been erected In remembrance of the Kindertransport (Children’s Rescue Operation) during the war. It depicts a small young boy sitting on a suitcase. The Londoner sculptress, Flor Kent, had the figure designed to resemble one of Schreiber’s great grandchildren, ten year-old Sam Morris.
Otto Tausig, retired but untiring actor with the Burg Theatre, who spends his entire income on social projects, recites a poem by Walter Lindenbaum, “Jews at the Staircase.” Some sixty-nine years ago, Otto Tausig (1922) stood one bitterly cold night in January of 1939, together with one hundred other children, with only a small suitcase in his hand and without any money. The Nazis were unrelenting: Written on the façades of Vienna’s houses was: “Jews must leave; their money stays here.” Otto Tausig barely made it because four weeks later, he would have been seventeen, too old for joining the Kindertransport.
Tausig was a talented child, somewhat overly zealous, and supporter of the cult of geniuses with an inborn yearning for the podium. He read Schiller, Goethe and Rilke. He handed in his homework for German class written in verses. His father was a Social Democrat and lawyer, who had it in him to become a brilliant defendant if he hadn’t returned home from WW I half deaf. As a businessman, however, he lacked talent. “For that he was too weak-hearted. Toward the end of his life he ran a sausage stand next to the labor department and gave away everything he owned. And mother ranted and raved whenever another Persian rug disappeared from the apartment,” recalls Tausig.
When Hitler came, the father was brought by the SA to a pub where they had him entertain the crowd by performing “stunts.” A block warden gathered up all the family silver. Even the son was picked up once by the SA, pushed onto a truck loaded with old iron and, together with other Jews, forced to load and unload the iron from one side to the other for hours at a time.
The sixteen year-old Otto Tausig actually felt liberated as he boarded the train in those days. “I was intoxicated with joy at the idea of leaving – an adventure,” says Tausig. His parents would naturally follow him, he thought. Tausig was unlucky. His British benefactor turned out to be a crook. Tausig soon became independent and found work on a chicken farm. But more than anything, he worked toward saving his parents. They could look for work as a butler couple for aristocrats. “My father was a bit clumsy but he learned how one cleans shoes without a brush and only with bare hands,” says Tausig. But nothing became of it. Tausig’s father died later in Shanghai from consumption. And when his Mother returned to Vienna in 1946, neither of them recognized the other when greeting at the railway station. When the actor speaks about it, his voice becomes raspy and halting.
Otto Tausig had turned Communist in Great Britain. He wanted to change the world and make it better. That’s something he continues to want to this day, even though no longer having the Communist party in mind. In Lower Austria’s Hirtenberg, he finances a home for refugee children, who were left stranded here without any parents. “I know how that is,” he claims. He has named the home after his Grandmother, Lisa Garter, who died in the gas chambers in Treblinka.
Siegfried Gruber, whom Otto Tausig got to know during his exile in London and later played together with on stage, hadn’t coped as well with the idea of leaving Austria in those days. For a sixteen year-old at that time, he felt deeply hurt in having to leave his country. On December 16, on the way to the railway station Westbahnhof, he took one last look at his area of the city Brigittenau. His father’s warning “not to forget your home,” buried itself into his heart.
Gruber had grown up in an assimilated family in Brigittenau. They had many friends who were not Jewish. When the National Socialists were already in power and Siegfried Gruber’s best friends from childhood days signed up with the Hitler Youth, they still thought that they could continue as always. The Grubers were Social Democrats with an ineradicable love for the Emperor. Why they named their son Siegfried with middle name Herbert is something even Siegfried Gruber still doesn’t understand. “They were not really enthusiastic Wagner fans,” says Gruber. His nickname was Fredi.
The father was a public official with the bank, gifted in foreign languages, and a decorated soldier from the war; the mother was a bookkeeper at Gerngroß. They paid strict attention to giving their son a first-class education. The mixed branch of family relatives was well off, owned a villa in Rodaun and drove American cars. The Grubers belonged to the upper middle class. In 1938 that all suddenly changed. His mother lost her work, and his father soon retired. They searched in British and American telephone books for people with names similar to theirs, whom they wished to ask for help. Nothing became of it.
One day Siegfried Gruber was asked to try his luck at drawing a lot held by the Vienna Jewish Community, the results of which he still had no guest family but a place in the Kindertransport. Gruber was placed in a children’s camp, then sent to Oxford and put in a college. Through complicated channels he discovered that his father had died in fall of 1939 from a gallbladder disorder, and his mother worked in the Rothschild Hospital as a nurse. At the age of eighteen, Gruber registered with the British Army. He escaped being sent to the front. Later he received news that his mother had been deported. “What that meant was something which I totally repressed. Otherwise, I probably could not have survived,” says Gruber.
In December of 1946, Gruber put on the British uniform, married and returned to Vienna. He discovered that his mother had died in a concentration camp close to Minsk. He was member of the British Commission on the Investigation of War Criminals. The property in Weidling that his parents had bought for him remained unclaimed. So Gruber built a house on the grounds, which served as a small gratification. He shuttled between London and Vienna. Since 1979 he lives with his wife in Austria. Gruber used to be somewhat sceptical of his native country and still is.