in the garden

 

Dec 2010 Journal

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Does anyone remember Elly Rothwein?

For all of us, the overwhelming feeling about having been refugees is profound gratitude that we found safety here in Britain. Having said that, in the early days more often than not this emotion was tinged with regret at being cut off from our language and culture, accompanied by an acute awareness of our reduced material circumstances. This did not imply any lack of appreciation since our exile was caused not by our British hosts but by Hitler’s henchmen.

For myself, being young, this didn’t bother me very much. I adapted fairly easily and nostalgia kicked in only occasionally. When it did, for some reason I would focus on what in our family had been known as ‘going to Elly Rothwein’s’, which in hindsight seemed to me to have epitomised that lost world.

Elly Rothwein was an enterprising lady who organised entertainment for children in Vienna and summer holidays in the Austrian countryside. This group picture was taken (I have been told) for a brochure to advertise these holidays. The reason it features in my family album is that I was that overweight little cherub in the centre of the first row. The picture’s precise provenance is authenticated by the caption in my mother’s handwriting: ‘Wienerbrück August 1935’. At the age of four years and four months, I was clearly the youngest child present. I don’t know for a fact that Elly’s events were meant only for Jewish children but the photograph does appear to support that impression. Possibly they were open to all but only the fairly well-heeled Jewish parents sent their children along.

I now have only the haziest recollection of what actually went on there though I still retain the impression of having been treated as rather special. I think we were there for a large part of the summer because we all had labels sewn into our clothes. We were identified not by names but by numbers allocated by the Rothwein organisation. The strange thing is that 75 years later I still know that my number was 28 and my older brother’s was 27. How weird is that? I was also there the following summer in 1936.

Now, thanks to the internet, I have found out quite a lot more about Elly. Although I can’t actually remember what she looked like, since I see that she was born in 1899 I think it is extremely likely that she is the self-assured woman standing at the left of the picture. I now also know that having originally trained as a teacher, she later qualified as a child psychologist. She belonged to the school of neither Freud nor Jung but was a disciple of Alfred Adler, that third Central European guru of the mind. In time, she became a prominent member of the Adlerian movement.

In the 1920s-30s Elly was writing learned articles about her subject. I am unclear as to whether her enterprise was a commercial sideline or conducted for research purposes. Quite possibly both reasons were equally valid. It amuses me to think that what I did there might have been studied. Perhaps I appear as ‘child x’ in some academic dissertation.


The internet sources do not give a reason for her emigration to Chicago but to us the cause is obvious. She would have found a welcome in the Adlerian community there and she was able to continue her career in her new country. She ran a private kindergarten in that city. Having changed her name to Eleanor Redwin, she trained newcomers in her profession and resumed her regular output of learned papers in 1945 (this time in English) and again ran summer camps. She died aged 84 in 1983.

Whenever I look at the photograph reproduced here, I wonder how many of those appearing on it were as fortunate as Elly (and I) in escaping the fate that overtook so many. Looking carefully at my image in the picture, I see that my small podgy right hand is being held by the motherly and only slightly bigger little girl who is standing immediately behind me. I regret to say that with an all too characteristic lack of gallantry I have no recollection of this childhood friendship. Even so, I like to think of her today as a grandmother in, perhaps, Wyoming, Valparaiso - or even Hendon.

Erwin Schneider

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