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Mar 2010 Journal

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The day of departure. We are leaving the country. My father is back from prison. He has served his sentence for criticising the race laws - in an ordinary prison within the city walls; it is still there. He has not been tortured. He has allowed himself to be humiliated but he has refused to obey an order to slap the face of another Jew. He survives to tell the tale. He has been saved by an officer, who knew him as a lawyer, and orders him to remain in prison on the day of his promised release. It is the day of Kristallnacht in Vienna. When my father finally comes home, the majority of his friends and colleagues have disappeared.

My quiet, retiring mother has faced embassies and consulates to find us a refuge, and she has faced the Gestapo to have my father freed. When he is, we are given an ultimatum to leave the country within 12 weeks. This is extended because we already have an affidavit and a quota number for America as well as a guarantee from England. We only lack an English visa. We need it in order to be able to stay in England, with our guarantor, until it is our turn, under the quota system, to go to America. I am versed in these intricacies. I am also learning English, while my parents take elementary courses in how to be a butler and an English cook. This will be the only work available to them. The courses are organised by the remnants of the Jewish Council in Vienna.

There is not a great deal of packing when the visa is issued by the British embassy. No household goods - we have none left. No jewelry - that has been confiscated. I couldn’t understand why ‘they’ would want my tiny Star of David on the fine gold chain, but it has been explained to me: It will be melted down with other Jewish artifacts. Our books have been given away. I can take Susie, my favourite doll, and the watch I have just been given for my tenth birthday. Everyone is allowed to take one watch. But I have to leave my skates – the skates I‘ve been unable to use since Jews were forbidden to go on the ice rink. In the end, we have only two medium-sized suitcases. We don’t want to overburden ourselves with too many clothes. Our bedding will follow in a wooden box.

We have two English pounds, seventeen shillings and six pence, all the money we are allowed to take. We have new passports with new photographs, which show our left ears. We are told that is how criminals have to be photographed. We have new names: my mother and I are both Sarah and my father is Israel. The only two names Jews may use, they are written into our passports as insults and stamped onto our birth certificates. I feel vindicated when my first grandchild is called Sara.

The good Dr Richter comes to say goodbye. She has stood by us but is afraid to be seen with us. She is afraid when I need to go to hospital to have my finger stitched, four weeks before we leave. She takes me where Jews are not admitted. She says my name is Elfi Binks and I am her patient. I am given a mild anaesthetic and, when the stitching is done and I am still drowsy, the surgeon asks me my name. I don’t betray Dr Richter: ‘My name is Elfi Binks.’ Dr Richter will not see us off. She has to support her parents; she cannot do more.

The most painful goodbyes are those we cannot say. My grandmothers, aunts, uncles, cousins are in Czechoslovakia. Negotiations to get them out are under way. This has also been explained to me. I leave my relatives behind with my toys.

Our leaving is not unmarked. Fräulein, my first love, my father's secretary, comes to the station to see us go. We are formal with each other; we don’t know what to say. We wave to her as the train draws away. She has a list of my father’s debtors. After the war she collects the money and keeps it. In due course, my father forgives much, but he never forgives that.

Our journey will take two days and a night. We are going the longer way - through Aachen and Brussels and Ostend - because the shorter route through Holland costs more than we have left. Our carriage is full of refugees. The seats are made of slatted wood. No one has room to stretch out, but I am the only child and I am encouraged to make myself comfortable. My father is too restless to sit; he walks up and down the corridors.

Until we cross the border at Aachen we are not safe. We have yet to be searched. We have yet to go through passport control. We have yet to go through emigration. There are stories of people stopped at the borders.

Some of the women in the carriage begin to exchange information. The men do not speak. One woman boasts about the jewelry she has managed to hide. It is sewn into her clothes; it will not be found. My mother becomes possessed. She accuses the woman of putting the whole train-load of Jews in peril. She insists that the jewels are removed from the clothes and thrown out of the window. The other women in the carriage become agitated. The men remain silent. My father is in the corridor. I watch as the woman with the jewels tears at her coat, finds scissors and cuts and tears until gold and precious stones fall on the floor. Someone opens the window and the woman throws out her jewels just as we cross over a river on a railway bridge. I imagine that the gold and precious stones sink in the water and that the river is the Rhine.

Perhaps my mother has really saved us; the search at the border is thorough. We are stripped and our clothes are minutely examined. I am asked whether my parents have hidden anything inside me. I am baffled and believed when I say ‘No.’

After the searches and the controls we are in the train again and we are waiting. We do not know why. We do not know what has happened in the rest of the train. Everyone is back in our carriage but we wait for an hour. My father gets on and off the train looking for news, and my mother, who was heroic about the jewelry, is hysterical about my father. The train moves off without any warning but my father is on it. As the front of the train passes the border, a man leans out and shouts: ‘Hitler verrecke!’ Our carriage is towards the back of the train and we are still in Germany. A last stab of fear and then we are also across the border and we also shout. I think we go to sleep. I am too sleepy at Ostend and Dover to register my first sight of the sea.

It is July. So far, freedom is cold and wet. The seats in the train from Dover are not wooden. I think I know some English but I don’t know what these people are saying to me or to each other. We arrive at Victoria Station. We do not need a porter for our meager luggage and we cannot afford one. When a porter approaches, my father waves him away. But the man stays close to us. He takes a shiny coin out of his pocket. It is a new, yellow threepenny bit with six edges. He holds it out to me and I hear him clearly when he says: ‘For luck in England, Miss, for luck in England.’ The coin has lost its shine and it has been obsolete for a long time. I kept it in a child’s red-and-white leather pouch with an edelweiss pattern round the edge and a draw-string to close it until my grandson went to Africa for his gap year. Then I gave it him ‘for luck in Africa.’

Hedi Argent (Schnabl)

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