in the garden

 

Nov 2005 Journal

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Haunting memories laid to rest

Last June I returned to Austria at the invitation of the Jewish Welfare Service (JWS). I went as one of about ten Austrian refugees. Each of us was expected to talk to Vienna school students about our individual Holocaust experience. The JWS paid our flight and hotel expenses and kindly looked after our general well-being, whereas young volunteers from an Austrian NGO that focuses on Holocaust survivors arranged and guided our school visits.

Where possible, each of us returned to the school we attended in our early youth. Thus it was arranged for me to go to the Glasergasse Realgymnasium, from which as long ago as March 1938 I was thrown out for no other reason than that I was Jewish. This return visit was for me a quite traumatic experience. Though the school exterior looked a lot different, the interior had hardly changed. As I walked up the stairs to meet my host, my heart began to beat faster as I relived what had happened to me there all those years ago when I was only 15 years old and determined to continue studying to become a surgeon. This experience has remained ingrained in my mind ever since. We Jewish students were ordered to leave the school and never return. To give vent to the deep hurt I felt, I then ran down the stairs and out of the school vowing that I would never again set foot on it. Moreover, I would try my best, if at all possible, to make something of my life.

Well, there I was, a retired British university professor, about to tell a group of almost 100 of the school's pupils about my Holocaust experience. I realised, of course, that compared with many other Viennese Jews, I had been lucky for I managed to get to England with my mother before the last war without ever having had to be in a concentration camp. Yet, coping with my own odyssey via Yugoslavia, Albania and Germany had also been pretty trying, and on arrival in England starting work as a machinist in one of London's sweatshops and burying my ambition of becoming a doctor was not easy either. However, I must admit the students impressed me with their thoughtful comments and questions. As I walked out of the school I thought to myself 'I have learned to forgive, but I will never be ably to forget!' The remaining three talks I had to give at different schools I found much easier to deliver.

Our small group of speakers was awarded real VIP treatment in Vienna. We had afternoon tea in the Vienna town hall at the invitation of the mayor. We were also received by Austria's president in his Hofburg offices, giving us a chance to see some of the many treasures that used to be part of the residence of the Austrian monarchs. With his speech the president made us feel welcome. Then he asked each of us how we had managed to get out of Austria and listened with interest to our tales.

Attending Friday night service in the inner-city synagogue was another moving experience - first of all to view the list of names of the great many Viennese Jews who had perished and then to see the small congregation largely composed of elderly people who turned up for the service. Afterwards, we had Kiddush followed by a lovely meal in the one and only kosher restaurant in Vienna. For me this week in Vienna was a truly memorable experience and I am extremely grateful to all those kind people who made it possible.

See profile on Dr Epstein in September issue of the Journal.
Scarlett T Epstein

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next article:A loyal and patriotic German Jew (book review)