in the garden

 

Nov 2006 Journal

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The undesirable schoolboy becomes desirable

In June 2005 I was a member of a group sent to Vienna by the London Jewish Cultural Centre to speak at schools in that organisation's Holocaust education programme. One of the schools I went to was the Amerlinggymnasium, from which I, and 70 other Jewish boys, was expelled in April 1938.

I spoke to about 100 16-year-olds about my life under Nazi rule until I arrived in England with the Kindertransport, my life without parental guidance, the death of my father in 1940, and the deportation of my mother and her sister to Sobibor in 1942.

The audience, as well as a number of senior school staff, was taken aback by my revelations. I suggested the idea of erecting a plaque on the school's premises in memory of the expelled Jewish boys.

This January the school informed me that it had not only had adopted my idea, but had also initiated a project in which the pupils I had spoken to would make every effort to trace the 70 expelled Jewish boys. The school also invited me to unveil the plaque this summer. The event duly took place at the end of June 2006 and attracted considerable media attention.

The ceremony began with a presentation of Schönberg's A Survivor from Warsaw. After this the headmistress of the school, Mag. Sivia Naetar, described the project the class had undertaken as well as giving details of a visit to the school during the year by Norbert Kristianpoller, who was expelled in 1938 and now lives in Israel. The Education Director of Vienna's 6th district, Renate Kaufman, spoke passionately, saying how important it was that pupils of the school should be aware of the deeds committed in the name of Nazism in Austria.

The results of the project were presented by the class's head girl, Livia Kubelka. She asked her schoolmates to imagine a normal school day. How would they react to the sudden disappearance of friends labelled 'a scourge on civilisation'? Would they try to find out what had become of them? Would they fight for their rights? Livia confirmed that the origin of the project had been my visit to the school the previous year - a visit which had made an indelible impression on her fellow classmates as well as on the year leader and Head of History, Mag. Professor Eva Burghart. Her class had indeed, she continued, traced some of the expelled Jewish pupils, but many had proved untraceable. The class was planning to visit Mauthausen next autumn. I. for my part, presented the school with a DVD copy of the testimony I had given several years earlier to the Steven Spielberg Shoah Visual History Foundation.

It then came to the unveiling of the plaque, which is made out of polished stainless steel and has an uneven surface which is intended to symbolise bullets shot into the back. The inscription, from a poem by Rose Ausländer (1901-88), reads:

Nicht Bewährt
Wir haben uns noch
viel zu sagen
ehe wir uns verschweigen
das wir uns nicht bewährt haben
im Weltgespräch.

The ceremony concluded with 70 children placing the names of the expelled pupils one by one on slips of paper in a glass bowl close by the memorial.

I found the names of some very interesting people on the list. Since last year I have been trying to trace the whereabouts of 12 of my Jewish classmates whose names I was given. I remembered only one of them: Hans Hortner, who came to England with his brother Bobby on the Kindertransport. We had met up in London in 1947 but subsequently lost contact.

Another pupil in my class was Friedrich Schatz, who, according to the Yad Vashem database, had died in Vienna in April 1945 at the age of 18. Apparently he had continued to live in Vienna's second district and survived the war. On 12 April 1945, a few days before the Russians entered Vienna, he and his father had gone to fetch water from a hydrant. An SS officer had shot them dead.

More pleasant reading was the name of Theodore Bikel, who had been two classes above me. He had fled with his family to Palestine in 1938, and learnt agriculture there but hated every minute of it. Then he had gone to a theatre seminar, fallen in love with acting, and left the kibbutz to join the Habimah Theatre. After the war he had come to London and appeared on the stage in A Streetcar Named Desire. His first Hollywood film was The African Queen, in which he played a German officer. Theodore now lives in California and I have made contact with him.

Another name which stood out was that of Herbert Seinfeld, who was in the same class as Theodore Bikel. At the time of writing, I am attempting to find out whether or not he is the father of the Seinfeld of television fame.

I cannot possibly overstate the kindness and hospitality of the staff of the Amerlinggymnasium, in particular the Headmistress, Mag. Sivia Naetar, the Head of History, Mag. Professor Eva Burghart, and the English teacher, Mag. Angelika Fritsche, who has become a personal friend.
Harry Bibring

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