ALEX MAWS: From the Holocaust Educational Trust, I’m Alex Maws and this is the 70 Voices podcast. 70 Voices is a digital commemorative project from the Holocaust Educational Trust marking 70 years since the end of the Holocaust by documenting its history through 70 unique sources. Follow the project as it unfolds online at www.70voices.org.uk or download the 70 Voices app available for most smartphones and tablets. This week’s content has addressed the persecution of Jews in Germany and Austria – through the law, propaganda, and, increasingly, violence – by the Nazis before the Second World War. And we’re privileged this week to be joined by someone who experienced these events first hand, Harry Bibring. Harry was born in Vienna in 1925. Harry, thank you very much for joining the podcast this week.
HARRY BIBRING: A pleasure to be here.
AM: And could you start by telling us a little bit about your life before the Nazis?
HB: Well, before the Nazis, of course, I was a child because, when the Anschluss and the Nazis came, I had just turned 12 years old. And my life at that time was a very comfortable life. My father had one shop but it was a very successful shop, and as a result of that we had a very nice flat and we lived in a comfortable nice district, and I really had everything I wanted. But my main pleasure at the time, in the winter, was to ice skate, I was a very keen ice skater and, though I say it myself, I was pretty professional at it for my age and I spent a lot of time ice skating. But I’ve also good memories of going with my parents on Sundays, which was the only day my father’s shop was closed, around the Vienna woods, which are famously known, and we did a lot of hiking and going around the coffee houses there, and that was a pleasure in the spring and autumn which I also very much remember.
AM: So, you were 7, I think, when the Nazis came to power across the border in Germany. When did you first become aware of what was happening to Jewish people there?
HB: Not until I was involved. I have to admit that I was not a very studious boy and ice skating was far more important than school to me, and consequently it was a bit of a shock when I found that Austria had been annexed to Germany. We had heard some rumours – people you hear, adults talking – that antisemitism was far worse over there than it has been here. And by saying that I’m implying and meaning that there wasn’t – I wasn’t unused to antisemitism because, of course, Austria was already ruled by a right-wing fascist government from 1936 onwards. And whilst I didn’t understand at the time, I know now that a number of things were already in force where Jews couldn’t participate. For example, very soon after Dollfuss [the Austrian Chancellor], I don’t know when, I believe a law was passed that it was impossible for a Jew to hold a public paid appointment, so civil servants or teachers’ jobs were no longer able to be carried out. But I didn’t know any of that and only know it now because I’m an adult. I heard people talk about concentration camps: at first I thought that they were talking about holiday camps and then I found they were not holiday camps, that people don’t get very much to eat and that people work very hard. And that was it. It was a very scant knowledge that I had of what was going on in Germany.
AM: And one of the sources that 70 Voices, our app, had online this week and that our listeners may have had the chance to read before they heard this podcast, addressed the issue of violence against Jews in Vienna which accompanied the Anschluss – the union of Germany and Austria – in March 1938. So what was your experience of this time? Do you remember the violence?
HB: Well I remember the violence mostly after and during 10 November, the Kristallnacht. In fact, on the 10 November, I witnessed the first piece of what I regard as violence, or immoral behaviour, which was the scrubbing of the pavements of Jews, because I saw that whilst we were being taken under house arrest. And I really found this most abhorrent, particularly because the groups that I saw included very orthodox Jews in their full garb, their full dress, in long beards and so forth and these are people that I would generally stand clear of – they’re like saints, and I don’t want to be really involved with them - and here they were being degraded, kicked , the beards pulled, sideburns pulled, bleeding some of them, playing football with their hats and that was probably the biggest insult to them of all because they like to keep their hats covered. And that was my introduction to any violence that I witnessed.
AM: We’ve also seen on 70 Voices this week how the Nazis used the law to discriminate against Jews. How did your life change in the months following Anschluss?
HB: Well, the first thing that happened was within about 4 weeks of the Anschluss, which was my ice rink, which I called my ice rink, being closed to Jews and I couldn’t understand that all; I didn’t understand what being Jewish had to do with ice skating. And I had to have it explained to me by my parents that this new regime, this new government, will make laws and edicts which will affect us and this is one of them. And I really considered it the end of my life if I can’t ice skate on my ice rink. The only consolation I had was that it was in early April and the ice skating season finishes when the spring gets warm, on no particular date, and round about April there weren’t many weeks left for ice skating. And my parents said, well maybe by the time the next season comes, this government will be gone again, and so forth. But, of course, that was silly.
AM: And this violence, of course, culminated in the horrors of Kristallnacht, the November pogrom of 1938. What happened to your family?
HB: Well, to put it in a nutshell, I didn’t know it when it happened, but on the actual day of 10 November, my father was arrested on his way to opening his business and spent about 10 to 12 days, I don’t remember the exact number of days, in a jail for convicts in a cell packed with 11 other Jews. And we didn’t know that until he was released, 10 or 11 days later in a terrible state. And my sister and my mother, we were collected from our flat that we lived in and put into a sort of a house arrest. We were taken to somebody else’s flat, which was very large, where there were lots of other women and children and they were kept. The object undoubtedly was that they had created these pockets of 25, 30 women and children in various parts of the city so that they knew where they were in groups when they wanted to do anything with them. But, as far as I know, nobody knows what actually happened after that, because the vast majority of these groups were sent home after about 10 days and nothing further happened to them, although I believe some went into concentration camps. And, similarly, my father was released from this jail and came home at about the same time.
AM: I remember from having heard you speak in a school before, and I’ve heard you tell some of your story before, that shortly after that you came to the UK. Can you talk about the circumstances, about how you came?
HB: Well, my father, while he was in jail, his shop, like all other, practically all other shops, was destroyed, although I know now that there was an attempt to ‘Aryanise’ my father’s shop in July which I didn’t know at the time. And I don’t know why – I found some documents in the Viennese national archives which showed the application of the ‘Aryanisation’ of my father’s shop – I don’t know why it didn’t go through. Because it didn’t go through, it was destroyed and looted and so my father had no income. And what’s more, he had very little income from the Anschluss onwards because he had to have a notice and card by law to show that this was a Jewish proprietor and the shop was in a district where there weren’t very many Jewish people living so his customers were mainly non-Jewish and his business went down. So we came to the point where my father wasn’t earning a living and we were living above our means for the last few months so the point came that we’d got to emigrate. And I was very pleased to hear this because I’d just about had enough of there and I was coming up to my thirteenth birthday. The initial idea that my parents told my sister and I that we would do is to go to Shanghai. That was a plan that didn’t go through because the person who actually was responsible for making it possible for Jews to go to Shanghai was the Shanghai consul in Vienna who was actually stopped by the Shanghai authorities to continue doing this. And so we were probably just a bit too late.
And then later on my parents told us that they had heard of this plan of what people now call the Kindertransport where we – my sister and I – would come to England, and immediately we were in England with groups of people, my parents would go the British consulate in Vienna and say, we have two children living in England and they’re being looked after by strangers, they won’t look after them forever, so we need a visa to come to England so that our children don’t become a burden on the British state. Of course, that was a dream and it wasn’t invented by my parents – lots of parents had the same idea but it didn’t work, of course.
AM: So you came to Britain on the Kindertransport and your parents were left in Austria. What happened to them?
HB: The next thing that happened to my parents after we were gone was their flat – our flat where I was born – was ‘Aryanised’ and they had to move to rooms. And then they had to move out of the district because the district they lived in was declared a Jew-free zone so they had to go to a totally different district and still live in rooms. And in November 1940 – all this information, incidentally, I only learnt after the war – in November 1940 my father was taken from his rooms to this time really go to a concentration camp and left my mother behind because they went for the men first. And my father had a weak heart for many years, I remember in the Thirties he was in sanatoria and so forth, and he had a heart attack in that van as soon as that happened and died in the van. So the body was brought back for my mother to bury and therefore he was the luckier of the two because he lies in a proper grave in a proper cemetery in the city of Vienna like a human being.
That left my mother alone. She moved in with her sister whose husband also died – I have not been able to establish the circumstances of his death. The two women eventually, in June 1942, were transported to a camp which is very little known; it’s called Izbica. Izbica was a holding pen which was used like a feeding pot for the extermination camps. When the extermination camps wanted more Jews, they drew them from Izbica. And my mother and her sister eventually – I say eventually; I have no idea how long they were in Izbica, I sincerely hope from my heart it wasn’t long because it must have been a terrible place – and then they were transported to Sobibór, one of the extermination camps, where they both died in 1942.
AM: Harry, on this podcast we’re really getting a very condensed version of your much longer and complex and incredibly fascinating story. I know it’s actually available online through the Shoah Foundation. Yours is one of the ones which is publicly available and I would encourage our listeners to go and have a look at that. We’ll put a link online to that so people can see that. To wrap up, this week’s theme, as I said, has been life before the war for Jews and I think for Holocaust educators we feel it’s so important that you can’t really understand the magnitude of the loss unless you know something about what was there beforehand. And I know when you speak, you spend a lot of time talking about life before the war. Why do you find that it’s important to tell students about ice skating and things like that?
HB: Well, in a nutshell, I feel that the century that I spent most of my life in, the twentieth century, was very amiss of having learnt any lessons from the Holocaust itself. And throughout the twentieth century there have been genocides after genocides – smaller numbers of people killed maybe, but I don’t think you can measure genocide by the numbers of people killed – and therefore I go to the twenty-first century students in their classes and tell them that you are the people of the twenty-first century and you’ve got to learn to stop to discriminate against other people simply because they are different. I don’t use the word ‘racism’ very much; I believe we are a human race and there’s only one race on this planet and they should live happily and peacefully with each other wherever they may be. And that dream can only come true if people actually take this very seriously and stop discriminating and differentiating between people because they are different by whatever description you would care to mention: skin colour, religion, ways of culture, whatever. We all want to be different; we should stay different and accept our differences in peace. And I won’t be here to see it but I’ll look down from above and see that it gets in order – maybe in the twenty-second century!
AM: Harry, your story, I think, is one of so many of the survivors and refugees who go to speak in schools, that it gives that personal dimension to Holocaust education. And I think seeing you in a classroom or hearing you on a podcast or online, it helps to highlight those exact lessons that you’re talking about. Once people make that personal connection, they see it’s not just these abstract statistics but human stories: a young boy who had a family with a shop, who lived in a particular community, who enjoyed certain pastimes – ice skating, that we talked about – that really helps young people, and people of all ages really, to make a personal connection. I think it’s so important.
I know all of us at the Holocaust Educational Trust are so grateful for you going into schools and I’m very grateful for you coming on this new medium today as well. This is your first podcast, I understand, so thank you for that.
HB: It is indeed, yes.
AM: And I should say to our listeners that as we were setting up for the podcast, Harry himself wanted to go on to the app store on his Android device to download the 70 Voices podcast, so if he can do it, you can as well. I would encourage all of you to go to 70voices.org.uk and to download our app for Android devices and iOS devices as well. And until next week, thank you for joining us. From the Holocaust Educational Trust, this is Alex Maws. I’ve been joined this week by Harry Bibring. Thanks Harry.
HB: Thank you very much.
Learn more about Harry’s story by watching his Shoah Foundation testimony: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LNTJDSwukNM