Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The little girl who fled the Nazis - and found a new sister and love here in Leicester

Very moving story in today's Leicester Mercury...

By Leicester Mercury  |  Posted: June 15, 2015
    A young Elise in Austrian costume
Elise Richter arrived in Leicester in 1939, a five-year-old refugee from Nazi-controlled Austria who found herself separated from all her family. This is her story.
Elise Richter, that's me. I was born in Vienna on November 15, 1933, the same year that Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. I lived with my mother and father, Franziska and Heinrich Richter, in a two-bedroom apartment in the centre of Vienna with my mother's parents.

I was an only child, and the darling grandchild of my grandparents, Omi Loewinger and Opa Loewinger – omi means grandma, while opa is the Austrian word for grandpa.

Omi Loewinger was one of 13 siblings, so, although I was an only child, I was never lonely because I had a lot of second and third cousins, second cousins once removed and third cousins twice removed, etc.

My favourite was my third cousin, Suzie, who was just six weeks older than me. She had two older sisters, Lizzie and Mary, and they lived about 4km from our home. Suzie and I played together a lot, and we loved each other very much.

I was a bit in awe of my Opa. He went to military school and fought on the side of the Germans in the First Word War. He certainly looked like an important soldier to me, with his military bearing and big, bushy moustache.

My father, who was a big joker, told me he was the Emperor of Austria. Of course, I believed him and I told all my kindergarten friends, who were very impressed – although none of us really knew what an emperor was. But we knew that he must be important because he had a big, bushy moustache.

We were a close family. But happy family get- togethers were soon to come to an end.

In March, 1938, the Nazis moved in and took control of Austria. In just a few days, they arrested 70,000 people.

Just before the start of the Second World War, horrible things were happening all around us. In November 1938, Kristallnacht, a wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms, took place. Jews were arrested and brutally taken from their homes for no reason other than they were Jewish. Children were encouraged to spy on their parents and to report anybody who was suspected of opposing the German occupation.

My parents and grandparents must have lived in great fear, but somehow they managed to hide that from me.

Although brutal things had been happening against Jewish people since the early 1930s, it wasn't until after the terrible events of Kristallnacht that my parents began to realise exactly how serious things were, and that they had to get out of Austria.

In Vienna, my father had been a sales manager for a company that made fine silks, and my mother a master milliner. Skilled as they both were, the only jobs that they were allowed to do in Britain were those of domestic servants.

Very hurriedly, my father took a course in being a butler and my mother learnt how to be a cook and a housekeeper. On February 4, 1939, they were granted visas to enter the UK – just a few days after Hitler celebrated his sixth year in power by making a speech calling for the annihilation of the entire Jewish race in Europe.

Now, time was of the essence if we were to escape.

On February 28, 1939, the day we were due to leave, Omi was sick in bed with very bad flu. It was her 72nd birthday. My mother didn't want to leave my grand- parents, but there was nothing we could do – we had train and boat passages booked, and if we didn't leave then we would not have been able to leave at all. Omi urged my parents to go, so, with heavy hearts, we said goodbye, not knowing if we would ever see them again.

After my parents got their visas, they were sponsored by a couple in London and went to work for them as cook and butler and they were also put in touch with an agency that found a foster family for me.

One hundred miles north of London, a Church of England vicar and his wife in Leicester were looking for a little girl to be a companion for their five-year-old daughter and, like many other decent people, they wanted to do their bit to help the war effort by taking in a refugee child.

The most vivid memory I have of my childhood is standing outside the big, green front door of St Margaret's vicarage, my parents standing behind me.

Only now that I am a mother can I begin to imagine what my parents must have been feeling as they waited for that door to open. Who were these strangers into whose care they were entrusting me?
I remember the door being opened by Alison, a little girl with short, dark hair. She took hold of my hand and pulled me into the big hallway. Then she said something to me in English (which of course I didn't understand) and, still holding my hand, led me up a curved staircase to her playroom. She opened a cupboard door and out tumbled what seemed to me to be at least 50 teddy bears of all shapes and sizes. I was mesmerised and I didn't even turn round when my parents said goodbye.

So, there I was, a little Jewish girl living with the Rev Eric Ducker, the vicar of St Margaret's Church, and his wife, Barbara. They said I should call them Mummy and Daddy – and from that moment on, I did.

After Germany invaded and conquered several northern and western European countries in mid-1940, the British public began to panic. Fearing anyone with a German accent might be a spy, the Government began imprisoning Germans and Austrians, calling them "enemy aliens". This included Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Germany and Austria.

About 30,000 were interned in camps in Britain. In January 1940, my father was considered to be one of these "enemy aliens" and was deported to the Isle of Man, where he had to stay for almost two years.

The city of Leicester was lucky and, unlike London – which was bombed every single day and night for eight months in 1940 during the Blitz – it was only seriously bombed a couple of times.
However, we still had air raid warnings every night because the German planes flew over Leicester on their way to Coventry, where bombs and ammunitions were manufactured. We had air raid practice at school three times a week and every day we had to carry gas masks with us wherever we went.

After my father was sent away, my mother was able to find another job in Leicester, which brought her much closer to where I was living. She became housekeeper for a rich lady whose husband owned a shoe factory and, on her one half-day off a week, she would pick up Alison and me and take us for cream cakes at Wynn's café, on the High Street.

I could no longer speak German and my mother's command of the English language was still not very good, so it was difficult for us to understand each other.

I didn't relate to her as my mother any more, and Alison and I used to call her "the nice lady who takes us out for cream cakes on Wednesday afternoons".

When my father was eventually released, he was given a job on a farm near Leicester. My mother joined him and this was their first home together in England. It was literally a pig-sty, which they had to clean out to make habitable.

Alison and I went to visit them every week and we loved their little pig-sty home – we thought it was very cool! I don't suppose my mum and dad thought it was very cool, but they were just happy to be together again.

My dad had to work on the farm seven days a week, rain or shine, from five in the morning until midnight. After a few months of this, he lost 80lbs and became very ill. The doctor ordered him to stop work at once before it killed him.

When he was well enough to work again, he found a job at a Leicester warehouse, sweeping the factory floors and doing odd jobs here and there. He was grateful to have a job and worked very hard. After a few months, he was promoted to office clerk. My mother started a little playgroup for five children, which brought her in a little bit of money.

For two years, my parents saved every penny they could, until they were earning enough money to be able to rent a small house with two bedrooms. And so, when I was nine, after four years away, I went back to live with them.

The house had no bathroom – we had to take our baths in the kitchen, in a big tin tub. There was no indoor toilet, either. It took me a long time to adjust to this new life; I wasn't happy and I really missed Alison, who had by then been sent to boarding school.

It took me a long time to appreciate how hard my parents had worked and how much they had sacrificed so we could live together again as a family.

But I was lucky. The majority of the Jews who had stayed in Vienna became victims of the Holocaust. More than 65,000 Jewish citizens of Vienna were deported to concentration camps, and only 2,000 survived.

Among the dead were my Omi and Opa, my father's widowed mother, Suzie, Lizzie and Mary, and 50 more members of my family.

We found out later that all three of my grand- parents had been sent to the Treblinka extermination camp, travelling for days in cattle trucks in intense cold and very unsanitary conditions, only to be gassed when they finally got there. Mary, Lizzie and Suzie and their mother suffered the same fate in the Maly Trostinec extermination camp near Minsk, in Russia.

Thanks to my courageous, hardworking, wonderful parents, I am one of the lucky ones who escaped and survived.

In 1952, when I was 19, I got a scholarship to go to London University, which is where I met my husband to be, Donald Hurd, a Leicester boy. Three months after we graduated, and three days before my 22nd birthday, Donald and I were married at St Margaret's Church, by Alison's father, my godfather, the Rev Eric Ducker. The wedding reception was held in the vicarage where I had spent amongst four of the happiest years of my young life, and Alison was my bridesmaid.

Sixteen years later, in 1968, now with four children, Donald and I moved to St John's, Newfoundland, in Canada, as he had been offered a job, and we are still here today.

Alison and I still stay in touch, writing letters and phoning each other on birthdays. Whenever we have been to England for a holiday, we always try to spend a day or two with her, poring over old photographs and reminiscing about our childhood together.

To me, she will always be the sister I never had.

For any friends of Elise's still living in Leicester, she can be contacted by e-mail at: lisahurd44@hotmail.com