Three Lines Of Desperation
Von Chris Cummins
Julian Borger is now World Affairs Editor for The Guardian. Read his reports and you will learn stories of how, across the globe, people’s lives are torn-apart by violence and political repression in places such as Afghanistan, Syria and Gaza.
These are stories of productive lives being disrupted and refugees forced from their homes. Often traumatized, they become reliant the hospitality in more peaceful and safer countries; a hospitality that is often given grudgingly.
Not that long ago, it was Austrians not Syrians in this deplorable position, and Julian’s own father was among them.
„The reason I am here“
This year an archivist at the Guardian, which is marking its 200th birthday, passed on a small advert to Julian that his own family had placed in the left-leaning British paper - then called the The Manchester Guardian.
The advert was from 1938 and it was just three-lines long. It had been written by Julian’s grandfather who was part of the Jewish community in Vienna where he owned a radio and music shop in the city’s 3rd district. This was the message.
“I seek a kind person who will educate my intelligent Boy, aged 11, Viennese of good family.”
The 11-year old boy was Julian’s father Robert. When the Bingleys, a modest but generous family in Caernarfon, Wales, responded to this advertisement; it probably saved his life and thereby allowed for Julian’s own existence. „It’s the reason I am here,“ says Julian bluntly.
„Desperation In Three Lines“
The Bingleys organised the British side of the complex paperwork needed get Robert an exit visa out of The Third Reich. They then gave Robert a home, taught him Welsh and English and sent him to school. Julian told me how he felt when he saw the original newspaper ad:
“Kind of mixed emotions, really. Firstly, I felt elation because there had always been talk in my family that this advertisement existed. Then I got a punch in the gut feeling with the realisation of the kind of desperation that lay behind those three lines.
I’m a father myself now, so the idea was really overwhelming that people were forced to offer up their only child to complete strangers in a strange land as the only way of saving him. And to know that my grandparents had been in that position was even more overwhelming.”
To understand the pressures that would lead a family to make such a decision, we need to look at the situation of Viennese Jews in 1938. The Nazis made life intolerable for the Jewish community but also made it difficult for them to leave.
1938 was a cruel year that would climax in the infamous Kristallnacht, when Jewish businesses were ransacked and most of Vienna’s synagogues were destroyed. But even months earlier Austrian Jews had lost their basic citizenship rights under the Nuremberg race laws.
„The idea was to humiliate them.“
“It wasn’t safe for Jews on the streets and they were called into Gestapo offices to register,” explained Julian. “And usually when they did, they were required to do some kind of humiliating job, mostly cleaning the pavements. The more prosperous women in fur coats were told to do the cleaning with those fur coats and so on. The idea was to humiliate them and the wealthy were particular targets.”
Remember: Julian’s father Robert was just a small child at the time, but already he’d suffered some pretty scary abuse also at school. He had been turned upon by boys who, just months before, he had considered class “mates”. Now they collectively denounced him for being jewish.
Even more dramatically, he’d been chased by a S.A. gang and locked into a local synagogue. Julian believes his father was severely traumatized by this. When the Bingleys took him into their small-house in Wales, they had to remove the whistle that showed when kettle was boiling because it reminded young Robert of the whistles used by the Brownshirts.
“When a family friend of the Bingleys, thinking he was doing a favour and showing himself to be friendly, offered to take my dad for a walk, my dad apparently fainted out of fear because he thought he was being taken away to be killed. That was a state of fear in which this young boy arrived in Caernarfon.”
Few Chances To Escape
In the first 10 months of 1938, around 60 children were “advertised” in the pages of the Manchester Guardian, with touching little testaments of their good characters and descriptions of their skills all crammed into a few words – a mother or father’s love heartbreakingly compressed in one sentence. It was one of the few way to get them away from the reach of the Nazis explains Julian:
“You could get out if you had an offer of tuition abroad. That meant you could get a student visa. The second route in the U.K. was for adults who could work as domestic servants, as a maid or a chauffeur or a butler or something like that. You would get those permits from the British Home Office and then you would have to go to the Nazi authorities and Vienna and go jump through all those hopes. The most burdensome one was really the exit tax, who basically they fleeced you of everything you own as the price of leaving.”
Children such as Robert, who was advertised in August, were effectively pioneers. In November 1938, after Kristallnacht, the Brits launched the Kindertransport scheme for groups of unaccompanied minors. This brought 10,000 Jewish children to Britain in the months leading up to the outbreak of war.
It is an episode that Brits can look back on with pride and perhaps inspiration that we can be better than we are now.
In many ways Robert had struck it lucky with Reg and Nancy Bingley, a school teaching couple who already fostered other children from difficult backgrounds in Wales. Reg had died before Julian got to know the family that had rescued his father but he became friends with Nancy.
“She just endlessly kind person and incredibly moralistic. They were very committed Labour supporters and believed in the idea of the greater good and doing what you could. They had already taken in a succession of orphaned and troubled children locally from Wales, so my father was just one of the young people they helped. They took them in their very small council house (UK social housing) and put them on this trajectory of being able to have live safe and interesting lives. Under their tuition, my father ended up going to university. All these things were made possible by their bottomless kindness.”
„A whole string of different possibilities“
Spurred on by the discovery of the original advertisement that saved his father, Julian Borger started to investigated the 60 other children who had found escape from the Nazi terror through these advertisements in the Manchester Guardian. Almost all of them had survived the Holocaust.
“They had parents who were alert and intrepid enough to put these adverts and that meant they had a good chance of survival, either through the adverts themselves or through the Kindertransport initiative”.
After arriving in Britain, however, they had very different lives. Most eventually made their way over to the US. Some went to Israel after the war and after Israeli independence. Some were old enough to go back and fight in Europe.
“A man called George Mandler ended up as US Army military intelligence and making his way across Europe doing interrogations of captured German officers and hunting the SS and the woods of Germany. Another one, a boy called Alfred Rudnai, ended up in the RAF as a machine gunner in a Lancaster bomber. Another one went to Canada and ended up becoming a very well-known Shakespeare scholar in university in Munich. You know, it was just a whole string of different possibilities and life stories made possible by these three line ads.“
Julian’s grandparents Leo and Erna also escaped Vienna to Britain. Remarkably, and using subterfuge, Erna managed to travel to the UK via train alongside 11-year old Robert, sharing a compartment to the Dutch border with a pair of die-hard Nazis. On arrival they were split up, Erna going to the London district of Paddington to take up work as a domestic maid, while Robert travelled on to Wales. It’s hard to imagine the pain of separation.
Other families weren’t so lucky. Sometimes the child in advance and then the parents waited too long. “They thought that maybe this situation would somehow turn around,” explains Julian, “or they were looking for ways to salvage their livelihoods and just waited and waited. And then it was too late.” He researched one story of a mother getting finally getting her UK visa as a domestic on the very day, September 1st when the war broke out, and it was too late to travel. Others managed to make the trip eastwards and ended up in Shanghai.
“There was one family that went to Riga, ended up being captured by the Red Army and being interned in gulags in Siberia until years after the war. Others were just deported. That was really the most upsetting, depressing part of the research is when you couldn’t find traces in the British records of some of these people who advertised. Then you’d have to go back to the Vienna records and look through deportation to the camps. Your heart would sink when you’d find that name on the list of deportations. “
„The long cruel hands of the Nazis“
For Robert, tragically, it was only a partial escape from the Nazis. In 1983 he took his own life. Julian points to a history of depression and of problems in his career and his private life. But Nancy Bingley, who knew the Robert as traumatized 11-year old, believed he had been killed by the long cruel hands of the Nazis.
“It was my job to ring Nancy to give her the news of his death. And after this sort of gasp it was the first thing she said. She said he was the Nazis latest victim and she was absolutely convinced of it. And it came as a shock to me because while we hadn’t really talked about that time much at all as a family, but she was absolutely convinced because, I suppose, she forever saw that traumatised child in him. She saw that cloud that was in him from having that traumatic start in life.”
Until his death, Robert had revered the Guardian and growing up it was Julian’s source of news and opinion. It is a touching circle of fate that Julian ended up working for the newspaper that ensured his path to life.
The rise of the Austrian Far-Right Is „profoundly troubling“
His career as a journalist saw him based for a while in central Europe and he has returned dozens of times to Vienna. The site of the former family shop is now a discount women’s clothing shop.
In the early days these trips were melancholic visits to an elderly aunt who favored a grim Chinese restaurant and told him the Viennese had learned little from the Nazi past. Later he’d return to a city that was clearly changing and developing. I wondered how he felt about the city now?
“There’s something about Vienna that makes me feel very much that I do belong. There is a sense of being linked to this place. And yet at the same time, this awareness of what happened to my family. It was where my father was pointed out by the neighbours. That legacy hangs over the city. But I feel better and better in the city. The feel of the city that is changing; obviously, generations are changing.
It is depressing, though, that the far right is back. And a reminder of that, those dark forces in society, in Viennese society and so many others around the world are on the march again, and it is profoundly troubling.“
Publiziert am 28.05.2021