A Family History Unfolded
By Keiron Pim
Last summer, 82 years after my maternal grandparents fled Vienna and arrived as young refugees in London, six members of my extended family and I were granted Austrian citizenship.
As many of you will know, in 2020 Austria changed its laws to enable the children and grandchildren of victims of Nazi persecution to apply for dual nationality. About 120,000 Jewish refugees escaped Austria following the Anschluss, and the UK was their second most common destination after the US: around 20,000 refugees had registered here by 1945. A good many of their descendants have lately been embroiled in the laborious process of proving our citizenship credentials to the Viennese authorities. Reasonably enough the Austrian Embassy requires from applicants a stack of documentary evidence: birth and marriage certificates, for instance, and a criminal record check, not to mention proof that the ‘persecuted ancestor’, to use the given description, was an Austrian national.
The ancestor my family and I chose to base our case upon was my late grandfather, Josef Meller, who was an 18-year-old architecture student when he left Vienna. The application form required that we show he held ‘either Austrian citizenship or of the citizenship of a successor state of the former Austro-Hungarian Monarchy’; that he had reason to fear ‘persecution by the Nazi regime’; proof of his ‘principal residence in Austria’; and that he ‘left Austria before May 15, 1955’, when the country was re-established as a sovereign state. My mum had Josef’s Austrian passport, stamped with a red J for ‘Jude’, which covered the first two points. Where the latter two pieces of evidence were concerned, without the help of World Jewish Relief our task would have been immeasurably harder.
Without the help of World Jewish Relief our task would have been immeasurably harder.
Last year I got to know World Jewish Relief’s Honorary Life Vice President Linda Rosenblatt and we soon came to discuss our families’ history. When I mentioned that my maternal grandparents had arrived from Vienna in 1939, she said the World Jewish Relief archives might hold some material from their first weeks in England. My family had never heard any suggestion that World Jewish Relief – or in its previous incarnation the Central British Fund for German Jewry (The CBF) – assisted Josef, his wife-to-be Ilse Epstein and their parents while they were acclimatising to life in England, but there seemed no harm in checking. The documents uncovered by archivist Debbie Cantor not only expedited our application for citizenship, they also cast new light on the Mellers’ and Epsteins’ last days in Vienna and their first days in England.
For one thing, we realised that we did not know Josef’s last address in Austria, as required by the citizenship application. We knew, from an unfinished memoir he began to write for the family late in his life, that he grew up on Darwingasse in the capital’s well known Jewish quarter, Leopoldstadt. But where was the Meller family’s principal residence at the time they left? A small form headed ‘German Jewish Aid Committee’ that Debbie found included Josef’s address: ‘Taborstrasse 48A, Wien’, a few streets away from where he grew up. A look on Google Streetview shows that the apartment block is still there: its entrance stands between two businesses, a kosher supermarket and a vape store.
That form also revealed his date of arrival in the UK: March 27th, 1939. Ilse arrived a couple of months later, on May 21st. In the WJR archives Debbie found files updated regularly over the subsequent four years that reveal their changes of address – including Josef’s spell in the Richborough Camp in Kent and his internment as an ‘enemy alien’ on the Isle of Man, interspersed with the two young refugees’ various temporary lodgings around London – and the financial assistance they received from the CBF. Ilse, for example, received a typical stipend of 15 shillings and sixpence a week. This must have made such a difference as they adapted to their new lives. Josef also benefited from the generosity of his guarantor, Miss Rachel Alexander of Radnage in Buckinghamshire, whose promise of financial support enabled him to leave Richborough Camp and resume his studies at an English polytechnic. Her numerous donations are also recorded in the files. Eventually Josef would become the deputy borough architect for Richmond upon Thames, settling in nearby Petersham where my mum and her two sisters grew up.
Some members of my family have felt ambivalent about gaining citizenship of the country that so persecuted its Jewish citizens, and they note that the far right is resurgent in Austria today. These concerns are entirely reasonable, but on balance I think it is an opportunity to be taken. I see the extension of citizenship to refugees’ descendants as a small, belated but welcome gesture of restitution by a country that historically treated its Jews with such contempt. So as soon as such things become easier again, I intend to visit Vienna to celebrate gaining dual citizenship. I am an author and while I’m there I intend to conduct some research into the life of the Austrian Jewish novelist Joseph Roth (1894-1939), whose biography I’m writing. But just as importantly I intend to walk the streets where my ancestors lived and worked before the Nazis arrived and their world collapsed.
Thanks in large part to those documents in the World Jewish Relief archives, I will travel there as an Austrian citizen, and as I explore our family’s history in Leopoldstadt I will have a new address to visit. Along with the rest of my newly Austrian relatives I will always remain deeply grateful for the way World Jewish Relief has helped us, eight decades on from when it helped my ancestors settle in the UK.