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Escape from the Nazis via the Kindertransport

Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, November 9-10, 1938 — SA forces vandalize Jewish-owned stores and synagogues. Five days later, a delegation of British Jewish and Quaker leaders appeal in person to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and ask that the British government permit the temporary admission of unaccompanied Jewish children. The British Parliament acted swiftly and ultimately allowed some 10,000 German, Polish, Czech, and Austrian Jews under 17 years of age to enter the country. The first group of nearly 200 children arrived in Harwich on December 2, just three weeks after Kristallnacht.

The program, called the Kindertransport, placed children into foster homes, schools, and hostels to protect them from Nazi persecution.  Many of the children were the only ones in their families to survive World War II as many of their relatives perished in the Holocaust.

George Jaeger, who later joined the Foreign Service, was one of the lucky ones. He recounts his experiences in pre-Anshcluss Vienna, how many of his relatives were sent to concentration camps, how he ended up in a landed estate in England, and his unexpectedly historic Atlantic crossing with British gold.  

He was interviewed by Robert Daniels beginning in July, 2000. Go here to read Helmut Sonnenfeldt’s account of his childhood in Nazi Germany. You can read other Moments from World War II, including the return of gold to Czechoslovakia in 1981.


“I watched the Germans march in, cheered on by ecstatic crowds”

JAEGER: I was born in Vienna in 1926, the son of Frederick Jaeger, a gifted art professor and rather successful Austrian painter who exhibited among other galleries in Vienna’s prestigious ‘Sezession’ [Austria’s Art Noveau movement].

My mother, Emilie, was one of Vienna’s early self-made women, who had become business manager of a now long-defunct shoe factory, a job to which she worked her way up through grit, resilience and intelligence from very modest beginnings….

It was all part of another time, not destined to last. There were clear forewarnings, even for a child: My first came on a gray, cold evening in February 1934, I was not yet quite eight, when my parents took me along to some friends’ house for a late afternoon Kaffee.

I was to recite some poetry as part of the entertainment, when, on our way, we were suddenly caught up in machine-gun fire: Part of the fierce, long-brewing but unsuccessful Socialist uprising against center-right Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss. This crisis was followed in July by a Nazi putsch orchestrated in Berlin, during which Dollfuss was assassinated.

The anxieties and tensions all this generated between Socialists, Austrian Nazis and the many caught between, was palpable even in the village inn in Carinthia where we spent that summer where the question was no longer whether the Nazis would have their way but when. Although Anschluss to Hitler’s Germany was averted for another four years by Dollfuss’ successor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, the handwriting was clearly on the wall.

Looking back, I certainly did not fully grasp the seriousness of these events even on the day, it was March 9, 1938, when, on returning home from Gymnasium, I found my alarmed parents listening intently to Schuschnigg’s abdication speech on their tiny crystal radio set.

Only four days later, on March 13, standing on the sidewalk on Mariahilferstrasse on my way home from Gymnasium, I watched the Germans march in, cheered on by ecstatic crowds: First long columns of tanks, trucks and troops, then Hitler himself, followed by Goering in his bulging white Marshall’s uniform, then the rest of the top Nazis in Hitler’s entourage, all driving by in swastika-flying tops-down black staff cars on their way to the Hofburg, where Hitler was to make his victory speech to hundreds of thousands jubilant Viennese!

Q: What happened then?

JAEGER: There were changes. Everyone started wearing little swastikas on their lapels; red boxes appeared on street corners to display the front-pages of the ‘Stuermer’ [the Nazis’ virulent propaganda publication] with their wildly anti-Semitic headlines and caricatures of Jews with big ears and long noses; and Hitler youth formations were organized in all schools. As a fairly normal twelve-year old I secretly admired their shiny daggers, drums, marching and singing — mostly the Horst Wessel Lied – but never thought of joining.

“I was frequently chased by my Hitler Youth classmates ”

Things changed in our Gymnasium as well. Our new history teacher and chief indoctrinator was a man in a Brown Shirts uniform, complete with black boots and a swastika armband. I particularly remember his claim that the Germans had always been a greater civilization than the Romans or the Greeks! Unfortunately, he explained, they didn’t leave archeological evidence behind because they built everything with wood! I got up and asked, if so, how did he know how great they were? This caused quite a rumpus. I learned later from my mother that my Latin teacher, Professor Ergens, whose favorite I was, had to go to bat for me at faculty meeting, where my ‘subversive’ question was discussed!

Things came to a head – I can’t remember the precise date – when a uniformed SA man [Sturmabteilung, Storm Trooper, a special armed and uniformed branch of the Nazi party] came into our first year Gymnasium class one day and asked if anyone among the 30-some students was Jewish or had any Jewish grandparents.

Since all of us in the class were Catholic, nobody got up. When I mentioned what had happened that evening, my parents looked very distressed and told me that I did, in fact, have two Jewish grandparents, since my father came from a Jewish family but had converted to Catholicism before their marriage. They stressed that I must never be ashamed of this heritage.

However, in the present fanatically anti-Semitic Nazi atmosphere, where ‘Mischlings’ (half breeds) like myself were treated almost as severely as Jews, this background was going to cause serious dangers, which I must come to understand…

Many parents in mixed marriages were therefore anxious to assimilate their children by raising them as Christians. That may be what my parents tried to do – although even late in life my father always insisted that his conversion had been sincere and genuine. For me, my new situation was all the more bizarre, since from early childhood I had had an almost intuitive spiritual awareness, which I retained throughout much of my life, and knew nothing whatever about Judaism.

The first thing I had to do, was to get up in class the next day and publicly report the correct version of my origins, an announcement greeted with scattered hoots and snickers by my Hitler Youth classmates. Then things began to move fast. I don’t remember all the details, except that I was frequently chased by my Hitler Youth classmates after school let out, and sometimes beaten up.

Things came to a head that summer of 1938, when a group of Hitler Youths jumped me in the local swimming pool and came seriously close to drowning me, a nasty experience, even though I somehow managed to get free and make it home. Tension increased further that fall as we heard of people being arrested, dismissed from their jobs, or taken off to Dachau and other concentration camps. It was a time of intense uncertainty and worry, during which many who could began to leave.

“Some onlookers and passersby cheered the Nazis on”

Then, on November 9, 1938, came the famous Kristallnacht, when the SA unleashed pogroms across the Reich, ostensibly to take revenge for the assassination in Paris of Baron von Rath, a German diplomat, by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year old Jew who wanted to avenge the deportation of his parents to Poland.

Walking home from school that day, I vividly recall making my way through squads of uniformed Brown Shirts who were abusing and taunting Jewish people on Mariahilfer Strasse, systematically smashing up Jewish shops, ransacking apartments and dragging their terrified Jewish owners, including some very old and frail men and women, out onto the sidewalks. Everywhere you looked Jews were jeered, beaten and kicked while being made to scrub whitewashed Stars of David off the sidewalks which were covered with shards of broken glass. Some onlookers and passersby cheered the Nazis on. No one I saw did anything to help. It was a vile and cowardly scene, which I have never forgotten.

In the roundup that day and in the days ahead, some 30,000 Jews were arrested in Vienna alone and marched through the streets on their way to being transported to concentration camps. Contrary to postwar claims, when former Nazis were very hard to find in Vienna, this was a very public event. Everyone knew precisely what was happening.

For my parents and myself the first big blow came when they picked up my kind and generous uncle, Paul Jaeger, my father’s brother, who owned a well-known stationary shop in the 1st district, and sent him to Dachau. He was released some months later, but collapsed and died on the steps of the Westbahnhof  [the western railway station] in late January 1939, the victim of medical experiments.

Uncle Paul had always brought me small presents and loved me a lot. It was my first major loss. As the Nazi campaign progressed, most of my father’s family were taken as well and died in various concentration camps, Dachau, Mauthausen and Theresienstadt. Even my father’s mother, then in her eighties, was hauled from her bed in Innsbruck late at night, taken to Theresienstadt and died there.

It was obviously high time to try to get out, although, for most, it was already too late. Unbeknownst to me, my parents had been trying hard to send me to safety as well, even though Mischlings like me were not yet prime concentration camp targets. Their effort, as they later told me, seemed almost hopeless, since the Catholic Church, under Cardinal Innitzer was playing it safe and offered no help. As for the Jewish community, they couldn’t even save their own.

“An English Quaker girl had been sent to Vienna to find and save children like myself”

Then, one day in early February 1939, I had just finished my third semester of Gymnasium, I was told by my parents, to my great surprise, that a 22-year old English Quaker girl, whose name I never learned, had been sent to Vienna by her Norfolk Quaker community to find and save children like myself — and had somehow managed to arrange for thirty-some children, including myself, to go to England! I was to leave a few days later!

It was only in recent years that I learned that she was a representative of the now famous Kindertransport, the brilliantly successful and generous British effort to save as many children as possible from the impending holocaust, launched in Parliament after Kristallnacht.

“Here is the chance”, Sir Samuel Hoare, Britain’s then Foreign Minister (at right), told the House on November 21, 1938, “of taking the young generation of a great people, here is a chance of mitigating to some extent the terrible suffering of their parents and their friends”.

He carried the day and swayed the government to permit an unspecified number of children under the age of 17 to enter the United Kingdom; a dramatic humanitarian success, which stood in sharp contrast to the abject failure of the 8-nation Evian conference, which FDR had called a few months earlier to ‘solve the refugee problem’.

All in all, about 10,000 children were saved through this unique operation in which innumerable ordinary British families opened their homes in an extraordinary act of national decency, which saved me and many, many others. It was only recently memorialized in a, I think, rather too sentimental film, ‘Into the Arms of Strangers’.

It was as a result of this improbable series of events, that I and 30 or 40 other children found ourselves at 11 o’clock at night on February 20, 1939, waving a last good-by to our sad parents out of the windows of a 3rd class railway car — who stood forlornly on the gloomy, swastika-draped platform of Vienna’s  Westbahnhof. It was far from clear that we would see each other again.

Our sealed [railway] car crawled across Austria and Germany at a snail’s pace for almost three days, making way for virtually all other traffic. We had soon eaten the apples and sandwiches our parents had given us, and were all crowded together on the hard wooden benches, some sleeping, some crying, all dirty, tired and hungry.

Finally, when it seemed we had been completely abandoned, there was a sudden shriek of brakes, the train stopped and we were at the Dutch border! The doors were yanked open, and there, to our amazement, were four or five wonderful, pink, white-aproned Dutch women with huge pots of boiling hot chocolate and enormous dumplings! I’ll never forget it. It was heaven. We all stuffed ourselves and instantly felt better and more hopeful. Somebody actually cared! We had, as I saw it years later, arrived in the West!

“I experienced all this as an adventure”

The funny thing about children is that they are incredibly resilient. In a sense, I experienced all this as an adventure and didn’t really understand the danger or fatefulness of it. It was only much later that it dawned on me how incredibly lucky I had been, and, as it turned out, would be, again and again throughout my life!

From then on it was all a fairy tale! A ferry took many of us from the Hook of Holland to Harwich where I was turned over to Miss Carr, a fortyish spinster, at first a bit austere in her country tweeds, but kind and thoughtful, who loaded me into her rattling little Austin convertible, and cheerfully whisked me off to Hedenham Hall (at left), her wonderful Georgian country house near Ditchingham in Norfolk, a storybook place with a mile-square park full of old trees, hedges and streams, alive with rabbits and birds!

And, to round out the miracle, I was installed in my own little apartment overlooking old brick walls surrounding a little rose garden and a goldfish pond; assigned a kindly maid; informed that I was to have breakfast and sometimes lunch with the grown-ups — a daily treat of porridge, several kinds of eggs, toast , bacon and other fare in an array of gleaming chafing dishes — but was to have supper in my rooms; that I was to go to Bungay Grammar school and that I was henceforth to be known as ‘Master George’!

I loved it, and was not, I am afraid, as homesick as I should have been, although I wrote dutiful weekly letters to my poor parents in Vienna….

I did see my father again in late April 1940, when he came through London on his way to New York – having succeeded in the nick of time in getting an American visa, after being rather ambiguously sponsored by Fordham University. Thanks to Miss Carr’s thoughtfulness and generosity, we had a two-day reunion in London, which seemed shockingly drab and grey in this first year of the war, at a famous hotel, I think the Dorchester.

Father arrived with the equivalent of $10, all he was allowed to take out of Germany, rumpled by two days on continental trains. He spoke only very broken English, faced an, at best, uncertain future in New York and was visibly ill at ease. I, too, had changed more than I realized, and was no longer the little Viennese boy he had sent off from the Westbahnhof.

So we ‘celebrated’ rather awkwardly in the understated elegance of this great hotel with its self-assured, tuxedoed waiters who, even in war time, flourished silver plate covers over gleaming tablecloths. The crisis came early, when a huge bill was produced after our first dinner — even though Miss Carr had assured me that all was taken care of — which my mortified father of course could not pay.

After some very awkward explanations we were able to retain our room subject to clarification; but the rest of my father’s visit was scaled down dramatically to fish and chips in paper cones and long inexpensive walks along the Thames. Poor Ms. Carr was crestfallen when she heard what had happened, and did the necessary. The plan was that, once father was established in America and could save enough for ship tickets etc., my mother who, as an ‘Aryan’, was not in direct danger in Vienna, was to follow, a process which turned out to be much harder and took much longer than any one expected.

After endless efforts to get visas she did almost make it. But America went to war on December 7, 1941, a week or so before her ship was to leave Lisbon. So she was left on the other side of the great divide and spent the entire war in Austria under very difficult conditions. I was not to see her again until I found her in Vienna as an American GI in 1945….

“There were British warships accompanying us from horizon to horizon!”

Q: How did you get to America in wartime?

My own travel arrangements at the end of May 1940 were marked by exceptional security. My trip had somehow been arranged through wartime military channels – I think through a Brig. General related to the Carrs. I remember being taken by train to Liverpool, where I was turned over to someone else, and eventually left to wait on some church steps with orders to stay there until someone came for me! No other fail-safe instructions!

After some considerable time — it seemed an eternity — a gruff sailor showed up, told me to come along and took me to a pretty disreputable-looking hostel where there was much loud carousing and other maritime carryings-on that night, all novel to a boy my age.

On the following morning, May 30, 1940 I was taken to the ship, Cunard’s SS Antonia, and ensconced, back in ‘Master George’ mode, in my own very pleasant upper deck cabin. My next surprise came when I looked out the next day and discovered that there were British warships accompanying us from horizon to horizon!

Q: You were in a convoy? 

JAEGER: No. They were all warships! They accompanied us half way across the Atlantic, where a smaller array of Canadian warships turned up and relieved them. Why this major effort for a lone ship became clear only when we got to Halifax, after an otherwise uneventful crossing.

The docks were bristling with troops and Bren guns mounted behind sand bags, as Canadian troops unloaded a long stream of gold bars from our ship and stacked them in glittering pyramids on the pier. I had been traveling on the ship which carried part of the gold from the Bank of England to safety in America!

Q: The World War II transfer of the British gold reserves for safekeeping ?

JAEGER: At Fort Knox, precisely. So it was an unexpectedly historic voyage.

A tribute to the British people for saving the lives of thousands of children through the Kindertransport, at the Vienna Westbahnhof train station.