After Austria’s ‘Anschluss’ to Germany in March 1938 there were desperate attempts by the Jewish population to escape, but most countries became firmly closed to Jewish refugees. In the case of the UK limited entries were available to trained domestic servants, and later after Kristallnacht in November 1938, to 10,000 unaccompanied children aged between 6 and 16. In some cases permission was also given for refugees to stay temporarily if they could prove that they would be able to move on to another country.
For our family Scotland featured in three separate but related cases in providing asylum.
One of my uncles, Heinrich Vulkan, was arrested in November 1938 after ‘Kristallnacht’ and sent to a concentration camp where he was very badly treated but released after a few weeks. He and another uncle Nandor, later managed to escape from Austria and after entering Switzerland illegally and many adventures reached Britain.There they were initially interned in Kitchener Camp, near Sandwich, Kent, as aliens expecting to move on to another country. The war intervened and after the fall of France they were eventually allowed to join the Army. While still in the Camp, Heinrich married Alice Liedchover, also a refugee whom he knew from Vienna. At first the internees were only permitted to join the Pioneer Corps but as the military situation worsened this was relaxed and most branches of the forces were opened to them. Heinrich then joined the Royal Engineers and spent most of the war based in the cold, damp tunnels below Dover Castle. After the war Heinrich, was actually demobbed in Scotland and settled in Glasgow. In Vienna he had owned an electrical equipment shop and he was able to continue his career in Glasgow. They had a son, Herbert, but sadly Heinrich suffered from tuberculosis contracted during his time in Dover Castle and he died in 1950. Herbert married Elaine Dexter and they had a son and daughter. Herbert (Bert) and Elaine and all their family still live in Glasgow and there are now five grandsons. The Vulkans are a well established family in the Glasgow community.
My cousin, Elsie Kohn, aged seven, was fortunate in being included in the Kindertransport scheme and found refuge in Glasgow. It must have been very difficult for Elsie’s mother to send her away as her husband was already in a concentration camp. He was murdered there in 1941. Elsie was fostered by a Jewish family, the Gelfers. Fortunately she still had family contacts as two aunts from Vienna were working in Bridge of Earn and were able to visit. My
father also regularly wrote to her from London. After the air raids on Glasgow, she and other children from Glasgow were evacuated to Castle Douglas, which meant yet another separation and must have been very hard for her. When she first arrived she could speak no English but soon picked it up and when eventually she came to London, she spoke it with a strong Scottish accent. She never saw her parents again as both were murdered by the Nazis. Elsie never spoke another word of German and refused to visit Vienna again after the war.
Three of my aunts were able to come to Britain on domestic visas and two of them managed to get a posting in Scotland so as to be reasonably near Elsie. From extensive correspondence sent by Aranka(aged 44), and Margit Vulkan (42) in Bridge of Earn (some letters are headed East Dron) to their sister and my father in London it is possible to get an impression of what life must have been like for them in completely unfamiliar surroundings and under very different work and living conditions to what they had been used to. They were fortunate however as their employer Miss Miller, was very kind and understanding and in spite of obvious language difficulties there were no real problems.
In one of the early letters (June 1939) Aranka mentions the problem she had when someone phoned while Miss Miller ‘our lady’ was out, and her attempts to take a message without being able to speak English. The letter also expresses amazement that even at 10pm there is still daylight in Scotland – they had not yet experienced a Scottish winter! The house where they work is described as really beautiful and set in parkland, but they miss having a bathroom. The village consisted of only about six houses and a school but no shops; Miss Miller had to drive to Perth, ‘a large town we believe’, for shopping and brought some work gloves for them as they had to handle the coal for heating.
A letter written in July describes daily life. At 6.30 open coal fires have to be lit then the hall and kitchen are cleaned. Tea in bed for Miss Miller at 7.15, breakfast at 8.30 then washing-up with Miss Miller’s crockery being done separately. Monday is laundry day, Tuesday thorough cleaning of the office, Wednesday polishing all the silver, Thursday wooden surfaces scrubbing, Friday kitchen cleaning, and Saturday food preparation for Sunday.
Miss Miller had a brother who was a wealthy shipowner and owned extensive land near East Dron. He lived in a castle (this probably refers to Balmanno Castle) and occasionally Miss Miller took my aunts to visit him. He is described as very friendly and kind and his twin boys as polite and well brought up. He also employed a refugee couple Mr and Mrs Neuwirth (he had been a banker in Vienna) as domestic servants, thus saving their lives.
They also mention a Minister Macdonald and his wife who often visited Miss Miller and spoke to my aunts. They had a young Christian lady staying with them who was a refugee from Sudetenland where her husband had been imprisoned by the Nazis for his political views. She could speak German and visited my aunts to teach them English.
My aunts had very little free time but this did not worry them as they had nowhere to go and practically no money. The pay was £2-10s a month for both and much of this was spent on postage for the almost daily letters they wrote to their sister or my father in London, or to my cousin Elsie in Glasgow or Castle Douglas. Before war broke out they were also in frequent touch with ‘home’, i.e. those still remaining in Vienna.
In the period before war broke out, the main theme of all letters is despair about the lack of progress in getting the remaining family out of Vienna and later the great worries, unfortunately fully justified, about what is happening to them. One letter finishes by telling my aunt Regina in London not to despair but to trust in God – he will help us. Sadly, none of the family still in Vienna at the beginning of the war survived.
My aunts never married but in London after the war they devoted the rest of their lives to bringing up Elsie.