Leaving Vienna on the last train to England

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Rosie Waites - [email protected]
Leaving Vienna on the last train to England
Photo: Walter Schaub-Walzer

Jaques Broch was eight years old when he left Vienna in 1939, on the last train to England.


He and his mother and father arrived in Leeds the day after Germany invaded Poland and World War II broke out - on September 2nd.

This Jewish family had fled their home - a central European city which had been one of the most prominent centres of Jewish culture. They were just in time, for the remaining Jews would be deported and murdered by the Nazis.

In the wake of WWII Jewish culture and society have gradually been recovering in Vienna - and since 1989 an organisation called The Jewish Welcome Service has been inviting small groups of exiles back to visit the city they were forced to flee.  

Earlier this month Jaques came with his wife Hazel, and their three children, David, Estelle and Beverly, invited by The Jewish Welcome Service. It was his second visit since leaving as an eight-year-old.

Jaques Broch and family in Vienna.  Photo: Rosie Waites

The couple have lived in Israel for the past 16 years, after leaving the UK when Jaques retired from his job as a dentist.

I met him in the Hofburg palace, the grand winter residence of the former Habsburg dynasty and now the official residence of Austria’s President.

Jaques remembers the train journey to England vividly. He was travelling without a visa, illegally.  “I was excited about traveling but after living under Hitler for a year I had seen some terrible things. My father was arrested on Kristallnacht, we didn’t know where he was or what was happening.

'People were committing suicide'

People were made to stand naked outside, in November. People were committing suicide. But my father was allowed to come home because we had a visa to go to China - but before we could go Russia closed its borders and we couldn’t get to China. We thought about England and Israel… and decided England was the more likely possibility.”

Jaques remembers that when they left they could hardly take anything with them. “We decided to just take our documents and papers, to show who and what we are, that was important… not to forgot. I still have my grandfather’s school report from 1870 and my other grandfather’s discharge papers from the army from 1890. This trip has brought a lot of the photos I still have back to life.”

Jaques’s father was an officer in the German army in WWI and was imprisoned in Siberia. When they left Vienna on the train his parents’ passports stated that they were traveling “without child”, as they hadn’t managed to get his visa in time.

When soldiers came through the train to check peoples’ papers they questioned why Jaques’s parents were travelling with their son. “My father said ‘he’s only a little boy’, and they said ‘you can’t take him, what happens when you get to England and they don’t let him in?’

'That was the worst day'

But then the soldier looked at my father’s papers and said ‘I see you were an officer in the German army in WWI?’ My father said, ‘that’s correct’. The man said, ‘well, I’m also an officer and from one officer to another, I wish you the best of luck.’ And they let us go… “

However, the family had a shock when they arrived in England and Jaques’ father was interned in a POW camp on the Isle of Man for seven months, as he was considered an enemy alien, along with any Nazi prisoners.

“That, for me, was the worst day,” Jaques says. “I was nine, and they came to take my daddy away again. I didn’t think he would come back.”

His parents never really spoke of their life in Vienna after they had left. And Jaques only really started to talk about it in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

One day in 1988 he locked himself in a room with a tape recorder for four or five hours and told his story - for his daughter Beverly who was writing about her family history for a university dissertation.

He was born in Vienna’s 20th district, Brigittenau. In 1938 he and his family had to leave their apartment in the 20th district, and lived with his grandmother in the Castellezgasse, near to a Jewish school which Jaques attended in the 2nd district. 

'Very apprehensive'

He came back to visit Vienna for the first time for just one day, 16 years ago. “I got something out of my system when I came back the first time, I was very apprehensive. This time was more nostalgic for me. We had more time to find places.”

And this time he was able to bring his wife and children back to the place he was born and spent his formative years.

He told me he was pleasantly surprised to see that Vienna now has a strong, thriving Jewish community. “Although sometimes I can’t understand why people would want to come back. I don’t mind coming to visit … but to live here you are reminded of the past. But being here again I think I am beginning to understand why people come back - it’s a beautiful city.”

Jaques still speaks fluent German, although he never spoke it with his children.

His wife Hazel, originally from Dublin, has found the whole trip very emotional. She thought it was important to come back with their three children, who now have children of their own.

'Very Moving'

David, their son, has found the trip “very moving”. They were able to trace the family back generations by visiting the Zentralfriedhof cemetery. With tears in his eyes he tells me that the trip has made him realise that he and his siblings have “had an easy life” compared to what their father and grandparents went through.

“You have the pictures in your mind, of how the family had to scrub the streets and were walking barefoot… When you see the brass stones on the streets where the Jews were taken from their homes and deported, it’s so hard,” Hazel said.

“This is still very recent, very raw… we have a right to live like anybody else. In Israel we are coming out of a war, my own grandchildren are soldiers. To degrade people to such an extent, it’s hard to believe. We pray all the time that things should be peaceful, for everybody.”

Jaques’ daughter Beverly said that she loved seeing some of the old buildings in Vienna, and the young orthodox Jewish children freely riding around on their scooters in the 2nd district.

'Daddy would be proud'

“I asked Daddy when he came into the Hofburg if his father would have been proud of him today, and he said he would have been,” his other daughter, Estelle, said.

“We managed to find the gravestone of our father’s grandfather in the Zentralfriedhof which was badly damaged - so we’re going to come back and put in a nice stone to make sure he is never forgotten, this is a part of history which we must remember,” added Estelle.

Following the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, where the Nazis resolved to annihilate the Jews, the majority who had stayed in Vienna became victims of the Holocaust. Of the more than 65,000 Viennese Jews who were deported to concentration camps, only a few more than 2000 survived.

The Jewish Welcome Service was founded in 1980 by then Mayor Leopold Gratz, City Councillor Heinz Nittel and Holocaust survivor Leon Zelman to demonstrate the presence of an active, self-confident Jewish community after the Shoah.



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