Family & Education

The family letters from another world

Sarah Ebner reveals the story behind the letters which her Austrian-born father could not bring himself to read


My father has never been able to bring himself to read the letters sent by his father, who was arrested soon after the Anschluss in 1938. Berthold Ebner was taken away from his family from Vienna to Germany, first to Dachau and then Buchenwald. He left his wife Margarethe and baby son (my father) at home. They would be parted for almost 14 months.

Berthold and Margarethe ran two cinemas in the heart of the city. But when the Germans arrived — on March 12 1938 — and were welcomed with open arms by the Austrians, life changed forever.

It must have been a very frightening time for the Jews. They had seen what was happening in Germany, including the introduction of the Nuremburg Laws which outlined German “blood and honour”, legally codified racism and deprived Jews of German citizenship. Kristallnacht, the “night of the broken glass”, had not yet happened — that was to take place in November 1938 — but the portents were there.

Hitler saw the Anschluss (or union) as part of his plan to “unite” the German speaking peoples. This was forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles (the agreement made after World War One), but after Hitler moved his troops to the German border, the Austrian leader Kurt Schuschnigg resigned and German troops were invited in.

Up until this time, the Ebner family lived a happy life in Vienna. Berthold and Margarethe had many friends and close family living near them and photographs from the time show a life far removed from the horrors to come. My father, Henry (then still called Heinz) was less than a year old when the Germans arrived. His father was to miss his second birthday.

Soon after the Germans’ arrival, Berthold was ordered to show Nazi propaganda films in the Admiral and Johan Strauss cinemas which he and his wife ran. As a principled man and a Zionist — he belonged to two Zionist fraternities — he refused. But that principle cost him dearly. He was arrested in late March.

The records for Dachau show that Berthold arrived there on June 3 1938, although my father always believed it was April. It is likely that he was in a holding facility before he arrived — this is something we won’t ever know. Dachau was near the Austrian border, and then a “work camp” where inmates or prisoners did hard labour. Possessions, including money, were removed on arrival, as well as clothes.

My grandfather stayed in Dachau for approximately six months, before being moved to Buchenwald, where he remained until his subsequent release. He began writing letters soon after his arrival.

These letters — carefully stored by my grandmother and taken with when the family was fortunate enough to leave for England — are all handwritten neatly in German. My grandfather’s name, date of birth and the block he was living in are written along the side. The first letter is dated June 11, 1938.

My father has had these letters in his possession for many years, but has not been able to read them: they are too painful, a reminder of a time long gone and a father he misses terribly. Berthold died in July 1967, aged just 64, before I was born. My father always felt that the time in the camps affected Berthold greatly, not least the pains in his hand, which came from when he was strung up from his wrists as a punishment for a minor misdemeanour.

But we have finally had the letters translated and they are a strange, ghostly, testament to that time. This, remember, was when no one knew what would happen in the future. No one knew that work camps would become concentration camps or that Jews would be annihilated, murdered because of their religion. When Berthold writes to Margarethe, he asks about the business, their friends and “my Heinzerl” — his son. It’s more poignant by much of it being mundane.

He also asks regularly for money (to buy food in the canteen) and for his wife to send him more letters. It’s hard to imagine being away for so long, and having no idea when (or if) you would be coming back.

Dachau had been built in 1933 for political prisoners and a new camp (the original one held prisoners in old factory buildings as opposed to barracks) was finished in 1938. It was from here, around ten miles north west of Munich, that my grandfather started writing.

“I haven’t received money or any letters from you lately,” he says plaintively in one. It’s a comment he repeats, in subsequent correspondence, along with the mantra that he is “well” and “healthy”. With a wife and young baby at home, he must have known he needed to sound as positive as possible, although he could perhaps have left off his irritation with his wife’s handwriting!

“You have to make an effort with your handwriting because I couldn’t read your letter very well,” he writes in one letter, while in another he asks her to use a typewriter.

Back in Vienna, Margarethe was trying her hardest to get her husband out of the camp, but she had been thrown out of the flat they lived in (above the cinema) and had a baby to look after. It is an understatement to point out that it cannot have been an easy time.

This is reflected in how much of the letters is taken up with business. In one, Berthold asks about “pawn tickets” In another he asks what is happening with the cinemas. In yet another he asks his wife to “sell everything we own, as a means of subsistence for you and the child.”

And then, there’s the supportive side, as he tells his wife not to worry. Instead she should “Make sure you are all okay and keep calm.”

Another letter begins “most beloved” and ends “Kiss Heinzerl for me and I kiss you and everyone else.” As the months move on, a new poignancy emerges. A letter from August asks about “dear little Heinzerl” and adds “hopefully he would still recognise me!” — that exclamation mark is remarkably moving. The next letters, from July 1938, ask for more detail from his wife. “It would make me happy to receive longer letters (4 pages) more frequently,” he writes. A few weeks later, he says again “I would like to ask you again for longer letters because I long to hear from you.”

By mid-July, Berthold’s letters give a hint of what is to come with Jewish owned businesses. He writes that all “Jewish protective custody prisoners” have been informed that “all Jewish assets are to be registered”. He asks his wife to help, saying he gives her power of attorney and to value the flat and valuables. How ironic. When they were finally able to leave, they lost pretty much everything.

The letters have rules on them — that prisoners are allowed to receive two letters or postcards a month from relatives and allowed to send the same number to them. They must be written in ink, be legible and not more than 15 lines per page (ten for postcards). Parcels were not permitted. All letters, obviously, were read by the authorities.

From October 1938, the letters come from Buchenwald, near Weimar. Presumably my grandfather was removed some time that month.

“You can’t send anything to me in here, apart from money with which I can buy everything in here,” he writes that month. “I have ordered a cotton vest. I am well. I am feeling positive and I look forward to and have faith in the future”

The next letter (beginning “my beloved”) and written two weeks later, mentions the vest again, as well as some socks. “I am completely protected” he adds, ahead of a German winter.

There is one official piece of correspondence (dated November 17 1938) which reveals that Berthold was prevented from receiving or sending out letters as a punishment (we do not know what for). This missive also says that my grandmother was not allowed to contact the Kommandant to ask for more information — and that the ban would be extended if any “letters, postcards or parcels” were sent.

Time moves on and the letters move into 1939. In one, dated April 2, he writes: “Please see to it that all of you are well and that little Heinzel stays healthy. It is the only thing that gives me the courage to love life at these times.”

The next communication, however, sent on 5th April 1939 is the last, and is a telegram

“Arriving by autobus Saturday midday — wait for me at home.”

Berthold, Margarethe and Heinz (later Henry) Ebner arrived in the UK two weeks before the war broke out, on 16 August 1939. They came on passports which had swastikas stamped upon them, but had visas which allowed them to work as a cook and manservant to a vicar in the tiny village of Binham in Norfolk. They were allowed to leave Austria as part of an amnesty for those who could show they had another country to go to, and who were prepared to pay the exit tax.

Berthold’s father, sister and family all died in concentration camps, as did Margarethe’s mother. Before the war there were around 180,000 Jews in Austria. The community now is nearer 10,000. The Anschluss changed that world forever. 

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