Life & Culture

The Jewish tennis star banned by the Nazis who went on to play at Wimbledon

Author Felice Hardy on the extraordinary story of her grandmother, which she tells in her new book


Wimbledon was always a special time in Felice Hardy’s home. Not only had her grandmother, Liesl, been an Austrian champion who had played several times in the tournament, but her mother Dorli was a British tennis star who also competed there.

What’s more, Liesl and Dorli even played a Wimbledon doubles match together — the first and only time a mother and daughter have ever played as a team during the world-famous grass court championship. Both Liesl and Dorli’s homes were covered with medals and awards and when the tournament was on and all the talk was of Martina Navratilova, Chrissie Evert and Billie Jean King, Liesl made sure they were at the Centre Court to see them.

“She loved Wimbledon and was always talking about tennis,” says Felice. “ She had all her cups from Austria — I have no idea how she got them out — and she particularly loved women’s tennis. My mother probably had better technique but my grandmother had this extraordinary stamina — she could outrun anyone.”

Felice always knew her grandmother was an exceptional woman. Not only had she risen to the top of a sport she only started playing properly in her twenties, she was still skipping to keep fit in her eighties.

But as travel journalist Felice reveals in The Tennis Champion Who Escaped the Nazis, published this week, all this is just the tip of her extraordinary story.

Her book tells tales of escape and death, of fortunes that rose and fell, of Nazis and survivor’s guilt, Jewish sporting prowess, Zionist freedom fighters and the precariousness of refugee life.

What’s more, almost all of it was kept secret from Felice, who was brought up as a “proper English girl”, her Jewish ancestry nothing more than a dirty secret about which she had to keep shtum.

When her grandmother died in 1989, the last of the Vienna family, Dorli having died prematurely young of cancer, Felice discovered a suitcase of photographs, letters and even newspaper cuttings full of stories she’d never been told about.

“My mother, who came to England with her mother when she was 12, used to tell me thoughout my childhood, ‘Don’t tell people that you’ve got Jewish blood, because people hate Jews and they’ll hold it against you,’” says Felice who even struggled to tell the man she was about to marry about her secret, so fearful was she that it meant he would leave her.

“When I had my own children, I found myself starting to say the same thing and I realised this was wrong. In fact, one day my daughter said she wanted to know more about our Jewish heritage and I had very little I could tell her.

“We planned a trip to Vienna, where my mother was born, and booked a Jewish walking tour. That’s when I met a very helpful tour guide who started me off on this whole journey.”

The journey has taken Felice five years of research across Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

It was only once she started research that she even learned that she was named after her great-grandmother Felice — her family had remained so tight-lipped about the past that even this had been kept from her.

She also discovered Liesl had a disabled sister Irma who had never been mentioned and that Felice and Irma died in a concentration camp.

And that her grandfather David had taken such a daring route to join his wife and daughter in England that it made several national newspapers.

“My grandparents told me lots of stories about their happy childhoods but then it sort of stopped,” says Felice. “When I pried any more there would be barbed-wire boundaries.”

Liesl grew up the privileged daughter of accountant Leo Westreich, who helped run the successful drinks brand Alvater with his brother-in-law. Home was a large house in Jagerndorf, then in Moravia and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and today is in the Czech Republic.

She met businessman David Herbst while she was studying at the Sorbonne in Paris. A self-made businessman who had come from a poor religious family in Poland and founded a successful stockings company in Vienna, he could hardly have been more different from her secular upper-middle-class family.

Herbst was in Paris as vice chairman of the Jewish Viennese sports club Hakoah. They were on their way home from a famous win; the Hakoah team of Jewish amateur footballers had just beaten West Ham in a friendly.

Hakoah — set up to push the idea of “muscular Judaism” — was quite an extraordinary organisation. A home for both for total amateurs and elite athletes — Jews were banned from many sporting places — it managed to hone Olympic stars as well as its successful football team.

After their wedding, Liesl started frequenting the tennis courts for the first time since she was a teenager. Before long, she was spending hours there, beating everyone she came up against.

Even the birth of Dorli in 1926 didn’t stop her making her way up the Austrian rankings — even as another Austrian was beginning to make trouble in Germany.

Dorli started accompanying her mother on the tennis court and in 1930, when Liesl shocked the country by becoming the champion of Austria, life seemed good.

But when Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, everything changed. Tennis clubs closed their doors to her, Hakoah was shut down and David’s company was stolen from him. The noose was tightening but he had a plan.

Liesl, pretending she was playing in a tennis match, was the first to escape Vienna; boarding a train to Prague laden with tennis rackets and a coat lined with jewels.

Next was Dorli, sneaked out by her non-Jewish nanny. David paid to be smuggled out of Austria with a non-Jewish couple and their Albino children. When they reached the German-Polish border, the Nazis shot the whole family dead, but David somehow escaped detection.

Soon they were joined by Trude her husband and daughter, and Liesl’s mother Felice and Irma. But the family’s reunion in Prague was not to last long as it became clear that Hitler’s intended to invade more land.

Like most Jews they tried desperately to get visas for somewhere safer; Britain came through but only for Liesl and Dorli, who left Prague in February 1939.

David’s route to Britain was to be much more circuitous and dangerous, travelling first to Poland and then to England illegally; in fact, he was about to be sent home when Liesl appeared at an immigration centre and insisted he be allowed in.

While Liesl’s husband and daughter had got out, things remained deadly dangerous for the rest of her family.

In 1942, Felice and Irma, still in Prague, were rounded up and sent to Theresienstadt, a former holiday resort for Czech nobility that had been transformed into a ghetto and holding stop for thousands of Jews. Within 17 days Felice was dead. Irma lasted just five more weeks.

Things were to be just as difficult for Liesl’s other sister Trude, who, with her husband Rudolf and daughter Anna, fled to Slovakia, which was being run by the pro-Nazi Roman Catholic priest Jozef Tiso.

In 1942, they too were caught, and taken to Novaky, a slave labour camp for mainly Jewish skilled craftsmen.

In 1944, the camp was liberated during a Slovak uprising against Tiso and, like many families, they fled to houses in the woods. There, it is likely they met the intriguing figure of Zionist fighter Haviva Reik.

Born in Slovakia she made aliyah in 1939 where she joined elite fighting group the Palmach.

When the British asked Palmach if they could supply some undercover agents to work in the occupied territories, she immediately volunteered and parachuted back into Slovakia in late 1944. There, she helped the local population resist a German invasion and organised a Jewish resistance unit.

The hope was the Russians would reach Slovakia before the Nazis, but it was not to be. In November 1944 Reik, Trude, Rudolf and Anna were part of a group of 700 who were captured and killed by the Nazis and buried in a mass grave.

As this horror unfolded, Liesl was playing tennis in London and the great subterfuge of Dorli’s life had begun. She was sent to boarding school, where she was bullied terribly for being “German”, but instructed to tell no one that she was Jewish.

In 1939 , Liesl played at Wimbledon for the first time, beating Tim Henman’s grandmother Susan Sheppard to get there.

While she lost her first game, she’d achieved her ambition to play on the hallowed turf — at a time when almost everything else had been taken from her. In 1946 — having lost a lung from tuberculosis — she was back again, this time with Dorli playing double. Once again, they lost in the first round.

Tennis was her salvation but it could not help her overcome the loss of her family and the searing guilt she had at leaving them behind.

“When I look at photographs of my grandmother when she was younger, she was always smiling but when I knew her, she never seemed 100 per cent happy,” says Felice. “I’ve been reading about survivor’s guilt and how it is passed down.

“It was there in not feeling they could talk about what had happened, and not talking about their Jewish heritage. I know it hugely affected my mother.

"She moved country when she was 12 and, in some ways, she didn’t mature from that age. She wasn’t very maternal. I think she was probably the most traumatised of them all.

“Through the Austrian Embassy, I was put in touch with something called the Second Generation Network and it’s been really helpful to be able to talk to other people who have been through the same thing.”

Through her years of research, sifting through archives and finding various cousins along the way, Felice has uncovered several incredible stories of both tragedy and triumph. Her only wish is that she could have talked to her family about what happened to them.

“Even today I still have this weird feeling when I talk about being Jewish because I was brought up to think it should never be mentioned.

"But writing this book and taking it to literary festivals has forced me to come out. And every single time I talk about it, someone comes up to me and says, ‘this resonates’ and then they share similar stories.

“I’m pleased if I can help get people talking. This stuff needs to be passed on before it’s too late.”

‘The Tennis Champion Who Escaped the Nazis: Liesl Herbst’s Journey from Vienna to Wimbledon’ by Felice Hardy is published this week by Ad Lib

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