Vienna's Kindertransport museum set to reopen after ten-month search for new home

Campaigners say the Kindertransport story was unknown in Austria until fairly recently


The Kindertransport museum in Austria’s capital will reopen this October after a ten-month struggle to find a new home.

It had been forced to close in January after five years of operation because it had no funds to pay the rent the landlord was demanding.

The new museum, which will reopen just in time for the anniversary of the first Kindertransport eighty years ago, will be housed in Urania, the Art Nouveau public education institute, in the heart of Vienna.

The British government agreed to allow 10,000 mostly Jewish German and Austrian child refugees into the UK in November 1938, following the violent pogrom of Kristallnacht. They were given leave to remain for two years on the condition that they did not cost the taxpayer a penny.

The children who left Vienna from the city’s Westbahnhof Station had seen their parents stripped of their livelihoods and had, in many cases, been evicted from their homes. Many, like nine-year-old Helga Bellenger, had watched as their parents were forced to scrub the pavements on their hands and knees.

The museum’s main exhibition is made up of 23 pictures of the suitcases that the children brought with them. Bellenger brought with her dolls’ dresses and a copy of the children’s classic, Heidi.

Another child brought her mother’s apron. Ingrid Joseph, 12, brought postcards of Vienna and a dolls’ umbrella Her mother and grandmother were sent to the Minsk Ghetto where they perished.

There were strict limits on what the children were allowed to take: jewellery, money and toys were not permitted and each child was allowed only one suitcase.

The first train left for London on 10 December 1938. There were 12 transports in all, most of which left in the middle of the night. Two thirds of the rescued children never saw their parents again.

Milli Segal, who runs the museum, said a challenge to finding funding was the fact that the Kindertransport story was unknown in Austria until fairly recently. Ms Segal herself only learned about it in 2007.

The story was forgotten, she said, because “very few Viennese Jews returned. They had to leave their businesses and apartments. Post-war Austrian politicians did not invite them back.”

Ms Segal’s parents, both Holocaust survivors, were from Hungary and Romania.

“When I was young I knew three or four Austrian Jewish families but most of my generation and the people around me are the first ones who were born here. Kindertransport was not part of our collective memory,” she said.

“The parents’ generation had lost everybody in the war. The children from the Kindertransport survived, but far away from Vienna. This is how Kindertransport has become part of British history and was forgotten here in Austria.”

Even though the museum has been closed for most of 2018, Ms Segal has carried on working with teachers and taking her exhibition into schools.

Austria’s geography put it on the frontline during Europe’s 2015 migration crisis. In recent years there has been a surge in support for the right-wing Freedom Party, which joined the governing coalition in 2017.

Martina Maschke, from the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, spent twenty years in Holocaust education and is a supporter of Ms Segal’s work.

She said that using the story of the children who fled the Holocaust is a key teaching tool in contemporary Austria, where Holocaust education is compulsory in school for both 14 and 17-year-olds.

“The development of European politics and anti-democratic changes in European societies is a major challenge for us, as is the general negative attitude towards foreigners in Austria,” Ms Maschke said.

She hopes that studying the story of the Jewish children who became refugees will build empathy in the classroom, particualrly through the latest Holocaust education initiative — an app called Fleeing the Holocaust.

“Teaching the basic refugee experience through the Holocaust should help both the child who has experienced being a refugee and those children who were born in Austria,” she said.

“Now, more than ever, we must empower young people to become mature citizens. Telling the story of the Jewish children who were forced to flee their homes can help nuture empathy for the refugees, many of whom are Muslims, who have arrived here in recent years.”

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