Vienna’s UK embassy honours diplomats and clergy who saved Jews from Nazis

The UK ambassador recently discovered her own grandmother escaped on the Kindertransport


A plaque honouring the memory of British officials and Anglican clergy who saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis was unveiled at the British embassy in Vienna, dedicated by the Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR).

The ceremony was led by Lord Pickles, the government’s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues and co-chair of Britain’s Holocaust Memorial Foundation, and the president of the Austrian parliament Wolfgang Sobotka.

The diplomats and clergy went into action after the Anschluss of March 1938 when Hitler’s troops annexed Austria.

It was an emotional morning at the embassy for Britain’s ambassador to Austria, Lindsay Skoll, who told attendees she had often found herself close to tears reading the accounts of those whom British diplomats and clergymen had tried to save.

Skoll discovered only recently that she herself was the grandchild of a Holocaust survivor. Her grandmother, born in Germany, found sanctuary in Vienna as a child before making it out on one of the last Kindertransport trains, settling in the north-east of England. Her grandmother kept this a secret until almost the very end of her life.

“I have great sadness in my heart that so much of that really important part of her life was suppressed and never talked about,” Skoll told the JC, adding that her own family history made the decision to mount the plaque a personal one. “It’s an incredible story of moral bravery and individual courage, but yes, it has a special layer of meaning for me.”

Standing in the ambassador’s residence, she reflected: “So many of us in the house today would not be here were it not for their efforts.”

“It’s a recognition of when quite a bit of the Foreign Office was in denial,” Lord Pickles told the JC before the event. Those who “recognised the importance of saving Jewish lives deserve to be remembered and we need to come to terms with how slow the British government was sometimes to react” as the Holocaust unfolded, he said.

AJR Chairman Mike Karp, who spoke at the unveiling, commented: “Siting a plaque here at the British embassy in Vienna is hugely symbolic. It is our great hope that as well as fascinating passers-by, the plaque will help form a tangible link in the story of the refugees’ escape from Nazism and the sanctuary they received in Britain.

"It is our fervent wish that this plaque, along with the others in our scheme, will help bring the past into the present and perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust.”

Following the Anschluss, the British Embassy in Vienna near the Belvedere Palace was downgraded to the status of consulate-general.

Its passport team, led first by Thomas Kendrick and then George Berry, worked in tandem with clergy from the Anglican Christ Church in Vienna — located across the street from the embassy — to provide travel documents and baptismal certificates to Austrian Jews looking to escape Nazi persecution.

Beginning on 14 June 1938, Revs Hugh Grimes and Frederick Collard conducted hundreds of baptisms — around 1,800 in total — in order to afford Jews temporary protection and make it easier for them to leave the country.

The embassy’s diplomatic team, meanwhile, defied orders and exploited loopholes in the system to issue travel permits and emergency passports.

“It’s been my experience that all the best things British diplomats do on the ground take place in defiance of the Foreign Office,” Lord Pickles told the JC.

In doing so, staff and clergy placed themselves in great professional and personal danger. Both Kendrick and Rev Collard were interrogated at the former Hotel Metropole, which the Gestapo turned into their Viennese headquarters.

Christ Church’s verger, Fred Richter, himself a baptised Jew, was arrested and sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment on espionage charges. He was later deported to Auschwitz where he died.

Tens of thousands of Jewish lives are believed to have been saved thanks to the endeavours of Vienna embassy staff and Anglican clergy.

The blue plaque idea came to Skoll via the AJR, which was founded in 1941 as a representative organisation for German and Austrian Jewish refugees who had arrived in Britain fleeing Nazi persecution.

Frank Harding, who has been involved in commemorating Jewish contributions to British life through blue plaques in London, told the JC that the AJR also wanted to do something to recognise those who had worked to save Jewish lives.

“My parents were refugees,” said Harding. “They came from Berlin in the late Thirties.” He has always been impressed by what they had to do in order to rebuild their lives in a new country.

Today, he was able to “thank those who helped them do so”. 

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