I was fortunate enough to meet Hans Albrecht on a sunny Monday morning after just such a drive down to the coastal city of Brighton, where he now lives in a nursing home for the elderly.
His is a fascinating story of wartime survival and his family’s determination to flout the Nazis and seek sanctuary here, away from the atrocities of Austria. What makes this story so special is that Hans has what are now termed as mild to moderate learning difficulties, which made his existence under the Nazi occupation of Austria uncertain, as anyone deemed to be mentally or physically handicapped were among the first to be euthanised and as a Jew, it was doubly perilous for him.
Hans Albrecht was born on 27th April 1931 in the City of Linz on the Danube close to the Czech border. It is an elegant city with beautiful architecture, hometown to both Kepler the mathematician and the composer Bruckner, as well as the famous Linzer Torte, reputed to be the oldest cake in history.
The family lived with Hans’ maternal grandfather happily in the village of Kleinmunchen just outside the city, and although Hans had some challenges, he was a bright boy and started school when he was six years old. Sadly this was not to last as on 13 March 1938 one of Linz’s citizens by birth, Adolph Hitler, decided to return and the Anschluss – annexation – of Austria began.
On 21 May that year all Jewish children had to be removed from regular schools and were made to go to Jewish only schools, so Hans transferred to one in the main town of Linz. The children were crowded together with several forms being taught together and Hans can remember the name, age and which form each child was in. Classmates included the granddaughter of Dr Eduard Bloch, who had the dubious fortune of treating Hitler’s mother and who was granted special protection from the Gestapo until transport to the USA could be arranged for his family. During the long Summer holidays even more draconian measures were instated and Jews were no longer able to visit parks, cafes or swimming baths. Hans recalls spending a great deal of that Summer reading lots of books, practicing his handwriting and taking cool baths in the yard of the house.
Hans remembers how difficult it was for Jews to go about their daily business during that Summer:
“My mother had a very good friend living in the nearby town of Ebelsberg – a small market town and there lived a lady in a family called Postl. The youngest daughter was a schoolmistress called Theresa who was brought up in the Ursuline Convent in Linz. Later on she became a senior school teacher for girls and once in the tram she went and sat next to my mother.
“My mother said ‘Don’t sit next to me Theresa, because this will put you into danger; if you sit next to a Jew it might cost you your job.’
Her reply was ‘I would rather lose my job than my faith in you.’
All other people moved away when they saw a Jewish person in a train or a tram and Theresa Postl did exactly the opposite!”
School started again in the Autumn but closed for good after barely five weeks. he awful events of Kristallnacht happened on the 9 and 10 November; a nationwide pogrom against the Jews where buildings, shops and synagogues were smashed and many people were rounded up, beaten and deported to forced labour camps or shot on sight. Within a few days edicts were issued and Jews were forced to leave Linz; it was Hitler’s birthplace which he intended to make a perfect Aryan city and the centre for Aryan culture.
The Albrecht family were sad to leave their village as they had a good circle of friends there, but they packed up and moved to live with cousins in Vienna.
Six months later, barely a year after Hitler had marched into Austria, Child No.1 left Austria on Saturday 13 May, never to return. Little Hans, just eight years old, was made to line up with the others in alphabetical order and was given his number on a manilla parcel tag with his name on the back. All his possessions were packed into a tiny sealed suitcase and he boarded a Kindertransport train under the care of a woman named Trude Frank. These transports were often hastily arranged and continued until war was declared in September 1939. Once on British soil Hans began the first of his many placements in the county that he now calls home. Three weeks in Brighton in early Summer sounds wonderful, but to a small boy who spoke no English and with learning difficulties it was less than ideal; because of his learning difficulties Hans was placed in a home for Jewish Refugee children in Margate for eight weeks, under the care of a nerve specialist Dr Liese Gelner, who specialised in children with disabilities.
Fortunately for Hans, his aunt and uncle had escaped to England and were living in Worthing, so he went to live with them while they endured a tense period waiting for his mother to join them via Romania.
Although they had escaped Nazi occupied Austria they were hardly made to feel welcome in Worthing and were treated as “enemy aliens”. Due to Worthing’s vulnerable position on the coast of England all “enemy aliens” were forced to leave so the family moved to Llandudno in Wales; hardly a target for the Luftwaffe.
Then began a period of gypsy wandering, first to the Lake District and then Harpenden in Hertfordshire and then to Surrey so that Hans could attend Stoatley Rough School for refugee children in Haselmere, but Sussex and the South Coast were never far from their minds and the family moved back to Worthing, as soon as the war had ended.
By this time Mr Albrecht had joined the family, he had been captaining ships in Egypt, and they lived happily in Worthing where Hans was employed as a greengrocer.
From 1963 Hans lived in a Rudolf Steiner home for adults with learning difficulties in Botton Village in Yorkshire, but was unhappy there as it was too far away from his beloved Brighton and the Jewish community he had grown up in so he moved back home with his parents and then spent two years yo-yoing back and forth between different homes before settling in as a long time resident at Tikvah House in Brighton, where he spent more than 20 happy years being part of a family of adults with learning difficulties. There is a Austro-German concept called “Heimat” which sadly has no translation. It is defined in the dictionary as
“…the relationship of a human being towards a certain spatial social unit. The term forms a contrast to social alienation and usually carries positive connotations.” It is here in Sussex that a small boy, without his family and with no commonality of language or culture, found his Heimat. A famous son of Sussex, Rudyard Kipling perfectly encapsulated the British equivalent of Heimat in these few lines:
This beautiful green county by the sea opened its arms and welcomed countless hundreds of refugee children from Nazi occupied territories and by doing so saved many lives. The kindness of the people of Sussex has enabled a small boy with many difficulties to grow up into a charming and happy individual who has reached his full potential, a future that would have been denied him had he stayed in Linz.