Gabriele Keenaghan will turn 97 this year but she still remembers German troops marching into her home country on 13 March 1938.
Just over a year before the Second World War began, Austria became the first nation to be annexed by Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
“That’s when my life changed completely,” she told i. “I remember clearly the day Austria was annexed. I heard cheers and clapping. Austria had welcomed Hitler because he had helped Germany economically and people felt he was going to do the same for them.”
But the celebrations didn’t last long. A few days later, German troops closed the convent school she attended.
Her mother Hilda, from a Catholic family, had died just one year before, when Gabriele was 11 and her maternal grandmother, also named Gabriele, had become her guardian. Her father Josep Weiss worked away and visited her every week.
“The local authorities came and called out our names and I found myself stood on my own with my friends lined up on the other side of the hall. They said, ‘We’re sorry but you can’t go to school with your friends’. I asked why and they said, ‘Because your father is a Jew‘. I didn’t even know my father was Jewish. That’s the first time I realised I was different to my friends,” she said.
Labelled as a “mischling” by the Nazis – a pejorative Nazi German term for a person of mixed blood – Gabriele was sent to a Jewish school and forced to wear a yellow Star of David at all times.
Widespread anti-Semitic hate followed quickly on the heels of the Anschluss. The Nazis almost immediately established anti-Jewish legislation, forcing Jews from their jobs, and essentially expelling them from the country’s economic, social, and cultural life. The Gestapo looted Jewish belongings and by the summer of 1939, thousands of Jewish-owned businesses had been closed or seized by the government.
Jews were attacked and humiliated on the streets and even Gabriele, a child, lived in fear.
“That was a really bad time for me. The star pointed me out as different. I had things thrown at me and I was called names, like ‘Dirty little Jew’. I used to dread going to and from school. I couldn’t play anymore with my friends at the park because there was a sign that said ‘Jews not allowed’,” she said.
Before the Anschluss in 1938, Austria had a Jewish population of 190,000. Over one third of Austrian Jews – approximately 65,000 – perished in the Holocaust, and most of the rest were forced to emigrate.
Children alone and crying
On 9 November 1938, the Nazis initiated a campaign of hatred against Jews in all Nazi territories, known as Kristallnacht (the Night of the Broken Glass), named after the smashed glass that covered the streets from the windows of vandalised and looted shops and synagogues. An estimated 91 Jews were killed and 30,000 arrested. This has since been described as ‘the beginning of the Holocaust’.
This was the eve of Gabriele’s 12th birthday and she remembers “dreadful screaming”. The next day she waited excitedly for her father to take her out to celebrate as arranged. “My father never appeared,” she said.
It had become increasingly clear that Gabriele’s life was in danger in Austria. “My grandmother was worried that I would be taken next,” she said.
And so her grandmother arranged for her to escape the country through the Kindertransport (German for children’s transport). In the wake of Nazi’s persecution of Jews, the British government agreed to allow unaccompanied minors under the age of 17 from the German Reich (including recently annexed territories) to enter as refugees. From December 1938 until May 1940, the Kindertransport efforts brought about 10,000 children to safety in Great Britain.
And on 24 April 1939, Gabriele was one of 150 unaccompanied children, with labels around their neck to identify them, who left Vienna for the UK, not knowing if they would see their families again.
“My grandmother came to the station to wave me off. The parents had been told not to have any emotional scenes,” she said.
“I’ll always remember my grandmother waving and smiling as the train pulled away. I know now she was trying to give me her courage, and encourage me to believe everything was going to be ok. It makes me very, very sad to think about that day.
“I’ll always remember the sounds of them crying. We were all alone and some were only four years old.
“We stopped off at a station on the Germany-Holland border and there was a feast laid out for us – sandwiches, drinks and more along with toys. The people there comforted the crying children. I haven’t been able to find out the name of the station, but I’ll always remember their kindness.”
Building a life
After a two-day journey, Gabriele arrived in London and was met by a representative of the Catholic Committee for Refugees, who sent her to foster parents in Aldershot, Hampshire. She describes living in a new country and with a new family when she couldn’t speak the language as “overwhelming”, but she was glad that the children at school made her feel welcome.
When the war broke out in September 1939 and her foster father was sent away to fight with the Army, Gabriele said her foster mother’s attitude changed towards her and she felt she began seeing her, with her German sounding accent, as “the enemy”. She felt further isolated because the war meant she was unable to write to her grandmother.
Gabriele was evacuated to a boarding convent school in Kent and despite the barriers, she became fluent in English and excelled in her studies. But just after her 16th birthday, she received the news that she was considered an “enemy alien” and she couldn’t stay there.
She then trained as a nursery nurse in London, where she was forced to report to a police station once a month. Sheltering in air raid shelters during the Blitz, in 1940 and 1941, was “horrifying”. She remembers a particularly intense night of bombing. “There had been so many incendiary bombs the sky was completely red from the flames reflecting back up. I’ll never forget that.”
Next she got a job living with a family as a nanny in Surrey, where she was employed until the end of the war. “The couple who employed me were so kind. When my employment came to an end, they arranged for me to become a British citizen, and helped me get a teacher training position in Newcastle. They helped establish my life here.”
She encountered more goodwill in Newcastle, where a friend’s mother offered her a home while she saved money. It was here at age 21 Gabriele met her soulmate John – who was known as Ken – who she went on to marry and have two daughters with, and three granddaughters and a great grandchild.
When the war ended, Gabriele was left scared for her beloved grandmother’s safety after she wrote to her and her letter was sent back with the words “Not at this address”.
A tense few months went by with no news, but then she received a letter and immediately recognised the handwriting still after many years. “I was so relieved my grandmother had survived the war,” she said. But neither of them had the means to travel to see each other in person.
It was in 1951, when her then fiancé arranged a surprise for her: a trip to Vienna.
“The Nazis had commandeered her flat, hence why my letter was returned. It was an emotional reunion.”
Gabriele and her family went to visit every summer and Gabriele senior, who lived until 1974, even got to meet her great grandchildren. “My children called her Grandma Noddy, because, not speaking English, she’d just sit there and smile and nod.”
Sadly, Gabriele was unable to trace her father. “When we were in Vienna we went to the Jewish Embassy to look for records of my father. He’d been deported to the Łódź Jewish ghetto in Poland. Eventually, it was closed and all inmates were sent to Auschwitz to the gas chambers. So he probably either died in the ghetto or died at Auschwitz.”
Gabriele, who went on to become a headteacher in the North East, in 2019 was awarded the British Empire Medal for services to Holocaust education and awareness.
She says she feels no hatred despite what the Nazis did to her family. “I was unlucky in childhood, but I’ve been extremely lucky since and I can only be grateful for all the kind people in Britain along the way who have helped me build my life.
“I want to keep telling my story in the hope it helps people turn away from hatred and division.”
Karen Pollock CBE, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said: “As communities across the country come together to mark the day, we remember the six million men, women and children who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators, simply for being Jewish.
“On Holocaust Memorial Day we also pay tribute to the incredible survivors – including Gabriele – who share their testimony day in and day out to ensure that future generations never forget the horrors of the past.”
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