The Nazis’ last victims
- February 13, 2024
- Elisabeth Braw
- Themes: Books, History, The Holocaust
Many Jewish children who fled Nazi-occupied Europe kept silent about their stories. As the last living links fade away, Julian Borger looks to his own father's experience to understand what that generation endured.
I Seek a Kind Person: My Father, Seven Children and the Adverts that Helped Them Escape the Holocaust, Julian Borger, John Murray, £20
The options facing Jewish Viennese families as the Nazis seized the country were like Sophie’s choice: should parents try to escape with their children, even if doing so involved a long wait, or should they try to send their children out of the country on their own? That way, at least the children might survive, though they might be miserable in their new land. That’s the choice Leo and Erna Borger faced. They chose to place an advert for their son, Robert, in the Manchester Guardian. In I Seek a Kind Person, Robert’s son Julian tells the story of the Viennese Jewish families that put their children up for fostering – and work – through adverts in the newspaper.
I write this on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Newspapers and other media are full of stories of now very elderly people who survived the Holocaust as children or young adults. The people who survived the genocide at an older age are no longer with us, and now even the children and youths of the 1930s and 40s are departing this life. On German national radio I heard this morning that there are only some 250,000 people alive today who were subjected to the Holocaust. In a not very distant future, we will no longer have any Holocaust survivors among us. We will have permanently lost the opportunity to hear first-hand about this chapter of 20th century history.
When Julian Borger’s father died, by suicide, he realised that he should have asked him more about this childhood in Vienna and escape to Britain. Like many Jews who made it out of Nazi-held territory, Robert had remained virtually silent about these memories. Julian knew only that Robert had escaped from Vienna as a child and been raised by a kind teacher couple in rural Wales. In I Seek a Kind Person, Borger junior tries to piece together the few pieces of information his father left him – and pursues the story not just of his father but of several other Jewish children from Vienna who found refuge in Britain. They’re not as famous as the children rescued by Nicholas Winton or through the Kindertransport programme, perhaps because there were not as many of them, but their stories are every bit as searing.
Take Robert Borger himself, raised in Vienna by parents – Leo and Erna – who belonged to the city’s merchant class. They owned the Radio Borger shop, which sold wirelesses and musical instruments, and were comfortable enough though not prosperous. From 1934, Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg ruled the country in an authoritarian rather than dictatorial way – and he was determined to keep the country out of Adolf Hitler’s claws.
Schuschnigg failed. On 12 March 1938 the Wehrmacht crossed into Austria, and Hitler declared the country annexed. What happened next is well known: the immediate transformation of Austria into a region operating under the rules of the Third Reich. Under now desperate conditions, Leo and Erna placed their advert. ‘I seek a kind person who will educate my intelligent Boy, aged 11, Viennese of good family,’ they wrote. Other families issued similar pleas: ‘Who would give a Home to a grammar school music scholar aged 13. Healthy, clever, very musical.’ ‘Will a Philanthropist take a much-gifted Girl, 14 years old, daughter of an Austrian Jewish lawyer, as a foster-child?’ And so on. Until November 1938, when the British government launched the Kindertransport initiative to rescue Jewish children, some 60 families placed adverts for foster families in the Manchester Guardian and others did so in other British newspapers.
Not every child who found a taker was as lucky as Robert Borger, whose foster parents gave him a loving home in which he stayed until he went off to university. As Julian Borger finds out, some of the rescued children who arrived aged 14 or older, when mandatory school attendance ended, were assigned a considerable amount of work in their new hosts’ homes. Borger painstakingly tracks down as many of the Manchester Guardian children as he can. Most have died of old age and, like Robert Borger, they told their children little about their memories, though he discovers that a couple of them wrote memoirs for family use, which he’s able to consult. It’s hardly surprising that the Holocaust wasn’t dinner-table conversation in the children’s homes, not even when they had married and had children. It was a trauma they’d worked hard to defeat and, at any rate, how can someone who hasn’t experienced the Holocaust even begin to understand it? Their trauma from home was compounded by their arrival in a country whose language they mostly didn’t speak.
At least they had survived. It’s heart-wrenching to read about how the parents waited on the platform as the trains on which their children were leaving the country rolled out of Vienna’s central station. Some of the parents, having hastily trained themselves for work as maids, barbers and factory workers, made it out, but many did not. Leo and Erna Borger made it to Britain but, perhaps understandably, they and Robert were traumatised in different ways and ended up living apart.
This, I think, is how one should think about the Holocaust: not just as a brutal political chapter, but as a collection of individual experiences. Everyone who survived it has an important story to tell, and it’s only by listening to these individual stories that we can truly understand the extent of the Holocaust’s evil and the impact on those who survived it – and on those who did not. At the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, some of the few remaining survivors regularly make themselves available to speak with staff and visitors. So it was that my daughter, who is a student ambassador at the museum, recently spent a day with 98-year-old Frank Cohn. Born Franz Cohn in German Breslau (now Polish Wroclaw), Cohn escaped to the United States with his parents in 1938, when he was 15. Since retiring from the US Army, he has volunteered at Washington’s Holocaust Museum.
Robert Borger was not as lucky. Even though Julian and his siblings were still young and living at home, Robert took his own life. Julian, his siblings and their mother never fully understood why. Robert’s foster mother gave her Julian her opinion: Robert was the Nazis’ last victim, she said.