Hunter College H.S. Holocaust Survivors

A Refugee Childhood

- Eva Wenkart Maiden '52

Over the years Eva Maiden listened to her family retell stories about living under the Nazis in Vienna and escaping to Switzerland and the U.S. Each family member bore lifelong scars from the experiences.

When I picture my brother Helmut with me in the time before the Nazis took over Austria, I see a blonde boy in Lederhosen, the short grey leather pants with suspenders, kicking a soccer ball and running with his friends. I am a small girl with long brown braids, wearing a Dirndl, the Austrian folk costume for girls, holding our nanny’s hand and watching. We are in the park in Vienna, the Prater, the one with the giant ferris wheel. When we get home we will be fussed over by our resident aunt and the maid. And when our parents, both doctors, are done with their patients, who visit them in the same apartment where we live, we will be fussed over by our mother as well, and will enjoy our father’s smiles and conversation.

There was little time “before” for me, as the Germans annexed Austria in March 1938, a month before my third birthday. The invading army met a welcoming parade rather than resistance, and a coercive false election closed the deal. Knowing what had already been happening in Germany, the Jews of Vienna began to live in a state of dread, at first mixed with some measure of denial. My family immediately experienced Hitler’s terror campaign.

During the first week of occupation, my father was fired from his part time job for the city of Vienna as a coroner and free clinic physician. His chief, also a doctor, appeared in full Nazi uniform and said, “Does that Jew Wenkart believe he still works here?” Not much later, my father got a phone call from police headquarters. The secretary there was a patient of his. “Herr Doktor”, she said, “you must disappear at once. I’m typing a list of men to be arrested, and your name is on it.” He made arrangements to hide in the home of a Christian colleague. This situation was to repeat several times in the next nine months before we all escaped.

A few months later, the medical licenses of my parents and all Jewish doctors were revoked. That summer there was a scarlet fever epidemic. As Jewish men could not walk on the street safely, my mother decided to help not only her own pediatric patients, but those of her male colleagues. She began to take long walks in the evenings with a large black purse, actually a medical bag, and secretly made house calls to Jewish children.

In July, all Jews were forced to list their assets on a printed form and mail them in to the authorities. Fifty-five years later, I sent for and received these same forms from the Austrian archives in order to obtain a token of restitution from the government. As I looked at my parents’ trembling script, I wondered if they had guessed that the purpose of these lists was so that the Nazis could steal all of the assets in an efficient manner.

One day, the Nazis decided to humiliate the Jewish women of Vienna by forcing them to scrub the cobblestones in front of their houses with toothbrushes. My mother and aunt complied. A Christian neighbor from the adjacent building, whose child was a patient of my mother’s, walked over to my mother and grabbed her arm. She said to the armed Nazi guard, “Ach, Gott, this is our Frau Doktor!” and quickly walked her into her own apartment.

In 1938 forced emigration of the Jews was still the main policy of the Nazis. But the Jews’ bank accounts were now gone, so very few countries, including the United States, were eager to welcome the penniless refugees. My mother wrote to her cousin, the Chief Rabbi of Zürich, inquiring whether he would vouch for us so that our family could have the legally required affidavits of support and visas to enter Switzerland. With such documents, and paid up travel tickets, it was possible to leave. No response came back from the rabbi. Taking me along with her, my mother stood on long lines at various consulates, hoping for visas for all of us. Each time she tried, she got a negative response.

My nursery school was now shut down. At first my brother’s class in school was taken over by a Nazi teacher from Germany who tormented the Jewish pupils. Their own school mates began to harass and beat them after school as well. Later the Jewish children were expelled. Most parents sent them to Jewish parochial schools, a longer distance from home, while worrying for their safety.

In November the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom occurred, a planned Nazi riot against the Jews with street beatings, arrests and destruction of businesses and synagogues. During that week, my eight-year-old brother was snatched from our nanny in the Prater and arrested. It was alleged that he was walking on the grass close to a bench that had a sign on it: “No Dogs and Jews Allowed”. As far as my family knows, he was tortured all day in the Viennese jail and then released. All he said to our parents at that time was, “I thought I would never see you again”.

After the pogrom, the Swiss rabbi who was our cousin, decided to help us. He arranged for us to fly to Zürich in mid-December. When we arrived, my father was ill and was taken from the airport to a hospital followed by a lengthy stay in a convalescent home. My mother soon received word from the Jewish agency that assisted refugees that housing had been found for her and one child. Unable to provide for my brother, she placed him in a Catholic orphanage. After half a year my brother and father rejoined us, living in the same small room with my mother and me. Our Swiss Jewish hosts had become very attached to me, and decided to accommodate all of us. My parents were not permitted to work or acquire citizenship, and hoped only to get into the United States.

In 1939, my aunt who had lived with us, and whom I greatly missed, was able to emigrate from Austria to America. She had a low number in the lottery for the very limited American immigration quota. A job as a nanny was waiting for her when she arrived in New York. A year later, with great effort, she was able to arrange for us to travel to New York. She had contacted Jewish agencies and wealthy Jews, finally finding the needed financial sponsors for our passage and obtaining our visas. We arrived in the spring of 1940 on the last passenger ship out of Italy before America joined World War II. It was wonderful to see my aunt waiting for us at the dock.

Our family lived on small stipends from American refugee agencies for more than two years. My brother was making a very poor adjustment and showing increasing signs of emotional disturbance. I was liking school, and trying hard to fit in with my newly acquired English. My parents studied English and medicine continuously. They were forty-eight years old when they passed their board exams and made a new start as physicians in New York.

Although we knew our parents loved us deeply, they did not have much energy left for coping with their very difficult son and their highly Americanized daughter. On the other hand, their careers flourished, and they made great contributions to their new homeland.

My brother was a brilliant student, graduating from Stuyvesant High School and New York University. When he was twenty-one he was diagnosed with a full-blown mental illness. An accomplished linguist, he was sometimes able to do translations – in five languages.

I entered kindergarten at P.S. 169, Manhattan, in the fall of 1940. By the end of first grade school was easy for me, in fact, too easy. Five years later I was fortunate to pass the test for Hunter College Junior High School. My classes in 7th and 8th grade were stimulating and encouraging. In the 9th grade, while taking advanced German, I was tracked with a group of German girls who talked about nothing but their church and the German cultural events in which their families were involved. I was uncomfortable with them, and with a school atmosphere of increasing competitiveness. On my own, I arranged to transfer to Bronx High School of Science, where I felt happier. Thus there were two high schools in which I was “Class of 52”.

It was clear to me by the age of thirteen that I wanted to be a psychologist. Anxious for early independence, I chose to attend Antioch College in Ohio where I could receive job training related to a psychology major. I was married when I graduated. By the age of thirty, I had two school-aged sons and was ready to begin my career as a school psychologist. For twenty years I worked mainly with disadvantaged children. During the last five of those years, I was in training to become a psychotherapist. When I began to practice in that field I developed a number of interesting specialties, the last of which was working with Holocaust survivors. I helped organize and often facilitated groups in Palo Alto, San Francisco, Berkeley, and San Jose. Although retired, I am still active in these programs.

In my book “Decisions in the Dark: a Refugee Story” to be published in 2012, each year of my childhood is recounted exactly the way I remember it as a child of that age. My memories are exceptionally vivid, burnt into my mind by the effect of trauma.


- September, 2010

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