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Erica - Austria


Erica was born in Vienna, Austria in 1932. One of the most vivid memories of her childhood is watching from her grandparents' apartment window as Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regieme entered the city of Vienna in March, 1938. She remembers seeing him waving from his staff car as jubilant crowds cheered him on. Hitler was very highly regarded in Austria; many Austrians were in favor of their country joining the Reich.


Of course it was known that Hitler's attitude toward the Jews was very hateful; for years he had been fanning the flames of anti-Semitism inside his own country, and it was spreading. Anti-Semitic graffiti was appearing on Jewish shops and businesses in Vienna with increasing regularity. The Nazi line of reasoning blamed the rampant unemployment and lingering economic depression of the region on the Jews, and there were many that accepted this explanation of their misery, even though the Jewish population was often as badly hit by the depression as the rest.


Erica's mother had visited the German city of Berlin near the end of 1937 to visit relatives. She observed the conditions there and decided things would be very bad for them if Austria ever accepted a Nazi government. When she returned the family began to seriously consider leaving the country.


The family was still there to witness the Nazi takeover a few months later. The Nazi presence made the widespread anti-Semitic sentiment official. There was an incident in the park one day -- little Erica was strolling with her nanny, and she was dressed in a green and white tunic which was considered a traditional Austrian garb -- when Nazis stopped and harassed them. They demanded to know whether this child in the traditional tunic was a native Austrian (meaning an Aryan child). When informed that she was not, the family were instructed that she was never to be seen wearing these clothes again, on penalty of the arrest of the entire family. Soon after, Erica's father was arrested for distributing Socialist literature in the city. He was detained by the authorities only for an afternoon, but now his name would be on file as a known political dissident. It was only a matter of time before they took him away. Now they moved to escape the country in earnest. Belongings were packed and arrangements were made to secret some money out of the country, which was illegal. It was November of 1938 when the family finally could leave; as it turned out, only days before the Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when anti-Jewish mayhem exploded.


Erica's family traveled to London, England, where they had family. Their eventual destination was intended to be America ; Erica's aunt had lived in the city of Los Angeles at that point for nearly twenty years. They remained in London until September, 1939. At this time, no state of war yet existed between Britain and Germany, but it was generally suspected it would not be long in coming. The family booked passage on two separate ships, the Athenia and the Normandy. Both ships were scheduled to depart on September 2nd, the Athenia from Liverpool and the Normandy from Northhampton. Erica, her brother and their mother were booked on the Athenia, while the father was to travel on the Normandy.


Ten hours out to sea, the news reached the Athenia by radio that war had been declared. Many of the passengers were made anxious by this state of affairs, but few thought they were in any immediate danger; the ship was British, but as a passenger liner it was considered to be protected under the rules of war.


Two hours later the ship was hit by a torpedo launched by a German submarine. Many of the passengers and crew were below deck dining when the attack occurred; they were instantly trapped. Others who were still above deck were killed or injured when the large smokestack exploded, covering everything with thick, black soot. Erica had been seasick that day, and had not felt like eating. A simple twist of fate allowed her and her family to survive the sneak attack.


The scene was chaos. The survivors scrambled for the lifeboats. Erica's brother made it on to one first. As Erica herself tried to escape, the rope ladder to the lifeboat caught fire. She was terrified, but someone behind her practically threw her down into the boat. There was no time to think. The whirlpool created by the sinking ship threatened to swamp the lifeboats and drown them all. They lost sight of their mother and were unsure of her fate as the lifeboat was hurriedly rowed away.


They were rowing all night, unsure of direction. With dawn came the sight of a ship in the distance. Soon they were rescued. Because no one had their transit and identity papers, all the European survivors had to be sent back to their points of origin. The exceptions were Erica and her brother. Because it was assumed the mother was lost, and the father had already sailed for America, the children were allowed to continue on to join their father in the United States.


It turned out that neither assumption was correct. The Normandy never sailed, and Erica's father was still in England; and it turned out her mother had not gone down with theAthenia. Although she had fainted in the mad rush for the lifeboats, someone had had the presence of mind to pick her up and carry her along to safety. Her lifeboat was rescued by a British warship. She was also returned to England.


The children continued their voyage aboard the S.S. City of Flint. Some weeks later they arrived in North America when the City of Flint landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Red Cross cared for them until the parents could be located. The family was reunited in New York City a few weeks later.


Erica's story is an amazing one. She escaped two incredible calamities - the Holocaust, and a torpedoed ship. She reports that to this day she does not enjoy swimming.



Related Resources for this Speaker:



To the Land of the Cattails

Applefeld, Aharon. Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1986.

The Devil in Vienna

Orgel, Doris. Puffin Books, 1988.


The Holocaust: Life Unworthy of Life

55 minutes