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Austria, 1938, Kindertransport

George Kren: Born a Jew in Linz, Austria, in 1924, Kren told me of his family leaving Austria for the United States. He was a scholar of the Holocaust at Kansas State University, History Department, Manhattan. Excerpts taken from an interview with him August, 1997.

     

Kren: In 1938, Austria was annexed by Germany, and the result was that my father was in prison for a while and it became very apparent that we had to leave…We weren’t wanted…The getting out was imminently easy. It was getting in somewhere that was a problem and generally most everyone was hostile to that idea…The way [leaving] was done was that we split up. My sister and I went to England while my parents stayed. She stayed with an English family, which was willing to take her in. I stayed in a youth hostel. In the meantime, my parents left. They were able to leave then when the ship, … which was an Italian ship, was sailing. It was boarded by a French cruiser, and everyone, which included my father, with a German passport was taken off and put in a camp in Algiers… My mother sailed on, and my mother got a job then as a domestic in New York. One of the amusing things which she tells is she had to do something and the woman explained how she wanted things done and my mother's response was ‘I know, that's what I used to tell my maids, too.’ It shows the shift of class position,... becoming déclassé so immediately.

GM: How was your father able to get out of Algiers? Kren: Well, the story he tells is that one of the camp officers had something wrong with him and my father was called in to consult.

GM: He was a physician, right? Kren: Yes... and [gave the officer good medical advice] and that person said, "Well, can I do anything to help you?" This led them sending a letter to some organization in France that then became aware of their plight and acted on it and did something about getting them released. Eventually my father got out, got to New York and then a year and half in, I believe June, 1940, my sister and I got passage to New York.

During various parts of the interview, Dr. Kren mentions that his parents were able to gain passage due to an organization vouching that they would not become charges on the public welfare. He states that it "took a fair amount of doing" even though both of his parents were obviously highly educated.

He also talked about being separated from everyone for two years. His sister was in a foster home of a British couple, but he was in a hostel with about 25 other children. He was 12 when he left Austria.

GM: What was it like for you (in the hostel)? Kren: After the war started, one could not really write. I had no idea where people were. GM: You didn't even know whether your parents were still alive then? Kren: No. I mean, creating a fairly high anxiety level, really. In retrospect, I think what I now see is that an organizing principle in my life was a sense of abandonment. Some psychic price to pay for that.

Eventually, Kren was able to make contact with his family through a correspondence through Holland. After 2 years in the youth hostel, he and his sister were able to come to the States.

GM: So what was it like when you arrived here? Kren: Very strange, intimidating, somewhat. GM: How was it strange to you? Kren: Language, customs, there's an All-American way of life even for teenagers which was alien to me beginning with, which is partially my individual thing, my total incompetence in any sports activity. But also [the] socialization process is very different. I mean, I went to high school and I was simply unable to make any friends at all. Then I was sent to, what I regard as a very low point in my life certainly, to a prep school, where again, I functioned adequately, I did all right academically, but I did very badly socially. GM: Well, it was another abandonment. Kren: Yea, of course…

GM: Your sister... Kren: Yea, my sister is very different…She's two years younger. GM: Is she here in the States? Kren: She's in the States. We are not on bad terms but we are certainly not close. GM: Did she come over to New York about the same time you did? Kren: Yea, she came with me and her attempt was very much in a way mine was not, to Americanize. She was a typical American teenager with Frank Sinatra things and all that.

GM: Do you remember much about your life back in Austria? Kren: Yea. Oh yes. GM: Are there certain things that you miss about life back there? Kren: No, not really. I mean, I'm trying to think...I certainly do not miss the country. Could you go back to the old condition never came up even, it was unthinkable…I think one reason I work on the Holocaust – I’ve asked myself that. Why does one work on the Holocaust, which has been a major research project for me? Obviously, it is not simply because it's a nice little subject. I mean, obviously, it is a working out of something also…Obviously, some guilt feelings about having survived. I think that sole survivor thing is fairly basic…

 

The interesting thing about Austria is, for example, that the Austrians made up 18 percent of the German population after the union of Germany and Austria. The Austrians, those 18 percent, made up 40 percent of the staff of death camps. Which is more than a statistical anomaly, and you know, obviously, there are good reasons for it. My own reading of it, both from the sort of recollections and from study now is that the Austrians are vastly more given to sadistic conduct than the Germans. I mean, if you look at what happened in Vienna in '38, it was so much so that the Germans said, "Look, these people have to be restrained because this would be a blot on German honor"…

Again, I've sort of been trying to assess what all these things have done to me. It has certainly been a, oh, what should we say, a break certainly on the expression of any affect. And a tendency, again, which I think is my individual defense mechanism, a tendency to intellectualize everything. A tendency, I suppose to be verbally fairly aggressive. GM: Well, you learn certain ways to survive. Kren: Yea, …

GM: Do you have any contacts here in the United States from anyone who was back in Austria that escaped? Kren: I have a cousin. Both my parents have died. I have a cousin who is…a training analyst in Washington, D.C., and we see each other occasionally. Margo [my wife]…has such a very extended family, and I have none of that.

GM: Did your parents become citizens? Kren: Yes. GM: Did you have to go through a citizenship process? Kren: Well, I went to the Army and the Army took care of that. GM: Once you got here, did your parents try to assimilate very quickly? Kren: There was still a sense of being different with a kind of European contempt for things American. More so my mother than my father. My mother had pretensions of being intellectual and spiritual, which is a very bad combination.

GM: Did you experience discrimination because of being from another country? Kren: Partially that and simply being Jewish. America still has a good anti-Semitic tradition. GM: Did you find it more because of being Jewish than because of being an immigrant? Kren: Hard to say. I mean part of it is my own choice,…and I think that goes beyond those general things. [It] may have to do with the specific dynamics, psychodynamics, of myself. I've always felt radically alienated…I thought very much, simply, that I did not fit. I've always been, or even now... I'm still the odd, in many ways, the oddball. I mean, I tend to be politically – I’m reasonably far to the left. Religiously, I'm fairly committed atheistically, and that offends people, and I'm not willing to say, as others are, "Well, everyone has a right to believe". Of course everyone has a right to believe. Everyone has a right to be wrong. But, I'm also willing, which is not appreciated, to give an explanation as to why people hold certain beliefs.

GM: Do you see yourself as more a United States citizen or do you still see yourself as Austrian? Kren: I see myself certainly not as an Austrian. I guess I see myself as a United States citizen but a very alienated one. I mean, for example, I was very active in the Anti-Vietnam movement. And that kind of outlook is still with me. I was very much against what we were doing then…

Dr. Kren ended in the manner his colleagues and friends lovingly remembered about him – he suggested books I should read which would help me in this project. Sadly, George Kren died July 24, 2000.

Gretchen Morgan, stories at immigrantjourneys Dot com, P.O. Box 661467, Sacramento, CA 95866-1467

 
 
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