Harriet Stevens speaks to JLife about rediscovering a voice from the past on a forgotten cassette tape, as she attempts to unearth the truth behind her family’s escape from Nazi-occupied Austria.
It was Kristallnacht and Siegfried Schrotter was hiding in a cupboard on the landing as his flat was ransacked around him. A roaring mob of local men forced their way into the family home in the Jewish district of Leopoldstadt, Vienna, while German soldiers rounded up Jewish males over the age of 14 in the streets. His wife, Hedwig and six year-old son, Eric could only look on as fellow citizens whipped into antisemitic fervour tore their glass chandelier from the ceiling.
More than 50 years later at her home in West London, Hedwig immortalised these recollections of her family’s flight from pre-war Vienna on cassette. These tapes had lain dormant until two years ago, when her granddaughter, Harriet Stevens, along with her sisters Jessica and Rachel summoned the courage to press play.
“We’d always found it hard to listen to the tapes. I’d just gone part-time with my work as a civil servant and going back to them was something I’d always wanted to do but never had the chance.”
Harriet had the extensive recordings of her elderly grandmother, made by her sister and brother-in-law in 1991 transcribed and digitised.
“Being able to listen back gave me the impetus to piece together a crucial part of our family’s history that had never been fully explained. My grandma would occasionally talk of her siblings in Vienna she had lost contact with. But it was only when I went back to the recordings that I found the names.”
Armed with new information, Harriet visited the archives at the Jewish Records Office in Vienna to unearth the fates of the two brothers and two sisters her grandmother had presumed dead.
While Harriet learned of the tragic deaths of the four siblings at the hands of the Nazis in German-occupied Europe, she discovered that her grandparents had escaped the same fate, all down to the generosity of one Leodensian.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Philip Boyle, the Unitarian businessman who sheltered my family under his own roof in Leeds. But aside from a few scant details, even now we still know precious little about the man.”
Harriet was aware that for her family to be granted a visa, Philip would have had to go through the official channels of immigration clearing houses. Led to believe there could be a paper trail from Leeds, she and her sisters made a trip to the city’s Jewish refugee archives.
While combing the refugee committee files, they uncovered a letter entitled ‘Petition for Home Office on Behalf of Siegfried’ in which Philip entered a plea to sponsor the family. It pled with the Home Office for Siegfried not be interned and offered him work with hemp and flax company Boyle and Son, at its factory on Swinegate. It also stated that Philip’s brother, Lord Mayor of Leeds C.H. Boyle would vouch for him.
Philip was a partner at Boyle and Son and with Siegfried also having been a hemp and flax merchant, Harriet believes it was this business connection that led to her grandfather entreating his English counterpart to facilitate the family’s escape.
“The archive was a great source of information about the context of what it was like to apply to come to the country. You have to be sponsored and the sponsor has to guarantee you financially, potentially for the rest of your life.
“I saw the correspondence from well-meaning locals, offering their homes to Jewish refugees. And then there were the letters sent back from the committee stipulating the financial commitment, followed by their replies apologising they couldn’t afford to make such a pledge. In this respect, my family were incredibly lucky for Philip to have taken on that responsibility.”
Siegfried left Vienna for Switzerland the day after Kristallnacht fearing for his life. Yet as the lengthy immigration process stalled, he was forced to leave his wife and son behind, unable to obtain visas. Several months later, the Schrotters application was finally granted, and on their journey to Britain, the family reunited at a Jewish refugee commune in Durrës on the western coast of Albania.
“My grandma spoke of a peaceful time on that beach, where children played in the sand and the residents of the commune made furniture. But when Italy invaded in the battle of Durrës in the spring of 1939, my dad says he could remember seeing bodies lining the streets.”
It is down to the nation’s concept of ‘besa’, the Albanian code of honour, that it remained the only occupied country in Europe not to hand Jews over to the Nazis. King Zog I of Albania was famously sympathetic to the Jews, directing his embassies across Europe to grant a visa to any Jewish person that wished to escape Nazi persecution.
“With the tensions from current Muslim-Jewish relations across the globe, it’s uplifting to see this long tradition of friendship and support. Especially when back in Britain in 1940, Churchill was saying ‘collar the lot’ – meaning round-up the enemy aliens and intern them.
“This went a great way to drumming up Jewish persecution among the British population, and in a way, this climate of fearmongering unfortunately still remains. But there are always good people out there and stories like this reaffirm your faith in humanity in difficult times.”
On a visit to Mill Hill Unitarian Chapel in the city centre, where Philip was a devoted member, the sisters retrieved the elegy from his funeral in 1963 which impressed his lack of prominence in public life unlike like his brother and praised his modest generosity. Harriet feels that it was partly down to this Unitarian ethos rooted in compassion that he chose to extend his hospitality to the family of foreign strangers.
“Going back to the tapes, we learned that not only did he house my parents, but also child evacuees fleeing the blitz. There is also another unsolved mystery, in the fact that in her recording, my grandma spoke of him saving five Jews, when my family were only three. This would be the Holy Grail if we could discover who these other two were.”
The Schrotters began their time at the Boyles’ in the gardener’s cottage in the grounds of the family home in Linton, a small village outside Wetherby. When the London evacuees arrived, Mrs Boyle invited the family into the main house so the children could occupy the cottage.
“It’s a beautiful house in a stunning rural village with a river running through it. My grandma must have thought she’d landed in a kind of utopia! She always used to say: ‘this country is a paradise: no-one bothers you!’”
Philip’s letter of recommendation did not stop Siegfried from being interned on the Isle of Man in June 1940 and he was never able to fulfil the hope of working for Boyle and Son. He spent three months confined to the island’s Central Promenade Camp, a row of holiday guest houses enclosed with barbed wire under armed guard. In September, he was released to serve in the Royal Pioneer Corps and remained based in Britain until the end of the war.
“For many people, it was a way to escape internment, but I believe he wanted to do his bit. He was a very quiet, reclusive man, and I never really knew him. At my grandparents’ London home was a picture of him in his uniform. It didn’t mean much to me as a child, but now I can see he was very proud to be able to give something back.”
A few months following their arrival, the Schrotters moved away from Linton to Reginald Terrace in Chapeltown, grateful to the Boyles, yet not wishing to remain beholden to them. The family soon left Leeds, as Siegfried was relocated to various barracks across the country before settling in London following his discharge in 1945.
“My grandpa never spoke of the terrors he faced. I remember looking on the bookshelf in his bedroom when I was 11 and seeing a book with photographs of Belsen concentration camp. It terrified me at the time, but looking back it was interesting he kept that book.”
The Schrotters became naturalised British citizens in 1947 and with no family left to return to in Austria, lived in the UK for the rest of their lives. Eric, who died last year at 83, achieved a full set of GCEs, including multiple languages, within 10 years of arriving in the country without knowing a word of English. He remained in London, having spent many years working alongside his father in an oil seeds company in the City. There, he met his wife and raised Harriet and her two sisters.
“My dad was pleased to grow up in England. My mum wasn’t Jewish and my dad wasn’t religious, but he felt his Jewishness as an emotional, psychological and cultural identity. The only anecdote I can remember him telling us was of a Nazi rally outside his Austrian home back in 1938. He went into the street and everyone was wearing swastika pins. He asked his father, ‘can I have a badge?’ and his father told him ‘you’re not having one of those.’
“One eccentricity that stayed with him, was he always had to have bread in the house. I feel this was a throwback to living in fear that he may not wake up to the luxury of food on the table.”
Asked if the uncovering the truth behind her family’s past had become an all-consuming puzzle to solve, Harriet replies: “The more strands I follow, the more I unearth. I enjoy the detective side – the satisfaction of filling in the blanks. Sometimes I feel guilty that it’s so interesting. I did a history degree that I’ve never used in my work and this has given me the opportunity to delve into archives and pursue those interests.
“Investigating Leeds and the Boyles is the good bit, but the darker side of what happened back in Vienna is much harder to confront.”
The Schrotters’ story will be one among a variety of ethnicities and communities to feature in an upcoming exhibition at Leeds City Museum charting three centuries of migration to the city.
“We’re sharing all the documents and photos, and you’ll hopefully be able to put on a pair of headphones and listen to my grandma speaking of her experience and of Leeds in her lovely Viennese accent.”
Harriet has shared her story with the BBC, ITV and the Yorkshire Evening Post in an appeal for information about the other refugees Philip sheltered and hopes someone out there reading a copy of JLife will know something that can help.
“We’re trying to get our message out there any way we can. Lots of seeds have gone out, some may grow, others may not. But from my time spent delving into archives, I’ve found that what appears to be an infinitesimally small detail can hold the key to unlocking a much greater story.”
‘A City and its Welcome: Three Hundred Years of Migrating to Leeds’ will be at Leeds City Museum from 12th July.