Edith Tavon was born in 1925 in Vienna, Austria. After her family escaped Austria on November 8th, 1938, they lived in Belgium for three months and then in Wales for a year. In 1940, on account of the British policy of internment of German and Austrian Jewish men as enemy aliens, the family decided to move to the United States.
“My Escape from Austria"
By Edith Tavon
I was born in Vienna, Austria into a middle-class, Jewish family. My younger sister and I led a sheltered, comfortable life. All this was to change overnight.
On the evening of March 12th, 1938 the Nazis poured across the border. I can still hear their hob-nailed boots on the hushed streets of Vienna. A terrible silence hung over the city, except for the sound of marching, marching all through the night. Our house was dark and our parents were unusually quiet. My sister and I were too young to understand, but we knew that something terrible had happened. Austria had been annexed by Hitler's Germany.
From the day on our life changed completely. Our parents became tightlipped and pre-occupied. We, who had been carefully chaperoned wherever we went, were suddenly on our own. Soon, all Jewish kids were expelled from school, and I and my friends roamed the streets. We often saw groups of storm troopers, but since they didn't bother us, we went about having a good time. It was the summer of 1938. We couldn't go into the beautiful parks of Vienna, because all park benches had been painted with signs "Jews not allowed." Once a storm trooper took another look at us and observed that we were not wearing our swastika button, and he cursed us and called us "Jewish swine." We were just a group of 12 and 13 year old kids.
Gradually, stories began to circulate and we saw some frightening sights. My best friend's father, an eminent lawyer, was forced to march up and down carrying a large sign: "I am a Jewish swine." Once we walked into a large park outside Vienna, similar to our Van Courtland Park, and saw the saddest sight. A procession of Jewish citizens moving slowly down the main avenue carrying signs abusing and accusing the Jews. Later we saw elderly Jews being forced to scrub pavement. Storm troopers marched through the streets of Vienna singing loudly about Jewish blood dripping from their knives. One day, our neighbors committed suicide; they were a childless couple, reluctant to leave their home. So they simply turned on the gas.
The atmosphere became more and more oppressive. Our parents were frantically busy, but we didn't know with what. My father had been in the export business and he still had contact with some of his workers. Some of them were old time socialists, as was my father, but they had joined the Nazi party to protect themselves. One of these tipped off my father about the famous "Kristallnacht," crystal night or night of broken glass, which was being planned for early November. It was then the Nazis made mass arrests of Jewish men. He knew my father was on the list.
Now there was even more activity in the house. My mother was packing and we knew we might by going away. On the evening of November 8th, one day before the crystal night, our mother told us to get ready for a trip. We got all dressed up and we each carried a small suitcase with some clothing. Although I was in my early teens, I took my teddy bear along. I had a premonition that we would never come back. Our parents were very tense and warned us repeatedly not to talk to anyone. Our fully furnished apartment looked untouched, as my mother locked the door. The intention was to make it appear as if we had gone on vacation, so as not to arouse suspicion.
We boarded the train to Germany. In the compartment we were with two German ladies who were delighted with my sister and me and kept asking us a great many questions. We were two blonde, Ayrian looking girls and they suspected nothing, and talked to us throughout the entire trip. Since my sister and I knew nothing, we could not give away and secrets. But as we glanced at our parents every once in a while, we could feel their terror.
We got off at the bordertown of Aachen and went straight to a small Jewish owned hotel. My father went out at a set time he had to meet a man on a certain street corner. This man would give him false passports for us, children. We were going to be separated from our parents and smuggled across the frontier into Belgium. But my parents had to walk on foot through the forest along with a small group of Jews. The guide would be Belgian and the border guards had been bribed. Everything had been arranged in secret, for a lot of money. Yet it was not safe, for all the money had been paid in advance, so we were entirely in their mercy. And we had heard stories of people being handed over to the Germans.
At about 10PM a car pulled up in front of our hotel and we were stuffed into the front seat. There was another girl in the car, besides the driver. My mother kissed us goodbye with a heavy heart. I was 13 and my sister was 10, and we had never been separated from our parents. The driver took off into the night. Soon we came to the border. I remember the fear as the German guard, in Nazi uniform and fully armed, began to search the car. He shone a flashlight into our faces and slowly scrutinized our papers. It was terrifying. Finally, he returned our passports and waved to the driver to proceed. It was all over. We were safely across.
The driver took us to an isolated farm. We arrived about midnight, and the farmer's wife came out, got us out of the car and led us into the house. She put us straight to bed, all three of us in one big bed, without clothes on. I was frightened and kept thinking of my parents walking through the woods. It all felt so strange. Early in the morning we took off again, and there, at the edge of the woods, were our parents, and all the other people who had walked all night.
They looked exhausted, their clothing was wet and full of leaves, but they were so happy to see us. Our driver took our family to Antwerp in Belgium. Now our parents told us that we would never go back. We were suddenly homeless, refugees. All we had were the clothes on our backs and what we had in our luggage. My father had funds abroad, but it would take some time to get them. That evening I went to bed without supper for the first time in my life. I learned what it was to be hungry.
Many years later, when I returned to our house in Vienna, I heard from the neighbors that right the next day, on the infamous November 9th, the Nazis had come for my father. And since they could not get in the front door, they put up a fire ladder to our third floor apartment. That's how anxious they were to arrest my father. We were lucky, because we had money and connections, so we got away. But we always remember the millions who remained behind.