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U3A Writing: Dr Von Zeissi

…the Gestapo were waiting in the street outside his house to arrest him. They were afraid to arrest him at the University because of his popularity and thought that it would be easier to surround him in the street and whisk him away…

John Rickets tells of the hardships of one of his teachers, a man who had to flee from Austria in the 1930s.

Early in 1945 a message was sent round the school that all the six form boys in the classics set were to meet at six o’clock in the senior study rooms. There was no explanation given for the calling of such a meeting and we all examined our consciences and entered the room with guilty thoughts. Did they know that I had been meeting one of the village girls? Did they realise that I had been breaking bounds regularly to imbibe the odd half pint at the Star?

In the room were the headmaster and the classics teacher. We were invited to be seated and then the Head spoke.

“It is with a great mixture of sorrow and joy that I make this announcement. I am very sad to tell you that Dr Von Zeissl is leaving the school. He came to us in the darkest days when things looked very bad for this country, for the rest of Europe and, indeed for the world. Now that we can see the dawn of a new era we have to say goodbye because I am happy to say he has been recalled and will soon be returning to his homeland, his beloved Austria. So though we are sad at loosing him we are so glad for his sake. Now I will leave you because Dr Von Zeissl wants to talk to you.

For a few minutes Herman talked to us about the public exams we were taking in the next few weeks. He gave us tips about passing and piles of notes which he had prepared for us. He spoke to each of us in turn telling us our weaknesses and how to overcome them.

When he had finished he sat down in his chair and said “In the next few months many of you will go into the forces. I know the war in Europe is virtually ended but there is still Japan. You may be called on to fight and I know you will quit yourselves well. I fought against England in the last war and I think I was a good soldier. But for the last seven years I have thought myself a coward. I ran away when I should have stayed and fought, but now I know that what I did was right. You have a wise proverb in English about running away and living to fight another day. That is what I am going to do now. I am going back to Austria to fight in any way I can to build on the ruins which the war has left. I leave tomorrow morning.”

He came round and shook all our hands in turn and then left us.

Professor Dr Herman Von Zeissl, was living in Vienna in the late thirties. He was an influential university professor and a member of the opposition to the Nazi party which had taken over Austria. He was returning on foot to his apartment when he was stopped in the street by a friend who was a member of the Nazi party and warned that the Gestapo were waiting in the street outside his house to arrest him. They were afraid to arrest him at the University because of his popularity and thought that it would be easier to surround him in the street and whisk him away. His friend gave him an envelope and then hurried away, too frightened to do more.

Herman realised that he had to act immediately before his hunters realised that something was wrong. He went to the station and caught the first train out of Vienna. Though he had no passport he managed to cross borders until he arrived in England where he was arrested.

After spending several weeks in jail he was released and given leave to stay in England. At the time there were various organisations who helped people in DrVon Zeissl’s position but many of them were geared to helping Jews who were the main refugees. Beside which Dr Von Zeissl had no contacts and at that time his English was not so good. During the first year he did many menial jobs, washing up in restaurants, working in hotels and doing some translating. Each week he had to report to the police.

When the war came in September 1939 he was arrested as an alien but because of his record was released. He was directed to a munitions factory in Birmingham where he worked making shells. One day he collapsed at work and was taken to hospital with pneumonia. This proved to be a great slice of luck. In the hospital he was visited by the Catholic Chaplain who got talking to him. Over several visits he found out his story and decided to do something to help him. He contacted his old school which, because of the war, was chronically short of teachers and when Herman came out of hospital instead of returning to his cold bed-sitting room and his factory bench he came to Cotton as a teacher.


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