‘I seek a kind person’: the Guardian ad that saved my Jewish father from the Nazis

·16-min read

On Wednesday 3 August 1938, a short advertisement appeared on the second page of the Manchester Guardian, under the title “Tuition”.

“I seek a kind person who will educate my intelligent Boy, aged 11, Viennese of good family,” the advert said, under the name Borger, giving the address of an apartment on Hintzerstrasse, in Vienna’s third district.

The small ad, costing a shilling a line, was placed by my grandparents, Leo and Erna. The 11-year-old boy was my father, Robert. It turned out to be the key to their survival and the reason I am here, nearly 83 years later, working at the newspaper that ran the ad.

In 1938, Jewish families under Nazi rule were scrambling to get their children out of the Reich. Newspaper advertisements were one avenue of escape. Scores of children were “advertised” in the pages of the Manchester Guardian, their virtues and skills extolled in brief, to fit the space.

The columns read as a clamour of urgent, competing voices, all pleading: “Take my child!” And people did. The classified ads – dense, often mundane notices that filled the front pages, and coffers, of the Guardian for more than 100 years – also helped save lives.

Richard Nelsson, the Guardian’s information manager and archivist, emailed me a picture of the ad in January. Its existence had been the subject of family myth, but I had never seen it before. Its emotive impact took me by surprise – three lines of anguish, from parents willing to give up their only child in the hope he would be safe. The Nazi annexation of Austria, the Anschluss, had taken place five months before my father’s ad was placed, while the Nuremberg race laws had been imposed in May, stripping Jews of basic rights. Groups of Nazi Sturmabteilung, the brownshirted SA, had free rein in Vienna to beat and humiliate Jews.

My father was identified as a Jew by his classmates and at one point was grabbed by an SA gang, who locked him inside the local synagogue. My grandfather Leo, who owned a radio and musical instrument shop, was summoned to Gestapo headquarters to register. He was ordered, like other Viennese Jews, to get down on his hands and knees and wash the pavement, in front of jeering crowds.

“The SA still captures Jews in the streets and makes them scrub floors and lavatories,” the Manchester Guardian reported on 1 April 1938. “Many prominent Jews commandeered for such work have appeared in top-hats and morning coats with all their decorations on.”

The next time my grandfather was called, he was held overnight. He may have been held for longer periods after Kristallnacht on 9 November 1938, when Jewish businesses were ransacked and most of Vienna’s synagogues were destroyed. Many – perhaps most – Viennese Jewish men were taken to Dachau, the camp in Bavaria, and had to be ransomed out.

The Nazis were keen to drive Jews out of the Reich, but did not make it easy. Emigrants had to fill in the right forms and were fleeced of almost everything they owned.

By late summer in 1938, many Viennese Jews were advertising themselves in the Manchester Guardian’s “Situations Wanted” column as butlers, chauffeurs and maids. There was a shortage of domestic workers in the UK at the time, with the expansion of prosperous suburbs and the opening up of other work opportunities for British women creating vacancies for outsiders.

Scrolling through the classified ad pages of the newspaper, you can see the wave of panic gather pace. Prior to May 1938, the only references to Vienna concerned tourism and opera. On 10 May, Erna Ball offers herself as a housekeeper, then, a fortnight later, Julie Klein describes herself as a “distinguished Viennese lady, Jewish, good appearance, blond, 35”.

On 7 June, the first of the children appeared: Gertrude Mandl, a “young Viennese Girl … not Aryan” who “seeks position as Cook Housekeeper”.

She was the first of 60 Viennese Jewish children advertised in the newspaper over the following nine months, rising to a peak in August, September and October and then falling off after November 1938, when the UK launched the Kindertransport scheme for groups of unaccompanied minors. This brought 10,000 Jewish children to Britain in the months leading up to the outbreak of war.

The Guardian ads in early 1939 reflect the plight of those left behind. On 14 January, under the new section “Refugee Advertisements’’, there is a three-line plea: “Father in concentration camp, three boys, 8-12 and three girls, 13-16, have to leave Germany. Is anybody willing to help?”

On 11 March, another ad issued an “urgent appeal. Who will help to get out of concentration camp two Viennese boys, age 21 and 23, by offering trainee posts.”

Similar appeals were placed in the Times and the Telegraph, but the Manchester Guardian was seen as more sympathetic by those seeking to flee. The city was home to the biggest UK Jewish community outside London; it had ties to Vienna through the textile trade, as well as an energetic Quaker community that set up a refugee committee after Kristallnacht, which helped resettle large numbers of central European Jews.

The Guardian also focused more than the rest of the British press on the plight of Jews under Nazi rule and the hardships of those in the UK. It ran an anonymous column by a Jewish maid in a British home, identified only as “J”, giving the view from below stairs.

“The Manchester Guardian had a justified reputation for being supportive of the Jewish plight and especially being pro-refugee, so it would be a natural place to advertise in, especially if there were commercial agencies and also refugee organisations at either end,” says Tony Kushner, a University of Southampton professor and the author of Journeys from the Abyss, a book about the Holocaust and forced migration.

“Certainly, the way the Manchester Guardian reported Nazi antisemitism and supported the entry of refugees – and then their protection in Britain – during the Nazi era can be regarded as one of the proudest moments in the newspaper’s history,” adds Kushner.

A couple of Guardian-reading Welsh schoolteachers, Nancy and Reg Bingley, responded to the ad for my father and fostered and educated him through his teen years in Caernarfon.

My grandmother Erna (Omi to us) got a job as a maid for a family in Paddington, so was able to get a visa and make the train and ferry journey to the UK with her son, but not to live with him once they arrived.

In March 1939, with the help of the Bingleys, a visa was also secured for my grandfather Leo, as well as a job as a cutter at Silhouette, an underwear factory run by a German Jewish family that employed refugees, first in London, then in Shrewsbury, after the war started.

Leo stayed in the same job the rest of his working life; there were always bales of offcut knicker elastic in our cellar. My father would speak German with his parents, but if they reminisced much about the old days in Vienna, they rarely told us.

Having read the ads, I set about looking into what had become of the other children who had appealed for help alongside my father. He had been relatively lucky, it turned out. Many of the children did not settle happily and spent their first years in Britain, at the age of 12, 13 or 14, searching, with little help in a foreign language in a strange land, for ways to save their parents.

Liese Feiks, an 18-year-old girl advertised on 28 June 1938 as a multilingual “shorthand writer and typist”, was saved by a British family, but struggled with the domestic work she was given. Her son, Martin Tompa, a computer science professor emeritus at the University of Washington in Seattle, says: “She told me many times they were the most miserable years of her life.”

Liese’s parents waited too long to leave Vienna. By spring 1940, escape westwards was no longer an option. Instead, they headed for Shanghai, which would take Jews without visas, on the Trans-Siberian railway. From Shanghai, they tried to get to the US, but were captured by the Japanese and spent the rest of the war in an internment camp near Manila in the Philippines.

In his advertisement on 29 July 1938, Adolf Batscha, a Viennese dry goods merchant, appealed for a family to take in his only daughter, 14-year-old Gertrude, who was “well mannered, able to help in any household work, speaks German, French, and a little English” and played the piano.

A Somerset family called the Partingtons responded and agreed to take her in. In February 1939, Adolf and his wife, Walburga – “Vally” – saw Gertrude off at Vienna’s main railway terminus.

“I hope never to know such desperation as prompted them to decide to part with me and send me away alone,” Gertrude would later write in a memoir for her children, decades after she had emigrated to Israel and become Yehudit Segal.

She would never see them again. Gertrude’s daughter, Ruthie Elkana, told me her grandparents did not act in time. “It was just too late for them,” Elkana says. “They prepared themselves. He prepared himself to be a butler and she prepared to be a housekeeper, to sew and all that, so they could earn money in the UK. But it didn’t help them.”

In October 1942, Adolf and Walburga were deported to the Maly Trostenets death camp, outside Minsk in the Nazi-occupied Soviet republic of Belarus. Gertrude didn’t give up hope for them until she received a letter from the Red Cross after the war, confirming their deaths. In her memoir, she said the dread of losing them was compounded by “the fear of forgetting what they all looked like”.

Elkana says she was overcome by emotion when she saw the small ad for the first time, in 2014. “Our mother told us about this advert,’” she says. “It was really so exciting to find it. It’s heartbreaking.”

None of the other children of Viennese refugees whom I contacted had seen the Manchester Guardian ad that had been their parents’ lifeline. Most had a similar reaction to mine: elation at seeing their mother or father’s name; and the sick realisation of the sacrifice, despair and loss underpinning each message.

“I had no clue. I’m very rarely silent, but I was stunned into silence,” says Sandra Garfinkel, the daughter of Alice Lindenfeld, advertised on 1 August 1938 as “Jewess, 13 ½ years, good family”, on the phone from New York.

Garfinkel had heard that her mother and grandmother had escaped to the UK, but never how. “I need a word bigger than stunned to express my unbelievable astonishment at seeing that ad,” she says. “The emotional, psychological, financial punishment they must have endured – because prior to that they lived a wealthy life with servants and a beautiful home, and suddenly they were scraping the sides of the barrel by advertising themselves: ‘Will someone take my child?’”

The first of the Manchester Guardian children I was able to track down was George Mandler. Unusually, his full name was in the ad on 28 July 1938, which asked: “Will an English family be kind enough to take au pair [sic] my son, aged 14 (out of grammar school), with knowledge of English and to procure him employment?”

George was easy to find, as he had become a prominent psychologist in the US and UK before he died in 2016. I sent his son, Peter, a picture of the ad and called him at his home in Cambridge, where he is a history professor.

“I suspect my dad probably did this on the sly because he knew his father wouldn’t approve,” he said. “He would have been really horrified that he would be giving up schooling, because you know he was asking for employment.”

In the end, family friends found a place for George in a boarding school in Bournemouth.

Like Gertrude, George wrote a memoir in later life, called Interesting Times. He described life in Vienna after the Anschluss, lining up outside embassies from 4 o’clock in the morning and writing letters to Mandlers he found in the New York telephone directory in the hope of sponsorship.

As with many Viennese Jews, the US was the preferred destination, but Washington had strict annual quotas for immigrants. For most, the UK was a halfway house, a place to wait for your American number to come up.

George recalled travelling out of Vienna alone aged 14 and described the tense moment when the train reached the western border of the Reich at Aachen. He had a passport issued before the big “J” stamp was compulsory and no such stamp was available at the frontier.

He was taken to Cologne and instructed to wait until morning. He ended up staying the night in a hotel where the rooms had beds, but hardly any other furniture. “I spent the first night of my emigration in a bordello!” he wrote.

George left for the US in 1940, to join his parents and sister, who had managed to get a boat from Italy. He sailed out of Liverpool on a transatlantic liner armed with big naval guns. Until they were out of U-boat range, its lights were turned off and the passengers wore life vests.

By 1943, he was back in Europe with the US army, in the military intelligence service, interrogating captured German soldiers and evacuating German scientists before they were captured by the Red Army.

Another boy from the Guardian ads, Alfred Rudnai, joined the Royal Air Force, first as a mechanic, then as a machine-gunner in the belly of a Lancaster bomber. In reminiscences recorded by his family months before his death last year, Alfred recalled his unorthodox, but visceral, contribution to the last stages of the war.

“I could see below, and I became a bomber because I got empty food tins and I filled them with rubbish and dropped them out in Germany,” Rudnai recalled.

Ernst Schanzer was 16 in November 1938, when his parents described him as “well-bred”, an “excellent stenotypist” and a “good sportsman”. He was given a place at a commercial college in Newcastle before being interned on the Isle of Man (like my grandfather and most other male Jewish refugees) as an “enemy alien” in 1940, when public opinion turned against the strangers in their midst. He was then evacuated to Canada.

As Ernest Schanzer, he became a renowned Shakespearean scholar and a professor in Munich. Unable to obtain a visa to the west, his parents and his elder brother, Peter, got as far as Latvia, but were captured there by the invading Soviet troops and deported to Siberia in 1941.

Ernest’s parents died there, but Peter somehow survived six years of near starvation and bitter cold. He made his way back to Vienna after the war, but it would be many years before the brothers were reunited. Canada denied Peter entry, seemingly because of forgiving comments he made about some of his Soviet jailers. He emigrated to Australia instead and raised a family there.

Ernest never married, but he enjoyed life as a single man in Munich. “He had a rich social life, staging himself as a playboy, as it were, being invited by many and inviting his friends to celebrations of his clematis in flower on his balcony overlooking the fairly posh Englschalking suburb of Munich,” says his closest friend, the English professor Manfred Pfister. Pfister says he and his wife visited Vienna often, but Ernest, “without spelling out his reasons, understandably never joined us on these trips”.

Speaking to other descendants of refugees, fellow children of the Manchester Guardian small ads, some common themes emerged. Most of us had been taken, at some point in our lives, on melancholic visits to Vienna. We went in the mid-70s, when I remember staring up at the apartment block where the family had lived; the nearby park, with its huge concrete gun emplacements, too big and solid to destroy; and the site of the old shop, Radio Borger, which became a stationer’s shop and now sells discount women’s clothing.

Another common strand was the lifelong burden our parents had carried, from the experience of separation from their parents in a foreign land to the weight of surviving while countless relatives, left behind in Vienna, perished.

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When my father took his life, it was my task to call his foster mother, Nancy. After a sharp intake and a pause, Nancy said he had been the Nazis’ last victim. There were certainly other factors: his career did not work out as he had hoped, and he had made a mess of his family life. But she always saw the 11-year-old boy who had arrived in Caernarfon, so scared they had to take the whistle off the kettle as it reminded him of the SA doing their roundups.

The longest-surviving child of the classified ads died in February. Karl Trommer, and his sister Hella, appeared in an ad on 11 November 1938, their parents calling for “any kindhearted family” to take them in. They survived and moved to Palestine after the war. Karl, as Akiva Trommer, fought in the Palmach, the Jewish special forces before the creation of Israel.

Hella died in 1980, but online records showed Akiva was still alive, with a home telephone number. When I called in late March, his son answered. I was a few weeks too late. I offered my condolences and sent a copy of the Manchester Guardian ad.

For most of the descendants to whom I spoke, the ad was a poignant footnote in family history, a reminder of the delicate chain of events that made the difference between survival and obliteration.

It held particular sway for me, as the reverence for the Guardian in our childhood home no doubt shaped my ambition to work here. At the time my dad’s ad appeared, my mother, his future wife, was growing up in the Rusholme district of Manchester. Her father would bring the Manchester Guardian home from his job as a railway shipping clerk and tell her the newspaper offered a reward for readers who could find any spelling mistakes.

In August 1938, she would have been a bit young for spellchecking, but I like to think of her running her finger over those lines on the second page: “I seek a kind person who will educate my intelligent Boy.”