My name is Sonja Altman nee Fleischer. My story begins when I was born on 3rd October 1932 in Vienna to Regina Hava and Moses Joseph Fleischer.
My mother was born in Poland and my father was a Roumanian who left because of enlistment in the Russian Army. My Mother came to Vienna at the end of the First World War, having lost her own mother during the hostilities, and met my father in about 1928.
My father was extremely orthodox, the Vishnitzer Rebbe attended their wedding on 7thDecember 1930. My mother was an excellent dressmaker and my father was a first-class tailor, and between them they had a business in their own home in their ‘salon’.
I have a brother Meir, who was born in 1934, and we lived in a large comfortable apartment - 19 Ruchscherstrasse in the 20th district of Vienna. My mother wasn’t as orthodox as my father, but soon adapted to his ways, and I attended a Jewish school and had a Jewish tutor at home to keep up with my Hebrew studies.
Although my father was very orthodox, he was also modern. On Shabbat he wore his black silk coat and naturally enough always wore his Kippa. My father’s family were all very musical and the children were all allowed to learn a musical instrument. One of my father’s great loves was the opera - he and my mother went to the Vienna State Opera and sat up in the ‘gods’: any chance they had to go they took. As they later learned to their cost when the Anschluss was announced, all these things were forbidden to the Jews. I attended school for only about a year before the Anschluss, (when we had to wear our yellow star), and loved it. I loved to learn and was devastated when we were not allowed to go: then we were banned from all public places.
I well remember a lovely park opposite our home - the Augarten. My mother was holding my hand and was chatting: I broke loose and ran off into the playground - remember, I was six and wanted to play. What did I know of Hitler and his hateful feelings for the Jews? A group of Hitler youth verbally abused me and my mother - I suppose it was the start - and we left. After this my parents tried to explain what was happening in Austria and who Herr Hitler was - but again, how do you explain to a six year old? My world was being turned upside down and it had been so comfortable and loving and peaceful,. I think it was the horror of not being able to comprehend what was happening that has always remained with me.
New Laws and Regulations
There were always new laws and regulations being enforced on us by the authorities, and one day we were obliged to register in this enormous place. The SS were on duty and of course we wanted to run up and down and play. My mother kept telling us to behave - who knows, they may have taken you out of the line and taken us away.
On the Contintent, people always lived in apartments and we were no different. Housekeepers were the norm and ours was a lovely person - a non-Jew and an anti-Nazi. As the time wore on it became more obvious that things were going to get far worse for us Jews than we could ever imagine. And so the house keeper and my parents decided to have a pre-arranged signal, so that when the SS started rounding up all the Jewish families, and especially the men, he would ring the bell when they knocked and asked for Herr Fleischer.
Mother Taken Away
This duly happened and my father went on his escape route over the roof and hid there for three to four days. The SS stormed in and proceeded to question my mother and were angry and displeased that my father was absent. They searched the apartment and took my mother instead. My mother was four months pregnant at the time and she was taken to a local school where all the Jews were herded together . There she was put in charge and told that if any Jew escaped, she would be shot. She was made to clean the whole school and she was away for four days. Oddly enough, in our apartment block, lived a very high ranking SS officer who my parents had tailored for. He saw my mother at the school and demanded she be released. She subsequently came home and after this she was no longer pregnant. She miscarried and never revealed what happened to her. I asked her many times what really happened during those four days away but she remained silent and never gave anything away. I will never know.
In April 1939 we had exit papers for myself and my parents but none for my brother. The Jewish organization wrote to England for sponsors, as we could only leave if we had them.
A family by the name of Sadler in Hutton Rugby were my parents’ sponsors and the Hymans in Middlesbrough were mine. As you can imagine, my mother was frantic because papers were unavailable for my brother, we were virtually prisoners in our own home and the exit visas were not yet stamped. We received a letter for an exit date for myself on the ‘Kindertransport’, but still not for Meir. Around this time I had to have my tonsils removed and Jews were allowed to be hospitalised for one day only.
My mother must have known by some sixth sense or G-d given intuition of the impending doom that would cast its shadow over the whole world because she started packing cases and began to take me every day to the railway station to see if I could get on the train. On 13thJune we went again to the station and just by pure chance a mother at the last minute decided to take off her child as she couldn’t bear to part with it. My mother saw her chance and grabbed me and literally threw me on to the moving train - no kiss goodbye, no time for tears or hugs or soft words. The train pulled out with me, aged six, a doll, no food parcel, no papers - just a change of clothes and my label with Sonja Fleischer on it.
Train to Hook of Holland
The journey took two days, moving west all the time, bound for the Hook of Holland. The atmosphere was tense, and sad, with children crying. I cried all of the journey and was dreadfully ill and sick: I just desperately wanted my mother. The train made various stops to allow the officers to search the parcels - even my doll was searched. We arrived at the Hook and went on the boat to presumably Harwich. I didn’t know, and at the time probably never cared. And all I can remember seeing was this vast expanse of sea, all round me, heaving and gray , and the thought of being so totally alone.
I had never seen the sea before - only the Danube when we went on holiday in the summer, and , although I am a strong swimmer, I never swim in the sea now and cannot travel by boat and cannot look over a bridge - the memories fade but they never die.
Arriving in England
We arrived at Harwich and of course I had no papers. After being checked for contagious diseases, I was taken to the Jewish organization in Bloomsbury and made them understand I had a cousin, who came to see me. I stayed there for a few days, overjoyed at being with family, and when they had sorted out that I had a sponsor, I went to the Hyman family in Middlesbrough.
Meantime, my parents received their exit visas but not for Meir, who contracted - horror of horrors - chicken pox! My grandfather saw my parents off at the station and my mother never saw him again. They were allowed a certain amount of luggage and my father made a secret compartment at the bottom of his cabin trunk where he hid his gold hunter watch. As with my journey, they were searched thoroughly and their trunk was smashed with the butt of a rifle. They never found the watch but it bears a little dent where it was hit by the rifle.
My mother spent the journey in the toilet with Meir, because of his chicken pox. Thank G-d it was not on his face, only on his body, and when they finally got to England he had to stay in hospital and my parents went to the shelter in the East End. Meir eventually went to the nunnery (!) and my parents went to the sponsors in Rugby. A large car took them to this house where my father was to be second butler and my mother was to be the under cook.
My parents find Me
On this particular day in August, just before war broke out, I had to go to the dentist. My parents were in the chauffeur-driven car and it stopped at some traffic lights. My mother heard a child screaming and said to my father. "That’s Sonja". He replied that it wasn’t possible - we won’t see her, let’s get on. But my mother insisted and in her very little English ordered the driver to stop. She got out and went to the dentist’s surgery and need I tell you what tears were shed at the joy of seeing my beloved mother again? The reunion was fantastic and I was allowed to see my parents once a month. I was still very clingy and of course yearned for them both, but they were alive and they were here.
I lived with the Hyman family who were kind and lovely and looked after me very well. I attended school and naturally enough was the butt of many jokes - after all, in deepest , darkest Yorkshire, how many had known Jews, let alone had one in their midst? The children were cruel though - they called me names - after all, I must have looked very strange to them and especially as I spoke no English. Mind you, when I did learn it was with a broad Yorkshire accent! just right for living in Clayhall!
We survived the War, Thank G-d and later learned of the horrors of the War and the extent of the devastation in Europe and the destruction of our people . It transpired that my grandfather died in Dachau. Of my fathers’ family of thirteen brothers and sisters, three survived the Holocaust, my father in the UK, an aunt in Israel, and one in the States. My father had a coronary in 1947 after getting the news of his family and died several years later. Of my mothers’ family, the eldest sister had left Austria in 1938 and went to the States. Her two younger brothers were killed in camps and the youngest sister survived the camps and at 21 after the war she had a choice of England or Italy. She chose Italy and lived there until 1992 when she died. Her experiences left her with a persecution complex and in later years she was in a mental home and sadly died there.
Well, that’s my story - a story of escape - a miracle really that I’m here today and survived to tell the tale. The memories linger, they diminish with age but, like the others who died, they never die.