The extraordinary story of why I owe my life to Irma
Franz Leichter made a name for himself in US politics with his liberal-minded passion for social issues. A practising attorney, he cut his teeth in the New York State Assembly, before a lengthy career in the Senate. Yet all that might never have been, had it not been for the courage and bravery of Irma Turnsek – who has just been recognised as a Righteous Among Nations.
Last month, Mr Leichter, accompanied by his children and grandchildren, flew to London for a ceremony at the Israeli Embassy, in honour of this incredible woman. He spoke exclusively to the JC:
IT WAS 1938 in Vienna, not long after the Anschluss with Germany. The city had become increasingly risky for us as Jews, and more so because my parents were heavily involved in the banned socialist party. My father had managed to escape to Paris and my mother had a false passport from the Czech government so could have left Austria, too, but felt she had to stay to get my brother and I out. An application was made for us to get passports and visas but that hadn’t come through so she became more and more desperate and eventually came up with this idea.
Irma worked for my family as a cook but was also a member of the socialist party and had become a good friend to my mother. She had a son my age called Helmut and he and I were playmates. My mother and Irma came up with a plan. Irma would smuggle me out of Austria on her passport as her son. She would reunite me with my father, then return to Austria to collect Helmut.
Looking back, you could say that it was a little foolhardy. I’m not sure Irma and my mother really understood the risks involved. The evil and mendacity of the Nazis was not fully known at that time.
I have a photo of Nazi thugs coming to our apartment, where they daubed the word “Jude” on the window and shouted it from outside. My brother remembered my mother opening the window and in a calm voice told the thugs that they were waking her children.
When my mother shortly afterwards left our apartment and went into hiding I stayed with the woman who had been our housekeeper and my brother went to other family friends. I was taken to Irma’s the day before she and I left.
I was told I was going to be taking a trip with Irma to be reunited with my father. I didn’t ask any questions. My memory of that time is quite vague. Not only was I young, but I think that I repressed a lot of this. As I think back, the feeling I still get is one of instability and of having my whole life as a seven-year-old torn from me.
Irma took me through Germany and into Belgium. One thing I distinctly remember about the trip was that she said, “You must call me Mutti”, but I was so accustomed to calling her Irma that I kept on doing so, which may have raised questions among the people around us. Whether I’m imagining it or whether it happened I don’t know, but Irma would smile at people in the compartment and say, “Yes, my son”.
It was extremely dangerous and, if anybody had caught us, at the very least Irma would have ended up in a concentration camp and who knows what would have happened to me. That was the risk she took and it was a real act of courage.
Very sadly, my mother was betrayed by a good family friend and fellow socialist who was a Gestapo informant. She was arrested and sent to Ravensbruck Con- Courage: Franz Leichter
his brother Heinz, left, and his children at a recent ceremony in Germany to mark the heroism of Irma Turnsek centration Camp, where she died in 1942. I never saw her again.
Irma left me with friends of our family in Belgium. My father then collected me and my brother, who had made it out of Austria separately, and took us to Paris before eventually travelling to America.
Meanwhile, Irma had been warned about what had happened. If she came back to Austria she would have been arrested. And so, she came to London. She was unable to get back to Vienna until after the war and Helmut had an extremely difficult nine years without her.
My father was in touch with Irma and he wrote her a letter where he thanked her very much. He knew that Irma had not been able to get back to pick up Helmut and was only able to do so after the war.
At the end of 2013, Yad Vashem contacted me about an application that had been made to designate Irma as one of the Righteous Among Nations and I was asked to confirm the story. I said it was absolutely true and was so excited that I would have the chance to reconnect with Helmut. Unfortunately, after the war and with the passage of time, we’d lost contact. I didn’t know where he was.
I managed to get his contact details and was very excited to get in touch. I sent him an email and didn’t hear from him and my thought was that he was angry because I had taken his identity and was responsible for those miserable nine years. But that was not the case at all. He was very ill and had been in hospital. He was really happy to hear from me and said we must get together.
In April 2014, I flew to London for a wonderful reunion. He greeted me with so much warmth and introduced me to his wonderful family. We had four hours together and we talked each other through our lives over the past 76 years.
During his illness, Helmut had told a social worker about what had happened in Austria. She in turn got in touch with Yad Vashem and started the application to get Irma recognised as a Righteous Among Nations. Helmut and I discussed it when we saw each other and I think we had the feeling that we were going to get it. Before I left, I told him that I would dedicate myself to making this happen.
It was only when I was reunited with Helmut that I learned from him that Irma could not go back from England to pick him up because she was warned that the Gestapo had learned she had smuggled me out of Austria. It then occurred to me that the Gestapo found out from the person who had betrayed my mother. It soon became known in the émigré community in Paris that Pav was a Gestapo spy and the warning was passed on to Irma, possibly by my father. Interestingly, Helmut and I, reviewing this at our reunion, which my children arranged to tape, were then able to answer Yad Vashem’s question why Irma did not go immediately back to fetch Helmut. This final piece of evidence, which we had on tape and sent to Yad Vashem, cleared the last hurdle for Irma’s designation.
Tragically, Helmut died just one week later. I think it was important for him to stay around until we could have that reunion.
Today, I feel a mixture of great gratitude, joy, and also sorrow about what happened to Irma and Helmut, but I am very happy that we were able to get this honour conferred on her. It’s wonderful and maybe something that I should have pursued years ago. I’m so glad that this was done and I became very involved with Yad Vashem in pursuing the designation
I owe Irma my life. Without her, I might never have got out of Austria and would probably have just been another victim of the Holocaust. My children appreciate it, too, because if it weren’t for Irma they wouldn’t be here either, so we owe her a lot. The above article was written in collaboration with Lianne Kolirin