The ex­tra­or­di­nary story of why I owe my life to Irma

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - TES­TI­MONY FRANZ LEICHTER

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

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