Noted Holocaust survivor who spoke widely about life for Austrian Jews after the Anschluss
HIS LIFE’S story can be found in a number of books about the Holocaust, most recently in Agnes Grunwald-Spier’s book Who betrayed the Jews? Otto Deutsch, who has died in Westcliff aged 88, was a highly valued friend of the local Jewish, as well as wider community. He was in great demand as a speaker at home and abroad, by schools, clubs and organisations, and spoke about his early life in Vienna and England after his arrival.
Otto was well known within Holocaust survivors’ and interfaith groups. In his interviews he described his life with his still noticeable Austrian accent.
Otto was born in Vienna, Austria, to Victor and Wilma Deutsch, poor but loving parents. He spent his early years with his older sister Adele, as part of the large Jewish pre-war community in the Favoriten district, until the Nazis invaded Austria during the Anschluss
His childhood and family were then savagely destroyed. His father was rounded up on Kristallnacht in November, 1938 by their neighbour and former family friend – like himself a decorated soldier who had fought in the Imperial Austrian Army in the First World War. Otto never saw his father again and it transpired that he had been compelled to work in the Forced Labour Battalion used to build Germany’s first autobahns.
Otto’s young life was altered forever when he finally fled Vienna via the Kindertransport, which saved the lives of 10,000 children from war-torn Europe and placed them in foster homes. His mother had queued desperately long hours to secure Otto a ticket to England. As he walked one last time with his mother and sister along the Vienna station platform to catch the train that would eventually bring him to safety, her parting words, embedded in his memory forever were: “Never lose your Yiddishkeit.” He travelled with his first cousin Alfred Kessler, who survives him. Their mothers were sisters.
The boys landed at Harwich on the Essex coast on July 6, 1939 and went to live with a Christian couple in Morpeth, near Newcastle. They ensured that Otto had some Jewish education by arranging a monthly visit from a yeshivah student in nearby Gateshead. Meanwhile Otto’s adored parents and sister, of whom he never tired of speaking, were murdered by the Nazis on May 24. 1942 alongside many others at the Maly Trasiainec concentration camp near Minsk, Belarus. In 2011, Otto visited the forests where they were killed and their bodies burned. He said Kaddish for them and left a photo pinned to a tree in their memory.
When he turned 16 Otto went to London and worked as a tour guide, putting his language skills to good use with the burgeoning business of foreign European tours. Eventually he visited Southend-on-Sea, Essex in the early 1970s. He never left. He joined the Southend and Westcliff Hebrew Congregation and for the next four decades he sat quietly at the back of the shul in the same corner each Shabbat, sharing his lifestories with all who asked, sometimes mimicking a strong Geordie accent.
In 2007 on Otto’s 79th birthday, Southend’s Rabbi Binyamin Bar organised his barmitzvah celebration. On his German passport, the name Israel had been inserted, common practice for all male Jews under Nazi control. Rabbi Bar suggested that even though the name was given as a symbol of degradation, he should adopt it with pride for having defeated the Nazis’ evil intentions. Otto Deutsch became Yisroel ben Avraham.
Otto was a dearly loved and much respected man. He captivated people from all communities, leaving a lasting impression of kindness, tolerance and endurance, despite the hardship and atrocity he had experienced in his young life. Otto never married and is survived by five cousins.
Otto Deutsch: born July 12, 1928. Died January 3, 2017