A World War II Survivor
by Andrea Schindler
Irene at age fifteen before leaving Vienna.
Etlinger, a woman now eighty-six years old and living in Portland,
Oregon, was born on September 8, 1922 in Vienna, Austria. She is the
cousin of my great grandmother. I have never spoken with her prior to
this interview project, and felt strange asking Irene such personal
questions about her World War II experience. My father, however,
assured me that she is one of the kindest women in the world and said
that if she lived close by, she would be a second grandmother to us.
Once I began to converse with her, it was easy to see her strong,
intelligent, and altruistic nature.
Irene was half Jewish,
and was raised by a Catholic mother and Jewish father. Although
inter-religious marriages were common in Austria, it was uncommon for
the Jewish partner of a union to remain Jewish as Irene’s father did,
instead of converting to Catholicism. But because Judaism was
considered by Hitler a race rather than a religion, she was among those
Jews persecuted during the Nazi regime. Soon after the Anschluss,
Irene, merely sixteen, left Vienna with a transit visa for England. She
stayed there for a year until she finally obtained the appropriate visa
and traveled by boat to America. After waiting at Ellis Island for a
day, she entered the United States. She stayed in New York for three
weeks before moving in with the generous family in Portland that had
sent her an affidavit*. She lives in Portland to this day.
|A Loving Family
childhood memories revolve around family and holiday gatherings, school
days, delicious food, and Viennese culture. Irene’s extended family was
quite large, and she often went to get-togethers with her relatives,
including several aunts, uncles, and cousins.
every Wednesday afternoon as many of [my aunt’s] siblings, nephews,
nieces, and assorted other relatives as could arrange it, came to [my
aunt’s] apartment for a ‘Jause.’ A Jause is a typically Viennese term
for a get-together over coffee, tea, and as many cookies and pastries
as possible, all with lots of whipped cream, of course.”
was very close with my grandmother, Lise. Despite the fact that they
were first cousins once removed, Lise was only a year older than Irene.
During the summer, Irene would often visit her at Lise’s grandmother’s
beautiful house in Reichenau in the Alps south of Vienna. The two young
girls would go on hikes in the Alpine forests with Lise’s father, Hans
Grossman, and eat her grandmother Emma’s famed ice cream cake. They
both loved to read, and because there were no public libraries at the
time, often exchanged books with one another.
Irene with her father and mother in the
Vienna Woods in the 1920s.
A section of Irene's report card from before the Nazi regime. Even
before the Nazi's annexed Austria, attention to religion was pervasive
in Vienna– on this report card, Irene's Jewish religion is noted
("mos" means the religion of Moses, another word for Jew).
The Anschluss - March 12, 1938
the evening of March 11, 1938, Irene and her mother were at the Opera
House on the Ringstrasse2, for a friend had given them tickets to
Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin. Her mother, or as Irene called her,
“Mutti,” had been reluctant to go, for there were rumors of a German
invasion, but ultimately, Irene convinced her mother to attend the
show. (Interestingly enough, my grandmother was at the Theatre during
listened to the radio all day. There were reports of German troop
movements at the border, and appeals by the Austrian government for its
citizens to remain steadfastly patriotic. We had heard similar
broadcasts for many days and were not unduly alarmed.”
went well for the first two acts of the Opera. During the second
intermission, Mutti and Irene were waiting in the lobby when they saw
“one of the Viennese policemen pull a red, white and black swastika
armband out of his pocket and slip it onto his left arm. He looked at
the other two, and they followed suit.” The Viennese police had already
known that the Nazis were coming and as Mutti observed, ‘They only
waited for the right time to put those armbands on.’
knew what was on the radio, but I am sure that there were people who
knew a lot more of what was going on, because otherwise how would the
policemen already have had the swastika armbands in their pockets, you
know? So I know that there were many people. The Nazis had an
underground system already in Austria, I’m sure, for years. And I’m
sure there were many people who knew a lot of what was going on. But
the general population didn’t.”
Irene and her mother left
through a side door in the Opera House. They saw the German Army
marching into Vienna, followed by massive crowds of Viennese people
cheering for the Nazis, “singing, hysterical with joy, carrying torches
and German swastika flags.” When Irene and her mother finally got home,
Irene’s father was gone. The maid told them that he’d been very worried
and had gone out in search of them. Her father finally returned home at
around three in the morning. He’d gotten ‘caught up in the mass of
people welcoming the Germans.’ But he was safe, if completely
infuriated by the Anschluss. Irene believes, contrary to the fact that
Austria “was successful in presenting itself as Hitler’s first victim,”
the majority of Austrians were vehemently for Germany’s annexing of
their country. Irene believes about a third of Austrians were gung-ho
for the Nazis, about a third were supportive, and about a third were
true Austrian patriots who despised Germany’s swift takeover of their
|Kristallnacht - November 9-10, 1938
Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass,” Nazis used the fact that
a single Jew in Paris had killed a German diplomat as justification to
attack Jews throughout Germany and Austria. Windows were smashed (hence
the name, “Night of Broken Glass”), temples and houses were burned,
shops were robbed, and Jews were beaten in the streets. Irene and her
family were safe on this dreadful night of violence, for her former
maid, Poldi, entered their house and warned them not to go out, for
people were being beaten:
was still in Vienna, and I was at home, and our maid was still—no she
wasn’t with us anymore—you know the
woman had been our maid for many years and was really like part of the
family, so when the Nazis came, of course she had to leave and work for
a German officer. But she came, if I remember, and told us not to go
out—that horrible things were happening. They were smashing windows,
and taking people out. And so we all stayed home and for that evening
we were safe. But the next day, when I went out, I saw shards of glass,
I mean whole streets covered with them, and also, the worst thing was
that they took Jewish people—men and women—out of their apartments and
onto the streets and had them clean up this terrible mess. And also to
show disrespect; I saw a couple of people who had to scrub the sidewalk
with toothbrushes… It was awful. That’s what I saw.”
This is a section of the "short" proof of Aryanism that Irene's mother had to fill out to
prove the purity of her blood. She also had to fill out extensive forms
proving her Aryan heritage all the way back to the 1700s.
was allowed to finish her sophomore year of high school, but afterwards
was not allowed to attend school. “The Jewish kids, even the one
hundred percent Jewish kids, were allowed to finish the school year
until July. But after that, we were not allowed to go back to school.
Half Jewish, all Jewish—it didn’t make any difference.” Nazi Austria
was brimming with anti-Semitism. When Irene and her cousin went to the
park in Vienna, there were some benches marked “No Jews” and some
benches marked “Half Jews.” Hitler’s censorship of media began, and
huge book burning riots broke out:
day, soon after the Anschluss, I went to my dentist in downtown
Vienna. On my way home (I was walking), I passed the University
building, or rather I tried to pass. I suddenly was engulfed by a huge
crowd of people, yelling, screaming and feeding a great bonfire of
books. Hordes of young people (I assume they were students) came out
with their arms full of books and threw them on the fire. All the
while they were chanting slogans about getting rid of Jewish and
Communist garbage. To me that was really horrifying - and I could not
extricate myself. It took what seemed a long time before I could get
out of the crowd and walk home. I had always loved books and it was
painful to see them abused and exterminated by these ignorant louts.
They were trying to obliterate all ideas and philosophies that did not
agree with their twisted world view. Anyway, this experience left me
with a great fear of crowds to this day. I never go to rallies or
vigils even for causes in which I believe because I feel such anxiety
in crowds. On the other hand, it also made me reject censorship. I
know that there is lots of shoddy, bad and false literature out there,
but it should be our job to educate people to recognize it as such, not
to try to suppress it.”
Though war had not officially
been declared, it was clear that remaining in Nazi-ruled areas was
dangerous. Irene wanted to leave Austria and find a way to move to
America, and her father agreed with this notion. But her mother was
afraid, as is understandable. At one point, her mother even suggested
that the family kill themselves by turning on the gas oven.
best friend, Marietta Bunzel, “had an affidavit from… her mother’s
cousin, who lived in Portland, Oregon,” and was waiting for her visa.
Marietta wrote to this cousin and implored him to find another family
in America that would be willing to send Irene an affidavit, for Irene
had no relatives in the U.S. The family of Leo Pallay agreed to help
Irene, and soon sent her the affidavit. But Irene’s chances of getting
the American visa before war broke out looked slim, so the Pallays
arranged for Irene to stay with distant relatives, Simon Levy and his
wife, in London. By the time she was sixteen years old, Irene had
completed all of the proper paperwork to get a transit visa for
England, and prepared to leave.
9, 1938 (on the day of her parents’ seventeenth wedding anniversary),
Irene boarded a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight to London with one
suitcase and a hatbox, in which she stowed the stuffed animal dog that
she slept with as a child. She was the first of her family to travel
via airplane, for her parents thought that taking a train and boat
would be too dangerous, considering she’d have to go through Germany.
Her parents planned to send her trunk by train to London.
An Elongated Stay
stay in England, which was supposed to last for a few months, ended up
being a year and two weeks long. The transit visa was only allotted for
three months, so she had to keep applying for new ones. Irene
originally stayed with Mr. Levy as arranged, but her parents heard that
Mr. Levy’s wife had recently left him, and Irene was alone in a house
with this forty-one year old man. At the time, the innocent Irene did
not recognize the inappropriate nature of her living arrangements. Even
though Mr. Levy was a decent man, her parents were uneasy about the
situation. She was whisked away to live with the Nathan family, who
were friends of her best friend Marietta’s brother, Herbert Bunzell. It
was during her stay with the Nathans that Irene truly learned English.
Because the transit visa did not allow for her to work or go to school,
Irene helped care for the Nathan children and read an enormous number
of books. “Mr. Nathan took it upon himself to oversee my reading, and
so I bet I’m one of the few people who’s read all of Charles Dickens.
And so I got a one-sided, but pretty good education in English
During this long waiting period, Irene also went
to tea with my grandmother Lise once in a while. Lise was working hard
as a student nurse and barely had any money, but would treat Irene, who
had nothing, to tea. Their favorite meal was “poached eggs on toast,”
for it was least expensive.
“One time I sold a little gold
pendant in a pawnshop for a tiny amount of money, so I could take us to
tea and a movie. I think it was before I left for America. I could
never forget her generosity when we were just kids - that is one of the
many reasons why I felt such a special closeness to her even into old
age. It never mattered how long we had not seen each other. In some
way, when we were together, we reverted to being about sixteen.”
in late 1939, when she was seventeen years old, Irene’s immigration
visa for the U.S. was approved. Now she just had to find a means of
traveling to America.
The front page of Irene's passport, featuring the red "J" for
Jew and the Nazi swastika seal.
The second page of Irene's passport, featuring
her photogaph and Nazi stamps.
had sent her to England with an expensive boat ticket for America.
Unfortunately, the German boat was meant to leave from an English
harbor in Southampton, and now that the countries were at war with
one another, the ticket was completely useless. With no money to her
name, Irene’s only hope was to send a telegraph message to the Pallay
family in Portland and appeal for help. The Pallays, who had already
acted with heart-warming kindness in sending Irene the affidavit,
responded with astonishing benevolence. They paid three hundred
dollars—which nowadays is roughly equivalent to three thousand—to
secure a ship ticket on the British ocean liner, the “Georgic,” for
young Irene, a complete stranger. It was at the end of the Depression,
and they had been saving up to buy a new car, but instead used the
funds to pay for Irene’s voyage. “At the time I was too young and
inexperienced in the ways of the world to truly appreciate their
sacrifice, but now it seems extraordinary to me.” Hence, Irene said
goodbye to her generous friends once more and was escorted to Liverpool
by Marietta’s brother, Herbert.
Because of the German U-Boats
that plagued the Atlantic in December 1939, “the Georgic traveled in
full blackout.” No passenger was allowed on the deck without his or her
gas mask, and every day there was an emergency drill “with everyone
scrambling to find his was to the assigned lifeboats.” On the second
day of the voyage, the ship came by some Canadian sailors. Their ship
had been sunk and these lucky few had survived on a lifeboat.
Regardless of the solemnity of her situation, Irene romanticized the
“Maybe I just wanted to see it that way – as a young
girl I was very movie-struck. There was dancing to live music every
evening, and on December 31st there was a lavish New Year’s Eve party,
which now seems rather incongruous to me. I even acquired a special
beau, Werner Stern, who, with his parents, was headed for Chicago.”
dropping the sailors off at Halifax, Nova Scotia, the ship finally
reached New York. Because of the necessity of avoiding the U-Boats, the
trip lasted for eleven days rather than “the usual five.”
|New York, At Last
hundreds of passengers were allowed to disembark and enter the United
States, Irene was pulled aside by the immigration officer. Frazzled by
the situation, she, the sole passenger of the Georgic out of over five
hundred to be deprived of American soil, remained on the ship for the
night and read the New York Times for the first time. She spent the
next day at Ellis Island, which looked to her “like a great prison with
barred windows.” Noticing that some other immigrants, like the Balkan
woman whose husband was in the infirmary with tuberculosis, had
remained there for many months, Irene “had visions of spending months
in this awful place.” The next afternoon, however, she was allowed to
enter the States. She was told that the two women who the Pallays had
sent to retrieve her had not had the proper documentation the day
before, and had to attain it to satisfy the White Slavery Law (which
was “to protect girls from prostitution rings”).
spending three weeks in Brooklyn with the family of Leo Pallay’s aunt,
she began to “Americanize” herself. She attended two basketball games
at Madison Square Garden and went to her first triple feature. Irene
prepared to move to Oregon to stay with the Pallays. Already having
received so much money from the Pallay family, Irene could not bring
herself to ask for another favor. She applied for and received a
voucher for a bus ticket to Portland from HIAS (Hebrew International
Aid Society), an organization that helped refugees.
A general map of Irene's journey, from Vienna to London to New York to Portland.
Irene's Certificate of Naturalization.
A New Life in Oregon
a series of long bus rides and stops at Illinois and Utah, Irene
arrived in Portland, where she began a new life. She finished high
school, helped care for little Frances, ushered at the Pallays’ movie
theatres, perfected her English, learned American songs, and grew into
a wonderful young woman.
After December 7,
1941 (Pearl Harbor Day), when the U.S. joined the war, it became
extremely difficult for Irene to correspond with her parents in Vienna.
Her communication was limited to short messages three or four times a
year through the Red Cross. Irene’s parents survived and years later
joined their daughter in Portland. When her mother and father finally
found their way to America, Irene was a married woman in her twenties.
She was a mother nurturing a child rather than the naïve
sixteen-year-old girl she had been when she left Vienna. It was
difficult at first for her parents to adjust to this transformation.
Her father was saved by the fact that his wife was Christian—he was
told that if the war had lasted six months longer than it had, he would
have become another of the six million Jews killed in concentration
camps. Her Uncle Karl survived, but his wife and daughter were murdered
at camps. Two of Irene’s aunts were killed at camps, and another two
Irene in 1992 with one of her daughters and
Irene in 1992 with my older brother, Joe.
|A PARTING NOTE
imagine what strength it must have taken for a girl my age to leave her
home and family, in the middle of a war, and embark alone on a journey
to the other side of the world. But Irene does not consider herself
note, I want to say that I feel very fortunate that I was able to come
here and have a life. For a long time, not now, but for a long time, I
always thought that I had something special required of me. How come I
survived when so many of my generation didn’t? And now I have come to
the conclusion that I think all that is required is to live the best
life you can, raise your family the best you can. I was nothing special
just because I lived. I was fortunate. I’m grateful for it.”
|Etlinger, Irene. Telephone interview. 18 Jan. 2009.
Etlinger, Irene. Personal photographs and documents.
Etlinger, Irene. A Newcomer in Portland. Ms.
Etlinger, Irene. Christmas Memories. Ms.
Etlinger, Irene. Enemy Alien. Ms.
Etlinger, Irene. From England to America. Ms.
Etlinger, Irene. From New York to Portland: January 1940. Ms.
Etlinger, Irene. From Vienna to London. Ms.
Etlinger, Irene. Good-bye, Old Vienna. Ms.
Etlinger, Irene. My American Schooling. Ms.
Etlinger, Irene. Religion, sort of-. Ms.
Etlinger, Irene. Tante Mina. Ms.
"File: World map blank black lines." Wikimedia Commons. 13 Jan. 2007.
Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 3 Feb. 2009 <http://commons.wikimedia.org/
Oxford American Dictionaries. Apple Computer, Inc., 2005. Electronic. Vers.
*affidavit: “a written statement confirmed by oath or
affirmation, for use as evidence in court” (Oxford American
**Ringstrasse: “a wide boulevard” in Vienna where “all
government buildings, like the Parliament, the University, the Court
Theatre and the State Opera” are located.