Saturday 16 February 2019

'We escaped the Nazi camps, but ended up in a Siberian gulag'

Walter Sekules has good reason to attend today's National Holocaust Memorial event in Dublin, writes Alan O'Keeffe

NEVER FORGET: Walter Sekules holds a photo taken in Tallinn in 1940 of himself as a baby, with his mother Edith and his sister Ruth. Photo: David Conachy
NEVER FORGET: Walter Sekules holds a photo taken in Tallinn in 1940 of himself as a baby, with his mother Edith and his sister Ruth. Photo: David Conachy

Walter Sekules's earliest memories were childhood games in a prison camp in Siberia.

His Jewish parents had managed to escape the fate of millions of Jews murdered in extermination camps by the Nazis during World War II. But their escape from Austria resulted in the couple and their children being imprisoned in the harsh conditions of Soviet prison camps for more than five years.

The family later found happiness near the Mourne Mountains in County Down when they settled in Kilkeel.

Some of their loved ones and friends did not survive the Holocaust.

Walter was almost seven years old when his family was released from a Soviet prison camp. He is now 78 and this evening he will participate in the National Holocaust Memorial Day in the Mansion House in Dublin.

At his home near Carlingford Lough, Walter told the Sunday Independent the extraordinary story of how his family's lives were turned upside down during the darkest decade of the 20th Century.

His parents, Edith and Kurt, grew up in the Austrian capital of Vienna in cultured and enterprising families involved in manufacturing and clothing businesses.

They were among almost 200,000 Jewish people living in the city.

Edith worked in the luxurious Hotel Bristol in Vienna and Kurt was a radio engineer. They married in 1936.

The rise of Nazism in Germany turned the lives of German Jews into a living nightmare with officially sanctioned persecution. The evil spread to Austria when the country was annexed by Germany in 1938.

Huge crowds of Austrians greeted Hitler as a hero and the Nazi agenda of harming and harassing Jews found widespread willing accomplices within the Austrian population.

New laws led to Jewish people's businesses being confiscated and they were no longer allowed to work in the professions. Jewish shops were plundered and taken over. Jews were not allowed to go to school or university and they were actively intimidated into leaving the country.

Some 130,000 Jews fled the city. More than 60,000 Viennese Jews who could not escape were to die in the Nazi regime's extermination camps.

Those who fled left behind most of their property and they were forced to pay the Reich Flight Tax, a tax on all emigres from the Third Reich. Many could not afford to escape.

Edith and Kurt were both fired from their jobs when the Nazi laws were implemented while Edith was pregnant with their first child. Their daughter Ruth was born into a hostile city. Edith was questioned by the Gestapo when faced with false accusations that she was a communist. She gasped with relief when she discovered she was being released.

The couple planned with other members of the family to emigrate as soon as possible. Edith and Kurt and baby Ruth were given a tearful farewell by their family later in 1938 after securing air tickets to Tallinn in Estonia.

Their 1,700km journey included stopovers in Berlin and other cities.

Edith's sister Lotte had already succeeded in travelling to England. She helped her mother to follow her in 1939 when she got her a job as a cook. But no exit visa was possible for Edith's father who stayed behind to look after his own mother. Within a year, Edith's father had died of malnutrition and tuberculosis while his elderly mother died of starvation.

Kurt's parents and his brother Robert also left Austria before war broke out. They settled in Derry after getting visas under a British government scheme to set up factories in Northern Ireland. They founded an artificial flowers business.

Kurt's sister Stella and her children were not so lucky. Their fate remains unknown.

Meanwhile, Kurt and Edith had received help from Jewish groups in Estonia in settling down in Tallinn. Kurt got a job in a radio factory which enabled them to renew their visas to remain there. Walter was born in Estonia in 1940.

But the following year, Russian troops invaded Estonia and the country became part of the USSR. Under the communist system, wealthy or 'bourgeois' residents were being rounded up and transported to Siberia.

In June 1941, Hitler broke the non-aggression pact with Russia and attacked the Soviet Union.

Kurt and Edith and their two children were deemed to be 'enemy aliens' and they were informed they were being sent to a detention camp.

A Russian officer told them to pack enough belongings for a year. Their detention was to last almost six years.

They were taken to a detention camp east of Tallinn where they joined 150 other 'enemy aliens' - half of whom were Jewish refugees. As the German armies pushed eastwards, all the prisoners were brought to a railway point where they were loaded on to cattle wagons and transported 800 miles east to a detention camp in Gorki, Russia.

They spent five months in the detention camp and then the prisoners were again loaded on to cattle trains to endure a five-day journey to Kazakhstan in mid-November. The exhausted prisoners then had to trudge through deep snow to the Aktyubinsk Camp which had a watchtower and barbed wire.

Walter was 20 months old when he became seriously ill with scarlet fever and he was taken to a local hospital where he underwent an operation. While in hospital he caught chickenpox. He was in a very poor state when he was finally returned to his parents.

He began to improve when a Polish medical orderly in the camp gave him a series of blood transfusions with blood from his mother.

Walter also contracted malaria from mosquito bites.

When the snows thawed at the end of April, all able-bodied males, including Kurt, were sent to work in a local brick factory.

In July 1942, the prisoners were moved again by rail in cattle wagons on a four-day journey east to Karaganda where they were incarcerated in another camp.

Men were sent to work in a brick factory and women without children were sent to work on farms. There were 1,300 internees from some 17 countries.

Many prisoners did not survive the harsh conditions. Many of the men aged prematurely and became haggard and thin. All the prisoners were transferred to the Kok Uzek camp nearby in January 1943.

In February 1945, Edith gave birth to her third child, a daughter called Leah.

The war in Europe ended in May 1945 but the families' fate was not a high priority for the authorities and they remained in detention until January 1947.

Finally their day of release came and they began a 5,000km journey by rail from Karaganda to Vienna, mainly in converted cattle wagons. It was a zigzag journey that began in the Siberian snows and ended 63 days later in gentle spring weather as their cattle wagons crossed the Austrian border.

It was only on the journey back from Siberia that they learned the full extent of the Holocaust which claimed millions of innocent victims.

They were able to live in a family friend's apartment in Vienna for several months before Edith and Kurt received permits to travel to Derry to work in the flowers factory, part-owned by Kurt's brother.

They finally settled in Kilkeel in 1950 where they set up a knitting factory with financial help from a prosperous Viennese family friend, Bernhard Altmann.

Their fourth child, Esther, was born in 1954.

In the 1980s, Walter was running a business in Scotland where he lived with his wife Moira, a native of Lisburn, and their three children when he accepted an invitation to return to Kilkeel to run the family business.

Walter said his parents visited Vienna for a holiday in 2000 when his father was 92 and his mother was 83.

Walter said: "It was my father's first visit to Vienna in over 50 years. They went into the same cafes where they used to go when they were courting as a young couple. They took the same walks that they had enjoyed in the 1930s along the banks of the Danube," he said.

Walter said he is worried by the rise of the Far Right in Europe and the growing expressions of hatred of foreigners and immigrants.

He was asked if he could ever forgive those people who adopted the evil policies that led to the Holocaust and those who would still spread hatred today. His reply was brief: "I'm sorry that they haven't learned better."

This evening, President Michael D Higgins will be among the speakers to address the event in the Mansion House organised by the Holocaust Education Trust Ireland (HETI).

Eibhlin Byrne, chairperson of HETI, told this newspaper: "In 1930s' Europe, fear and uncertainty nurtured extremes, unleashing a cataclysmic disaster on the world.

"The Holocaust did not emerge from nowhere. It was the result of fear and uncertainty. It was the result of seeds sown over many years. Seeds of hatred, mistrust, of anti-Semitism. Ultimately, the seeds of evil.

"Those who perpetrated the Holocaust were, like their victims, men and women, sons and daughters, cherished family members. And yet, given fertile ground for hatred, they became killers and the world became a dark and dangerous place. At times of great uncertainty, there is always a danger that extremists will triumph. It can emerge amongst any nations at any stage. Our vigilance and resolve to fight hatred and fear whenever it emerges will ensure that the Holocaust cannot, will not, and must not be repeated."

Underground fighter who saved hundreds of Jewish children. Obituaries, page 32

Sunday Independent

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