Exeter Synagogue Archive

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Kurt Wilhelm

Kurt attended services regularly at the synagogue in the last years of his life, after his marriage to his second wife, Etty. He was a cultivated and gentle man, who regretted that he had no children.  

I was born in 1906. I was lucky enough to leave Austria through friends. I'm a printer. We had our own printing business in Vienna, which belonged to my grandfather. Through the Nazification we lost the business. One day a Nazi came and he said, 'This is my business', and threw us out. It was a sort of forced sale...my grandfather had the business in Vienna for over forty years. I was a printer, I was a compositor, working in Hebrew letters you see, so I could come. Of course I am talking of the old methods of printing when it was all handset. So, I came out.

War hadn't broken out since, it was still peace. Things were very, very difficult... In Vienna, first of all we had to scrub the floors. They came in the houses and took out the Jews and beat them out and we had to scrub the floors outside on the pavement. I had to do that. Then you were not allowed to sit in parks any more. It was only for Aryans. They put signs on the seats, 'Only Aryans allowed to sit here' just like as in South Africa where they write 'No black people'.

We had a house there and living in that house we had a housekeeper, she used to be my nanny. When the Kristallnacht happened the Nazis, the blackshirts, the Gestapo, went from house to house, and of course the first thing they asked of the caretaker were they any Jews living in the house? And he told them - 'There are no Jews here'. We had a four-storey house with three Jewish families and he said that there were no Jewish people there. He lied...he defended me.

When I visited Austria again after the war I saw the son of the man (who had lied), the old people died and when we came visiting, they gave us a welcome. We stayed in Vienna for a fortnight and they made us very very welcome. And they all realised what a mistake they made.

My mother died, she was taken out - that was all what I heard from the Red Cross - she was sent to a concentration camp in Poland... I don't even know where. My wife's mother's family they were taken out of bed to a concentration camp. So, they all regret very much what happened to us but still there are a lot of Nazis about. They are growing stronger.

Would you say that your family was quite strongly Jewish?

It didn't matter whether you were practising the religion or not, you were a Jew. You were Jewish. You were a bloody Jew. And that was that. We never practised religion much. But we were Jewish.

My father was in the army during the First World War. He had the Iron Cross. He was an engineer working for the ministry in the First World War. Oh, it... it devastated us... there was, what shall I say, you went around and you never knew whether you would be alive the next day. During the night they had raids on houses my mother was living in her own house and all the Jewish people had to go together. They made a sort of place where the Jews had to go together... like a ghetto. And as it was a big house, she used to live in a five-bedroom house - they took all the Jews together. And they had a balcony over-looking the garden and there were so many jumped down from the balcony and killed themselves... then we had the Gestapo house - and what was going on there we never shall know... people were shouting and crying - looking out of the windows, crying, what's happened to them. The rights of the Jewish people had completely gone.

You see, I was a lucky one to get out - Six million didn't get out. I got nobody. Nobody. My mother was one of thirteen - all died.

I brought with me to England a machine, a printing machine. Because I had the idea to start on my own one day. The machine came here and I had a job...I was in the British army then, you see... I was digging trenches in Ilfracombe... I hurt my leg very badly so I was transferred to another company who stayed in the country. So I got in touch with a firm in Exeter. The machine was coming from London to Exeter... but I had no money to pay the duty on it - there was £40 duty on it. All that I had was fifteen shillings! That was the money I had brought from Austria - you were not allowed to bring more money out. The Jews had to give up all their jewelry, gold, silver, cutlery. Everything was collected. They came in the houses and requisitioned it. They gave you a receipt for it, a worthless receipt, not worth a penny. So, the machine was in Exeter - unfortunately it couldn't work there because it had a different motor... then the Blitz came! So, I lost the machine - after all that trouble all that I could get was for scrap. So, I lost the machine. I lost the idea of even working on my own. I lost the chance to ever get established on my own. But I was full of spirit! We had some bombing raids here and I said, 'It's a good job I went out, and my wife went out'. Our house was bombed. We were living in Heavitree in those times, and I said "Better the machine went than me", because the Heavitree Road was badly bombed, where the police station was all was bombed flat, by St Luke's.

I remember old Exeter before the Blitz... vaguely... like a dream. It was a very nice city. But it's all changed - the old Post Office, the shopping centre, the Arcade.

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