That November night, Mira would later learn, went down in history. It seemed normal enough as the nuns tended the various children in the dormitory. But before they could even get to sleep, the noises from the heart of the city began. Mira thought she heard a window breaking, then another, and very quickly, more windows were breaking. Then, a rifle shot, was it?
Mira sat up in bed and saw some of the other girls doing the same, and looking just as frightened as she was.
Rough Germanic voices shouted commands, more rifle shots, and screams, all against the continued background of shattering glass. Most of the pupils were sitting up now, some in tears, as nuns hurried in, attempting to console them and to close the wooden shutters hoping to shut out the noise. But the noise would not stop or be dulled.
“It will be over soon,” one of the nuns assured them. But it was unending. There was little sleep for anyone that night. The range of terrifying sounds lasted into first light. Mira could see that the nuns were every bit as concerned as the pupils.
Mira longed for the company of her father and grandmother. The nuns were helpful and consoling, but it wasn’t the same as having close family at times of fear and stress.
Despite the terrible night the Mother Superior insisted that the day went as normal as possible. So, after breakfast the various classes were taken, albeit sleepily, to their various schools. However, Mira, with Sister Agnes, were surprised to find the small Jewish building all locked up.
It wasn’t long before Mira heard the reason for the devastating noises of the previous night, with a strong link to why her school might have been closed.
Mother Superior had accompanied two other nuns into the heart of the city, with the intention of bringing some level of succour to those who had suffered loss. Being the only girl left in the convent, Mira, applying her eavesdropping skills, was able to hear much of the sad events that had taken place, as the returning nuns passed on the despairing news to their colleagues.
“It was all aimed at the Jewish community. Houses and particularly shops were stoned,” one of the nuns, Sister Regina, was almost weeping as she spoke.
“We saw two synagogues, still burning, but already collapsed,” said Sister Lina, “but we heard there were others.”
“And the Jewish High Schools were severely wrecked,” they were adding facts so quickly that their words tumbled over each other.
“Mother Superior gave her Holy blessing to so many women whose husbands had been taken away.”
“There was glass everywhere under our feet. That’s why they’re calling it, ‘Kristallnacht’, the night of broken glass. On WilhelmStrasse none of the shops had windows.” Mira knew that part of the business area, was all Jewish shops. But she was only half hearing now as, what had already been said, had set her worrying about her father, and she was pleased it was Friday and she could get home to the comfort of her grandmother.
Consequently, she hurried through the streets to her grandmother’s house in double quick time. As soon as she burst into the hall and saw her grandmother’s red-streaked, troubled face, she feared the worst.
Her grandmother shook her head as she opened her arms to draw Mira close, “I couldn’t stay away. No sign of him but his beloved workshop is wrecked, and oh, the mess they made of his flat.”
“But the nuns said, many men were—”
Her grandmother hugged her, “We must wait until we know. Maybe he got away into the foothills, an area he knows so well.”
But, after Kristallnacht, Mira never saw her father again.
Her grandmother held her comfortingly close for a long time. That night, and for several nights after ‘Kristallnacht’, Mira wept into her pillow as she hoped and prayed that her father might be safe.
On the Monday, with Sister Agnes, they found the Jewish school open, and began to hear the dreadful reasons why many pupils would not be returning. Whole families had been shipped away somewhere.
With tears on her cheeks, Madame Menstein told of how, although this family purging had been going on for some time, the toll of ‘Kristallnacht’ was so much greater and also more cruel.
When Friday came, Mira relayed these facts to her grandmother, who clutched her to her bosom, and affirmed, “You see? They will hit Jewish families as often as they can.”
“But I am Viennese,” Mira protested, not wishing to consider being at risk.
Her grandmother smiled gently, “You most certainly are. But the Nazis take a different view.” She drew Mira even closer as she whispered, “This renewed Nazi pressure worries me. We must get you away from here.”
“Away from you?”
“Away from the Nazi threat. Fortunately, I’ve been introduced to a lady who, I’d heard, was involved in organising safe passage for children to England. Hardly guilt on the part of the Nazis, but they have agreed to this for children under sixteen.”
Her grandmother hugged her and muttered, “It is purely for your own safety. A train, they’re calling it the ‘Kindertransport’ is fully booked for this month, but I’ve put your name forward for the next one.”
The prospect of being taken to a foreign country horrified Mira, and she made her oft-repeated plea, “But I don’t want to be away from you.”
“Don’t ever think I want you to go. Never think that.”
Over the next few months, Mira managed her day-to-day life without too much added trouble. But she quickly learned the truth in what her grandmother had said. From week to week a class member would be missing, never to return. Her teacher, Lydia, often with tears on her cheeks would try to explain. “Marie Havocs will not be coming back to this school.” As though it was a simple school transfer, when they could all guess the truth.
It was always unpleasant to sense the contemptuous glances from the SS men, or view their frequent brutality, when an older child, was accused of a Jewish misdemeanour.
Always in the back of her mind was the fear of having to leave Vienna, and that fear became a reality when her grandmother told her, “It’s next month, April, a train to the Hook of Holland, where a ship will take you to a place called Harwich.”
“Holland?” Mira queried, noticing her grandmother’s mix of relief and sorrow.
“The Nazis won’t allow their own ports to be blocked, especially with the threat of war.”
In that final four weeks, emotions ran high. The nuns, especially sisters Agnes and Gabriel, were delighted for her, yet expressed their sadness at her leaving. “You will come back to see us when it’s all over?” Mira was asked. The idea of coming back had often occupied Mira’s mind, but because it meant leaving first, she dismissed that thinking.
Because they were only being allowed to carry one small case, during those weeks, her grandmother had her lay out two sets of clothes that she would be carrying, and a dress and short jacket for the journey. “Apparently, there are associations over there that will provide any extra clothing you may need.”
Two weeks before she was due to leave, her grandmother suggested, “We’ll have our photograph taken. We don’t know when we’ll meet again, how we’ll meet again, or if we’ll ever meet again. Let’s have something to remember each other.” Her words made Mira weep silently, but they went to a photographer, and had their portraits taken together.
Mira stored the photograph in the bottom of her case, and it was to provide her with many emotional memories. Her grandmother busied herself in providing Mira’s identification documents and photograph to the Catholic Committee for Refugees who were responsible for the Kindertransport.
That dreaded day in April 1939 finally arrived. Mira had stayed close to her grandmother all day. Now she clung to that dear lady’s hand on the crowded station platform, and her grandmother responded with equal fervour. The Nazis had decreed that the train could only leave at midnight, which was a very late hour for Mira and obviously many of the younger children, some just three-year-olds, were distraught at being forcibly separated from loved ones. This despite younger children only being allowed to travel when an older sibling was travelling too. Nevertheless, there was much howling and crying.
However, Mira was assured that extra ladies were on the train to calm the distressed youngsters. Less assuring was seeing the black uniforms scattered among the crowd on the platform, and as the train pulled in, belching clouds of steam and smoke, the SS men ordered people to designated carriages.
Clinging and weeping were a feature right along the platform. One of the SS yelled, “No emotion. Emotion forbidden!” Even in that situation, hanging on wildly to her grandmother, Mira thought it an idiotic demand. Then a soldier thrust her up the steps of the train. Mira tried to turn, but others were close behind her.
She was fortunate to find an open window and was able to reach out to where her grandmother held up her hand to share one final squeeze. As the train jerked to a start, she saw the tears on her grandmother’s face for the first time, as the dear lady in her life called, “Stay strong. We’ll see each other again.”
As their hands were torn apart, Mira pressed her face to the window until distance and steam hid her grandmother from view. Having little expectation of ever seeing her grandmother again, Mira collapsed into the nearest seat and wept bitterly.
When she had calmed, and the crying noises from other carriages had ceased, Mira hoped she might sleep. Outside darkness discounted any viewing from the windows, but sleep would not come. Maybe she was too tense, maybe it was simply worry at what might lie ahead.
The train journey seemed to go on forever. It stopped at every station, and each time the black uniforms would disembark, and replacements came on board and went through the procedure of checking identities and opening some cases. Mira was later pleased that they never opened hers because of what her grandmother, unbeknown to Mira, had stowed in the bottom of her case.
After many hours the train stopped again, and as there was now morning light, Mira could see all the soldiers and SS leave. She realised that they must have reached the Dutch border and were at last free from Nazi interference. The train moved on to the place called the Hook of Holland, and there with the youngest beginning to cry again and Mira was tired, slightly bewildered, as she looked out at the enormous extent of sea.
Her only experiences of water before this had been the Danube and various Austrian lakes. But with all of them, she had been able to see the opposite shore. Now, here was this endless stretch of sea, reaching into the morning mists, and Mira felt the reality of real fear. What did lie ahead? Lonely and afraid, in a foreign land where they talked a foreign tongue.
Worse, she had heard the soldiers laughing about a possible war with the very country she was headed for. Would she be regarded as the enemy? Could she survive this new life?