Margaret McEwan in Vienna (1936-38)

Figure 1.--

We notice an account from a British humanitarian who as a young woman just out of school was studying at a Vienna convent--Margaret McEwen. She has left a written account of what was happening after the Germans arrived. Margaret after the War would launch the International Help for Children charity to aid children affected by the War. This is part of Margaret McEwen's autobiography which she never lived to complete

We were a very devoted family.  My father was from Scotland, my mother from Ireland, and we lived in London.  I was the youngest of four.  One brother sadly died when he was five just before I was born and the other two brothers were three years and nine years older than me respectively.  Being the only girl I naturally came under the influence of my mother.   However in 1935, at the age of seventeen, life began for me.  I passed with sufficient credits in the school Certificate (GCSE) to be exempt from taking the matriculation (A levels).  This was to the great surprise of my family and indeed to me.  My school attendance had been marred by frequent absences.  My mother was very affectionate and kind but over-possessive.  For instance, to get to school I had a 10-minute walk to the bus stop and at the end of the journey a 15 minute walk up to the school.  If it was raining, or I had a slight cold, I would not be allowed out.   However, I managed, while staying at home, to study subjects that I liked which included history, literature, the classics and drawing.  For the last six months before the exams I had private tuition in the remaining essential subjects.

In 1936 it was time to get a job but first I took a secretarial training.  This I did not enjoy but it was useful.  One day on returning to an old girls' meeting at my former school, Our Lady of Sion in London which had convents in several countries including Europe, I learnt that a vacancy existed in their house in Vienna.  It was for an English student to stay for six months to learn German in exchange for an Austrian student to come to London to learn English.  I thought this was a wonderful opportunity and all I had to find was the money for a return fare.  An aunt produced this and so off I went within six weeks to Vienna.  I had little idea of going abroad other than to France for a month near Calais in Our Lady of Sion Convent. 

I set off for Vienna at the end of January 1936 and had a very pleasant journey with a girl passenger more or less my age.  We had couchettes and the entire journey was organised by Thomas Cook & Son who were represented at each main station and made contact with us both.  At last I arrived in Vienna and the temperature struck me in the face!  It was terribly cold.  Two girls who were students at the school met me - one was Swiss and the other Italian - and we went back to the Convent where I was shown my room (which I would share later on with another girl from Yugoslavia).  Anyway, somehow the cold, the size of the Convent and the whole set up was not as I had imagined.   The next day I went out with one of the Sisters who wanted to show me round.  We could hear the traffic but we could not see it because the snow was piled high on the edge of the pavement.  There were openings for pedestrians to cross the road and I found that my shoes were slipping from under me but Sister held onto my arm and showed me how to slide along.  By the time we returned I couldn't feel my feet or my hands.  And in the room, which fortunately wasn't very warm because then it would have been even more painful, I had to wait nearly two hours before I came back to life.  So when I went home for the summer holidays six months later, I returned to Vienna prepared properly for a very cold winter. I stayed in Vienna for two years.  I went as an external student at Vienna University and got a certificate there.  I was all out to stay for five years and get a degree. I even planned later, because I had become so thrilled with being abroad, to go to Rome to learn Italian.  It's a beautiful language to listen to, much easier than German.  I had these great plans in my mind, always staying in Houses of Our Lady of Sion.   

There were actually two houses in England, one in London and one in Shropshire.  They were founded in 1843 by two Jewish brothers.  The story (and we had to listen to this about twice a year) concerned Father Theodore and Father Alphonse.  There was a very well known and well established Jewish family in Paris called the Ratisbonnes.  They were very devout and two of the brothers were the most devout in practising their Jewish religion.  They hated the Catholics.  One day the elder of the brothers Theodore was passing a small church and had to stop.  Something compelled him to go inside the church where the Virgin appeared to him and told him he must become a Catholic and found a Catholic school in London.  The Jewish family were shocked at the idea.  They disowned him and the younger brother, Alphonse, was Theodore's greatest persecutor.  Then one day as Alphonse was passing a church he too was compelled to go in and received the same message.  So the two Jewish brothers, now confirmed Catholics, founded the main Convent of Our Lady of Sion in Paris and London. 

By having this chance to go to Vienna my life was completely changed. It was an amazing arrangement because I didn't pay anything for board and lodging.  I had to share a room with another student but that was no hardship and I met many interesting girls.  They were all former pupils of Our Lady of Sion - which also had a house in Hungary.  So there were Hungarians, Greeks, Yugoslavs, Italians but no British.  An American girl arrived with her mother once.  I was quite indignant, they could speak English.  I was the only English speaking girl there prior to that.   Every day, three nuns, educated women, gave me an hour's tuition.  So I had an hour of conversation, an hour of grammar, and an hour of composition.  And there was a moment when one of my Austrian friends invited me out, and I received a letter from the mother of one of them who was elderly and who had very strong ideas about protocol.  So although the daughter had invited me - she herself a teacher at the convent - the mother wrote to me to issue an official invitation for tea.  When I opened this letter I couldn't read a word of it.  When Mere Adolphina came to give me my lesson I said, "Mother I can't understand it, what does it mean?  I can see from the signature that it's from the mother of my friend but that's all".   "Oh" she said, "It is schrift writing" and she laughed. "This lady is very old fashioned and the schrift writing was used by well-to-do families who didn't want their servants to read their correspondence".  I asked, "Can you read it?"  "Oh yes", she said, "well of course, I'm old" 
"And write it?"
"Yes, naturally"
"You couldn't teach me could you", and she laughed again and replied, "Of course I will".  And so I learnt schrift writing, I found this so fascinating and the girls saw me writing it and said, "What's that?"   "That's my secret writing" I answered.  To my delight when I went to a big book shop I was able to buy a book with all the instructions and a key at the back.  I've still got it.  I thought nothing of all this at the time and I used to write all the letters I could in German (schrift), with the enthusiastic help from Mere Adolphina.  Little did I know then that this knowledge of schrift handwriting would be of such importance to me when the war broke out in 1939 when I got a job in the Censorship Department of the Ministry of Information censoring German and French letters from Europe.   One of the teachers at the convent wanted to come to London in the school holidays and said she would travel back with me.  She said "We'll go on the student party if you like but you will have to sit up all night".  I said I would find that interesting.  So we went with the student party back to London and the cost was £3. Some of these young students, boys of course, took the luggage off the racks and slept up there.  Never mind all the luggage along the corridor and so on.  If there was a fire on the train, people would just have to climb over them.  I didn't feel tired.  I found the whole thing hilarious. So I was back in London for the summer holidays.  In the Autumn I then went off to Vienna again and stayed over Christmas.

 1938 when the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, flew to Munich to meet Hitler, I was in Vienna.  He later declared "peace in our time".  There had been a bit of a war scare but that died down.  Later I returned from Vienna as usual for the summer holidays and I didn't expect to go back.  However, the prospect of war receded so I went to France for six months instead.  Before I left Vienna my parents had become very worried when the "Anschluss" took place and Hitler and his Nazis invaded Austria and especially Vienna.  I remember we were all asleep in the convent when at about one o'clock in the morning there was a most unholy noise.  We thought "what on earth is it".  We put on our dressing gowns and rushed to look out of the window and there the road was filled with a column of motorcycles about four abreast, all leaning on their horns!  And those around me said this must be because of the plebiscite.  Schuschnigg the Austrian chancellor must have won and they are celebrating.  Then suddenly we saw in the middle of the parade a huge swastika.  I remember how we all fell back.  We were so shocked.  Vienna had been invaded by Hitler!  As we went into the corridor we saw all the nuns who had been watching, fully dressed.   The next day was complete mayhem.  The Reverend Mother told me to go to the British Consulate in Vienna.  She said, "I have great faith in British officialdom and I am sure that they will know what to do.  Go with a couple of girls for security.  I was accompanied by two friends, one Yugoslav and one Greek.  In the street the people were shouting "Heil Hitler, Heil Hitler" and raising their arm in the Nazi salute.  One woman put up her fat arm half in salute and half as if to hit us in the face because we were not saying "Heil Hitler".  We were just foreigners obviously.  She didn't actually hit us thank goodness!  But we kept close together, arm in arm, and marched on.  Then I saw on the corner a Chemist where I used to go when I was taking exams at the University and getting very nervous.  I always asked for bromide and they used to find it very funny.  I saw the young man who used to serve me standing outside with an armband with a Swastika on it and a rifle in his arms.  I could not believe it.  That really shook me.   However, we continued to the British Consultate which was a big, extravagant building and we went up the steps and rang the bell.  We were ushered into a vast hall and told to go up the stairs to the first floor.  It was a very wide staircase and to our amazement there were at least three people sitting abreast on every single step, huddled together.  I thought what on earth is the matter?  Still they were nothing to do with us so we continued round by the landing, still more people there and the same on the next flight up.  I couldn't bear it any more and I said to one woman, "What are you doing here?  What's happened to you?"  She said in a rather feeble voice, "We're waiting for a visa to England",  "A visa to England?" I replied.  "Is it so important?  Can't you just go?"

"Oh, no" she said. "Not without a visa and we must get them now, or God help us".  So I said, "Why?"  she said, "We are all Jewish".  She looked up and in her eyes I saw for the first time real fear.  These people were all terrified.  We carried on up the stairs to the consul's office.  We rang the bell and a young man came.  I explained that we had been sent by the Reverend Mother.  I was rather proud that she had thought the British Consulate would give us good information.  He wasn't impressed.  He just looked at the three of us and then said "There's nothing to be done.  All the frontiers are closed.  No one can come into Austria or go out of Austria"  And he said "You're students are you?"  I told him that I was studying German and that my two friends were studying Law and Music respectively.  He said, "I say to you, all three.  Don't aggravate the authorities because neither the British Consulate nor the Consulates of these two young ladies" countries could help.  Stay at your convent school and don't go out unless it is absolutely necessary".  Well this was not quite what I had expected.  He then turned to me.  "You say you are British, well just a minute…"  and he came back with a little emblem about the size of a half crown which had the Union Jack on it and he said "put that on your coat, wherever you go when you are going out".  I thanked him and put it on.   When we got back to the convent the Reverend Mother called me to tell me that she had received a telegram from my parents who were very worried about me.  The telegram told the Reverend Mother that my parents held her responsible for my safety.  Of course this would have been my mother's doing.  She would have been in a terrible state thinking she would never see me again because the newspapers in Britain must have been full of the invasion of Austria and Vienna taken over.   The arrival of that telegram totally devastated me.  Obviously the convent could not be responsible for my safety in those uncertain times.  I could not stay on any longer in Vienna and I would never get to Rome.  I just had to accept the situation.  Not that anyone could go anywhere as the borders were still closed.  Two weeks after the telegram had arrived the authorities re-opened the borders and I had to start preparing to return to England.

Before I left I wanted to look around to find some little presents to take home because this might be the last time I would ever see Vienna and I noticed that going down the Gattnerstrasse there was a little shop and it had in its window some rather attractive novelties.  Without a thought I opened the shop door and went in.  It smelled musty.  As I shut the door a little woman came out of the back looking at me anxiously.  "Yes, yes, gnadige Frau" she said, which is how they always greeted one.  And something aout her appearance upset me but at first I couldn't put my finger on what it was.  I asked her if I could look at some of the little gifts she had in the window.  "Yes, yes" she said in a rather pathetic way and she took them out of the window and put them in front of me.  Then I looked at her.  She seemed ill.  I thought how terrible, she's starving.  Then I realised where I was, I felt I had better get out as soon as I could, so I chose some dolls and paid.  I was remembering what the Consul had said, "Don't aggravate the authorities".  This was a Jewish shop and I had gone and committed a terrible crime by coming in here and buying these things.  The shopkeeper then owed me some change but there was no money in the shop so she had to call her son, who emptied his pockets.  I was so concerned and upset I didn't think to turn my bag upside down and tell them to "take all the money you can, please!"  It was only much later that I realised how unthinking it was of me to have waited for the change.   Then I took three deep breaths to calm myself.  I saw the little brass door handle and I said to myself you have got to grasp it and open this door, because by now I could hear voices in the street, rather angry voices, womens' voices.  And one of them was shouting "Es ist eine Judes Geschãft.  It is a Jewish shop.  Ich weiss, I know it's a Jewish shop".  So I opened the door quickly and went out.  I was never so grateful in my life that I was tall and slim at that age.  They were short and fat and I towered above them.  There were about eight women looking very aggressively at me and moving towards me as they said "It's a Jewish shop isn't it, yes!"  So I said, as calmly as I could with my heart beating like mad, "Would you kindly let me pass, please"  And I moved in the direction I wanted to go.  One of the women blocked my way.  I looked at her and repeated "Would you please let me pass".   She stood her ground for a fraction of a second and then suddenly noticed the tiny little emblem on my coat.  The turned to the others and whispered, "She's a foreigner, she's a foreigner".  It was like an electric shock going through the crowd of them.  I made a tremendous effort to appear calm and collected and when this woman made enough room for me to pass I didn't rush through the gap, I just looked at them all.  They all looked sheepish.  Then one of them said, "Frau so and so are you going to the such and such strasse to do some shopping?"
"Yes I am".
"May I come with you dear?"
"Of course let's go off together".
They wanted to make excuses to get away.  It was extraordinary.  But my knees were wobbling.  I wondered how I might manage to get back to the Convent but I held myself up straight and walked on.  After only a few paces I suddenly noticed on the edge of the pavement an SS officer with the skull and crossbones on his cap, all dressed in black, standing with his arms folded.  He was looking in amazement.  Looking back at the women.  Looking at me.  He had witnessed the incident.  Then he walked towards me in a very aggressive way.  I didn't stop.  I just looked him straight in the face, saying to myself "you scum of the earth you".  Then his eye fell on the British emblem.  Another electric shock!  He just stopped in his tracks, looked sheepish and then made his way towards the women.   I continued on my journey but I'd really been shaken.  How could I have known it was a Jewish shop.  It was all so unreasonable.  Of course I should have remembered that when the Nazis first came into Vienna these violent people used to take pails of tar with a brush and during the night would plaster the word "Jude" on each Jewish shop window.  The tar would drip down and in the morning the unfortunate owners of the shops had to come out to scrape off the tar to the jeers and laughter of an aggressive crowd.  I did see this happen but it was in one of the very smart streets of Vienna, not like this little side street with the tiny shops that I'd been in. 

I didn't see any newspapers, but I heard somehow, that in America in New York the people there became so indignant about this practice in Vienna, that they got pails of tar and brushes and chose every German shop in New York to mark in this way with the word "German"..The persecution of the Jews in Vienna disappeared over night which is why I didn't know that my shop had been Jewish.  A week previously and it might have been marked.   I discovered later that this retaliation in New York had hurt the German people and I thought how marvellous it was that all those miles away it could still have such an effect.  Perhaps they didn't like the Americans saying "He's German you know, probably a Nazi".  And so the daubing stopped.   Anyway I made my way back to the Convent and I was so relieved to get through the gates.  When I told my story at lunch you could have heard a pin drop.  Most of the people there were not Austrian anyway and they all wondered how they were going to get out. 

I still had a little time left before I was due to return to England and I went around looking at the places I loved in Vienna.  I was in one of the large squares and gardens called the Hoffborg.  As I was walking round I saw a young German officer, I think he was German, he couldn't have been Austrian, he was very tall, young, very good looking with quite a noble aspect and he came towards me, smiling.  So I smiled back.  We were about the same age I think and he saluted me smartly and said "Excuse me Fraulein.  Do you come from Britain?"  I said, "Yes, I'm from London".   "Ah yes", he said "may I ask you a question.  Why do your Press object so much to what we are doing here in Austria?"  Do you not understand how important it is that we carry out this work?"  And he said it so sincerely.  I told him that I was just a student in Vienna from London and that now I had to go home because of all this happening.  My parents were anxious about my safety.  I said, "Are you aware of what's going on, as you are in the army.  Do you see what is happening?"  I then told him the story about going into the shop which he listened to most politely without interruption.  And then when I had told him all I could, I saw rather to my discomfort that I hadn't altered his opinion in the slightest.  He just looked at me and said "I wish you could understand.  I do wish you could understand.  These people are not like us.  They are Vermin (unternmensch? Vieleikt?).  I stood back because I thought how could anyone looking as he does, with a very good accent, obviously from a very high born family, with charming manners and so sincere be saying this?  And I couldn't believe it. 

Suddenly, to my absolute horror, tears began to pour down my cheeks.  I said, "How ridiculous, how stupid, oh excuse me, excuse me".  I tried to get out a handkerchief and said, "I must go" and I walked quickly away from him.  And I had to walk for at least two minutes before I could take charge of myself.  I was so ashamed.  I thought what on earth came over you.  You made such a fool of yourself.  You should have continued the discussion.  I just stood there and thought, well like Shakespeare "What's done cannot be undone", but I longed to continue the discussion because he was so easy to talk to and he wanted to persuade me, that's all.  He'd said, "why does your press malign us so?"  I hadn't seen the British press but I could imagine what was being said.  I just looked back.  He was still in the same position.  He'd just turned round and followed me with his eyes but he'd never moved from where he was.  He really looked quite forlorn that he hadn't persuaded me in any way.  And I thought isn't this extraordinary, two young people looking at each other like this with the Great Wall of China between us.



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Created: 5:49 PM 9/4/2018
Last updated: 5:49 PM 9/4/2018