National Catholic Register


The World From a Young Refugee’s View

BY Mary Thomas Noble OP

December 27, 1998-January 2, 1999 Issue | Posted 12/27/98 at 2:00 AM



From Anschluss To Albion, Memoirs of a Refugee Girl, by Elisabeth M. Orsten(Lutterworth Press, England, 1998, 144 pg., $29.98)

“As the long-awaited moment drew near, we could barely manage to finish our supper. Seated by the window, we would look at the night sky, wondering on which bright star the Christ Child would travel home again. Then, suddenly, the double doors were flung wide open and there in the dark room stood a blazing tree, reaching all the way to the ceiling and topped with a shining silver star. Hundreds of white wax candles threw a steady light, while little sparkling rockets exploded from all sides like miniature fireworks. Sweets that appeared only at Christmas weighed down the tree, whose scent filled the whole room.”

Austria, 1937. Mixed messages were floating through those same magic night skies, ready to break up what seemed to a child the eternal rhythm of life in Vienna.

In the springtime, Elisabeth and George could find the first snowdrop blossoms in the cool, mysterious Vienna woods as early as February. Lent brought them to the “Kalvarienburg,” an outdoor representation of the Passion story with its miniature figurines that moved mechanically. The volley of cannon fire announcing Christ's resurrection on Easter morn gave sure promise of summer holidays in beloved Velden, brought to a close all too soon when autumn summoned them back to school in the city. And then it was Christmas again. All so taken for granted, all so suddenly broken up, everything left behind, all lost.

But not quite all. Dr. Elisabeth Orsten, English professor at Champlain College in the University of Trent in Canada, picked up a diary one day that she had abandoned 50 years before. The slender, handsome volume had been bestowed on her as a parting gift by her Viennese “nanny” shortly after Hitler's invasion of Austria. Now it came to life, and with it a flood of memories spanning the two years she had spent in England before sailing for America. Hence the title of her book, From Anschluss to Albion.

The experience of a refugee, any refugee, is unique. We become inured to an anguish that is multiplied beyond calculable numbers and ranges the length and breadth of the entire world. We need to stop and look intently at just one child's story, listen to one child's sobs into a pillow and the peals of one child's laughter in the sunlit morning, if we would understand the reality of what has actually transpired in this ambivalent century of ours. Standing at its close, we look back through one child's eyes at an incredible interlude.

Elisabeth was 10, George 8, when they arrived in their extra-large, custom-made great-coats, intended to last indefinitely, at Victoria Station in London, on a bleak, wintry afternoon in 1939.

Elisabeth's diary entries have a huge simplicity about them. She is out to impress no one; Frauli, her Nanny, had begged her to write in the diary, and she could not let her down. Happenings are recorded in a straightforward, matter-of-fact tone. At the rare moment when she is tempted to dramatize her situation, she catches herself up in the running commentary that accompanies the diary. Indeed, the commentary shows her observing the past, and herself, with a certain dry humor.

Commentary and diary form a book-long dialogue. We learn that childhood in Austria was by no means idyllic. Elisabeth dreaded her beautiful, quick-tempered mother, and was devoted to the father whose work as a physician so limited his time with her. She bossed her brother George; they squabbled and quickly made up. After a formal multicourse party served with Tante Louise's magnificent dinner service in Frankfort, while all the grownups were enjoying a post-prandial rest, the two children got into a quarrel that had Elisabeth racing through the house to the kitchen with George in hot pursuit, only to crash into the table, knocking off several dishes and leaving two or three shattered upon the floor beside a handleless cup. This sobered them; they were partners in crime.

Once in England, Elisabeth and George were immediately separated. Lodging had been found for George with Quakers in the countryside, while Elisabeth went to friends of the family in London, who only had room for one extra child. The diary describes the new family, the new language, the new food, the new school, the new “persona” of a refugee struggling to adapt to all this very much on her own. We meet “Aunt Evelyn,” as Mrs. C. wanted to be called; her absent, estranged husband; the eldest daughter, elegant Rowena, away at boarding school but home for holidays; Gillian, the second; and the youngest daughter, Julia, about two years older than Elisabeth. “Seb,” the Swiss governess, was a Frauli figure, and brought comfort to the newcomer when she felt bruised by “sibling” rivalry.

There is a familiarity about this unique story, because it is so utterly human. Again and again we identify with Elisabeth in her surprises, delights, frustrations, bewilderments, and swift reactions, which were often as swiftly repressed. She was always the visitor, the refugee, an alien on alien soil, growing rapidly through the crisis years from 10 to 12, and of necessity thrusting down eager roots. Just as these roots took firm hold of British soil, air raid alarms began to trouble the days and nights, gas masks were issued, and visas were hastily obtained for Elisabeth and George. They left England on Sept. 18, 1940, in two different ships largely filled with English children being evacuated for the duration of the war, heading through U-boat infested waters for America the unknown.

It is not possible to convey the message of this book from the sidelines. It has to be read personally. The impact needs to be felt directly, and it leaves the reader with deep, deep thoughts. Our world is much like the world into which the Christ Child was born, a world so filled with treachery and violence that he became a refugee as a newborn infant, fleeing for his very life. Must it always be the children who suffer?

Sister Mary Thomas Noble, a Dominican nun, writes from Buffalo, N.Y.