Thea Bentley oral history 1998
Date of Recording14 July 1998
Duration1h 1m 33.0s
Synopsis[Synopsis created in support of the development of the VHEC's Broken Threads exhibition. See also interview transcription linked below.]
I was born in Vienna in 1918. I grew up in the Fourth district, the street was called Terrianow. I lived most of my life there, but we started out somewhere else. We lived on Terrianov 5, which does not exist anymore. It was bombed out of existence during the war.
I went to school, all 12 years in Vienna. I guess as an early teenager, I was educated in fashion by my mother, who was very clothes conscious. The ladies of that time spent a lot of their time, effort, and money on looking well dressed. I remember my mother shopping and bringing things back and shopping again and going into the fashion houses. As a I little girl, I always used to love to watch her dress for all occasions, there was so much social life.
She went mostly to Ungar—a Jewish fashion house—it was a designer shop where they showed you different models and fabrics and you could then choose from them. It was all made to order, no ready-made in there at all—they showed the clothes on live models. I was very young, but I think things were partly on racks and partly on models. She would go in there for many fittings.
When I went back after the war, I had some stuff made at Fasching Bauer, they still made muslins then, that was the first time I was back, around 1950. I guess the big fashion houses always worked with muslin. I mean, it was a big beautiful fashion house in the inner city with two or three stories. How many people worked in the work room I don't know. It wasn't a modern store design, it was very traditional. There may have been some more modern designed stores, but the ones I have seen were all very traditional. It was the inner city of the first district, but where I don't remember. I really couldn't tell you because, if I was there, it was only maybe once or twice. I myself never had anything made there, because I was too young to go to those expensive places.
We had a small dressmaker come to the house, who copied some of her beautiful things, copied them very well. I had a lot of what looked very much like original designs. Mrs. Schrank was her name, I still remember her—a stout little tiny lady—who came and copied extremely well. She bought things at a big fashion house and then would give me hand-me-downs. Quite often things were copied or we bought material. There were two or three people, smaller dressmakers where I got my things. There was very little ready made in my past. There were some imports. There were very elegant stores which carried imports. The designer fashion houses mainly had their own goods, but there were a number of stores with imports.
Department stores in those days hardly existed. What department stores there were, were cheaper lines. Not only ready to wear, but also lower price stores, like a "Zellers" or "JC Penny" today. I can't remember high fashion, there was nothing like Holt Renfrew or anything like this, because in that league, you had things custom made. There were some ready-to-wear sports clothes that weren't Jewish. There were a lot of imported very good British sports clothes, some Italian knits, and that sort of thing. There was very little ready-made high fashion dresses, suits, or evening dresses.
The Knize, I remember very well. But they were probably not called Knize. I remember the Knize #10, it was famous, that is a New York store now. Well this was the Viennese one! Nice. I mean it wasn't even on the level of The Bay, or anything it was much more sort of Zellers or Kmart sort of thing. That is if you could find them, but they were definitely in an area which was much cheaper, near Strauser, that was more middle class. Hertzmanski, I think sold fabrics.
Hertzmanski, now I try to think, I am pretty sure it was a very good fabric store where you bought the fabrics. I don't think that it was a department store, but I could be wrong. I remember Zvibark very well. They were heavy on knits and good underwools and fashion turtle necks, that sort of thing. A little bit on the line of Munstner. I can I remember Zvibark and Munstner. A manufacturer plus, they had outlets all over the place, shops, they were very much like the knitwear, sweaters, suits. They had very nice things and they immigrated to the States. They went back into business in the States as manufacturers, but out of New York or Los Angeles, either one. I think the line still exists. I don't know what happened to Ungar, whether there was a man or a woman, or what it was.
Then there was Linbaum; I was never inside the store, but they were very well known and had very beautiful things. They were more like a fashion house, like Sarah Hall, definitely Haute Couture, nothing ready-to-wear. I think they were actually sort of a step higher than Ungar, they were very top notch. We had stores, but not department stores. They were all along the Karntnerstrasse at Graben. They were beautiful stores, but they were small.
There was, by the way, something called Braun, they were Jewish, and they had mainly very beautiful lingerie, dressing gowns, scarves, and purses. I don't know if they even had clothes but they were very good on accessories. Klein was handbags. I still have some. Klein on Graven they were called. My mother had a number of handbags from them. I am sure by the name that they were a Jewish family. Klein was a very well known Jewish name. They carried beautiful luggage I think, all leather, no plastic in those days. There were many hat shops. The one I can remember was Ida's, she could have been Jewish, I don't know. Ida's shop and one other were the most well known ones.
The last time I was back was in 1985. I can't remember seeing any department stores. There were still smaller shops like on Rodeo Drive [in Los Angeles]. All specialized with just shoes or purses and accessories. My mother had all her shoes made. That is another thing, you always had shoes made. Reshowski, that was a shoe store. I have a beautiful pair of shoes from them from the 1920’s. The shoes are so beautiful. Reshowski's, gosh, it is so long ago to remember.
I left Vienna in 1938, exactly 60 years ago. We left on October 20th 1938, it will be 60 years in October. That’s a long time with my fading memory. The Nazis marched in, in March, so we had half a year, more than half a year. My son was born in the middle of all this. We got out just ahead of Kristallnacht. It was bad enough, you know, when we were there.
I mean, a number of my friends and relatives had already ended up in concentration camps. I was very much aware of the boycotts because I was in school and a student. The young people had much more of a feel for that sort of thing, because there were underground cells. Nazi cells had been ready for a long time. We saw it coming, and most of the grownups laughed at us. They said it would not happen, but I mean, it was fomenting for a number of years already before that, before the Nazis came in. It was much more than boycotts of the businesses; they took them over. They had already had the practice and everything in place from Germany.
In Germany, it came in gradually from 1933 on. In Austria, they came in and took everything with a bang. They had lists of all the people and all the businesses, all the bank accounts. Everything was done within 24 hours, and they had all the important people and leaders in jail within 24 hours. It happened very quickly because they came in fully organized. All these underground cells, they already had given them all the names of people and everything they needed to know. They took over the Jewish businesses; they just stole everything.
The same with the businesses, with the hospitals. They threw out all the Jewish doctors, all the Jewish nurses, and I mean within hours they had the unemployed German staff in there working. I mean you know, my son was born there, in the hospital which refused to be run totally by Austrians. My doctor was still allowed to deliver the baby, but was told never to set foot in the hospital after that. I'll never forget what my mother told me; that the hospital was sort of set in a little garden and she happened to walk out with the doctor. All of a sudden, instead of walking through the gate, he vaulted over the wall and ran. He was never seen again.
He surfaced in Los Angeles, but then he didn't want to be grabbed. They were actually quite decent at the start. There were German doctors and German nurses in place over night. They brought them there, it was unbelievable, but they were actually quite nice. As a matter of fact, they hid some Jewish fathers, and some mothers who had just given birth in the hospital. They hid them in the maternity ward; which was pretty decent of them. They stuffed them in the beds, a few unusual cases. Then it wasn't so funny, they were really quite good.
We had clothing made before we left because we weren't allowed to take any money out. So whatever money we had left, what we could use, we tried to buy things and have them from those little dressmakers. I remember, my son was a baby when we left. I bought clothes up to the size of age 6, whatever I could think of, you know, in order to take them along. There weren't restrictions on clothing. We were still allowed to take out a fair amount of goods, but very soon after we left, people were not allowed to leave with anything, just two suitcases.
We had a very good friend, a lawyer, who was really extremely helpful. He was not a Jewish lawyer, so he managed to send a lot of stuff out after we left. Our clothes for instance, we were not allowed to take out our furs or anything like that.
First, for a number of weeks, we were in hiding in Yugoslavia, and he sent two or three of his secretaries out wearing some of our furs and jewels. Once we had them outside, we were able to carry on. Jewelry wasn't allowed to be taken out either. We got some out, all engineered by my husband, who had some British friends. They were mobilized, they flew in and were met already at the airport with jewelry. They came into Vienna, took a safety deposit box at the hotel as if they arrived normally with their stuff. They stayed a few days, acted like tourists, and then left.
Luckily, they were all very honest and decent people and after months of us getting to London, we were reunited with our stuff. The Jewish people were all obliged to deliver their jewelry; so a fair amount we gave them because they would have been very suspicious if we said that we had none; so still a lot of stuff was delivered. Very soon after the Nazis came in, they started asking Jews to deliver their jewelry. It was all told with German efficiency; it was all pre-organized. I wonder how it was done, probably a lot of them came to the door, and I guess there were notices, edicts and stuff like the decrees that Jews were not allowed to go to the park anymore, or sit on park benches, or use the library.
They immediately took our car away for instance, but we had to carry on paying for the insurance, and if they had an accident, they came to you. We had telephones, but they were tapped up, for the important people, but we had to give up where we lived anyway, but our flat was taken away. I mean, in Germany it took longer till they threw people out of their houses and apartments.
In Vienna, it happened very quickly, because they already had the organization and the experience from doing it in Germany. I forgot they came in March, and we were told to get out, and my son was born in June, and they came when I had just come home from the hospital. Luckily enough, some of this I forgot. Some business was supposed to take over our house, some big office. They came and were quite decent. We told them we were in the middle of trying to leave the country, so they left us in there till we left in October. So we were comparatively lucky. Most people were thrown out of their places with very short notice .
My mother didn't leave at the same time. My mother stayed and made a marriage in name only to a Dutch man. There were two Dutch men who came to Vienna. He was a very decent man. We never met him; we only corresponded. It was done so she could get her visa. We didn't have any overseas visa either, but we had some relatives in Yugoslavia. He was determined, do or die to get out, so we managed through them to get a 24 hour visa to Yugoslavia.
In we went, and they hid us for six weeks at the end of a little tiny rail road line. They had a quarry and they had a private railroad line going to it, so we were hid there. They ran around trying to get us an overseas visa. After you have the visa, only then do you have transit visas to go through all the other countries. Everybody was scared they would be stuck with refugee families. In those days you needed the visas to get anywhere. The refugees were handled quite differently from what is done now.
My husband's father was already in Canada and he worked on his end to get us out. In those days everybody had to come in with what they called the special warring council. It was very difficult. It was only later that we managed to get an Italian and a Swiss and a French transit visa to go through Italy, they still put up a barrier in front of our train compartment. We were only allowed to go the wash room, otherwise not allowed to leave the compartment. To get out of Yugoslavia we went by train, and once in London, we had to go to the Canada House to finish all the paper work. We came to Canada by boat from Liverpool to Halifax.
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NoteOral history was recorded on audio cassette; a digitized surrogate is available by request.
Funding NoteCataloguing and digitization of this oral history was supported by funding from the Government of Canada.