Escape From Austria: Celebrating Self-Deportation

Escape From Austria: Celebrating Self-Deportation

There’s a point in every Kornmehl family story that I usually dread, the one where I approach the end of their lives. Some family members died of natural causes, of course, and some escaped the Nazis. But even the escapes are generally disturbing, last minute and harrowing.

Things are different with Viktor Kormehl and his brother, Bertschi. I’m not sure of all the details of Viktor’s affiliations yet, but I know that Bertschi was involved with a group that saved many European Jewish lives,  not only those of his family.

Betar and the Perl Transports

Jewish refugees on board the Aliyah Bet Jewish immigration ship AtrattoBertschi was one of four members of the action committee of Austrian Jews from the Betar movement, which helped organize the  transport of many small convoys of several thousand Jews to Palestine before the start of World War Two. Specifically, he is listed on a site devoted to Jewish Rescuers of the Holocaust, 1933-1945 among those who were involved in the Perl Transport, or Af-Al-Pi (Hebrew for “in spite of everything”):

The Aliyah Bet (Organization for Illegal Immigration), founded in 1934, was one of the principal organizations for organizing the transport of Jewish refugees from German occupied territories to Palestine between 1937 and 1942, during the British Mandate.  This organization was created jointly by the Jewish Trade Union Federation, the Histadrut, and the Haganah, a Jewish underground defense organization. 

Aliyah Bet chose Vienna as its central location because of access to transportation resources and the Danube River.

The Aliyah Bet arranged for papers, documents, funding, and ship’s transportation for tens of thousands of Jews.  After the annexation of Austria in 1938, the Aliyah Bet became larger and more organized.  Aliyah Bet included groups that evolved into the Perl Transport, or Af-Al-Pi.  

Support among non-Zionist Jewish groups was limited; some Jewish organizations were outright hostile. Less surprising:

The illegal immigration operations were vehemently opposed by the British government, especially after the publication of the White Paper, which limited immigration to 75,000 refugees during a period of five years.  In addition, the Arabs were against mass immigration to Palestine and lobbied the British government to prevent this.

An Unlikely Ally

But one unlikely group embraced the movement, at least initially: The Nazis.  According to a profile of Adolph Eichmann by The History Place:

He visited Palestine in 1937 to discuss the possibility of large scale immigration of Jews to the Middle East with Arab leaders. British authorities, however, ordered him out of the country.

With the Nazi takeover of Austria in March of 1938, Eichmann was sent to Vienna where he established a Central Office for Jewish Emigration. This office had the sole authority to issue permits to Jews desperately wanting to leave Austria and became engaged in extorting wealth in return for safe passage. Nearly a hundred thousand Austrian Jews managed to leave with most turning over all their worldly possessions to Eichmann’s office, a concept so successful that similar offices were established in Prague and Berlin.

A number of Jews were released from concentration camps when they received proof that they had purchased a ship’s ticket on one of the Aliyah Bet’s transports. A recollection about this branch of the Kornmehl family by Bertschi’s nephew notes that there was even a ceremonial speech by Eichmann, who said:

You are all returning home to the country where your fathers were forced to leave by the Romans. You are all leaving Austria voluntarily and not as refugees. You shall look back with respect and with your heads held high at your life in Austria, Austria that used to be your home. Now you must go forward as peacemakers for a proud Jewish future.

I can’t find any source for the words of the speech, but the event itself is noted in a review of The Four Front War: From the Holocaust to the Promised Land by William Perl, who organized the transports.

Perl convinced the author of the Final Solution, before he rose to prominence, that the Betar would assist Germany in ridding-itself of Jews by arranging their departure. This agreement resulted in the bizarre spectacle of Eichmann’s standing at attention in the Vienna railroad station as the Betar members, in military formation, sang Hatikvah (the Israeli national anthem) before boarding the trains which started them on their journey to Palestine.

Self-deportation was not always a concept to be scoffed at.

This is Day 15 of the Family History Writing Challenge. I made it past the halfway point, hoorah!

5 Responses to Escape From Austria: Celebrating Self-Deportation

  1. This is absolutely fascinating. And, a ton of research and information brilliantly presented I might add. And, the format of getting to read it in a small ‘chunk’ means I really absorbed all the information, where I might miss it in a larger body of work. I’d say the writing challenge is paying off!

    So many different emotions in one sitting. Pride, credulity, irony, amazement. This episode, this vignette, is a mini-movie. This is also a piece of history that is so problematic, that Eichmann went to Palestine to see about sending Jews there and the British blocked the proposal,-as they would continue to do repeatedly throughout the war.
    Diane J. Schmidt recently posted..What is the point of something illogical? (Photos)My Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I knew nothing about any of this before and found it fascinating too. I really appreciate your praise of the presentation; it’s tough to digest fairly complex materials. And yes, the challenge does force you to concentrate!

      • I never knew anything about any of this. This is helping me to connect the dots. I happened to do a little reading on Wikipedia on the Jews of Macedonia last night – and learned the British had blocked a proposal by the Bulgarian government, then under German occupation, for their being sent to Palestine in 1943. Instead, the entire population went to Treblinka. It went towards explaining the very enigmatic, and now I realize anti-Semitic, behavior of a Macedonian artist I I became friendly with 34 years ago.
        Diane J. Schmidt recently posted..What is the point of something illogical? (Photos)My Profile

  2. […] In the meantime, I’ll pass along a vignette about the subject of this part of the challenge, Viktor Kornmehl, along with his brother Bertschi (Berthold). Their memorial to their mother Kamilla involves real trees — and Palestine, making it relevant to the narrative of Austrian antisemitism and escape that I introduced yesterday. […]

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