Thursday, 22 November 2012

Sofie Seliger


Sofie Seliger was born in 1927 in a the small town of Leopoldsdorf on the outskirts of Vienna, in Austria to parents Heinrich and Bertha.  A nominally Jewish family, they farmed pigs, amongst other things.  Sofie had three brothers – Walter, Kurt and Robert.  They used to play in the fields around their home, and generally cause all sorts of trouble.  As the only girl, Sofie used to stick up for herself, and her brother Walter would later describe her as “a bossy sister”.

They were part of a large family in and around Vienna.  Sofie was named after her Danish grandmother, who died before Sofie was born.  Sofie’s grandfather ran a watch-making shop in central Vienna and Sofie used to go in and help him wind up all the clocks.

Life was calm and gentle. A  happy family in the middle of Europe.

However, things were to change forever in the 1930s.  The advance of the Nazis into Austria saw the Seliger family lose their home and be forced to live in a tenement in the middle of Vienna.  Heinrich was put to work in a labour camp, and the family had little or no food.  Sofie and her brothers used to go to neighbours houses, begging for food to put on the table.   Wealthy relatives helped out where they could, but life had become hard.  But family kept them going.  Sofie’s mother always made sure the children were well dressed and as well fed as they could be in the circumstances.  Things got worse and worse in Vienna for Jewish families, and Jewish businesses were targetted – the windows of Sofie’s grandfather’s shop was smashed by the very people who had been his customers until recently.

Sofie’s parents were offered a stark and horrible choice.  Two places were available on the Kindertransport.  A train service which would rescue Jewish children and bring them to the relative safety of the UK for the duration of the war.  Four children and two places left Bertha and Heinrich with an impossible choice. But it was a choice they made.  Sofie was the only girl, and Walter was suffering from TB at the time.  And so Sofie and Walter were put onto the train in Vienna by their mother and sent into the safety of the unknown.

Kurt and Robert stayed with their parents back in Vienna, whilst Sofie and Walter arrived into Felixstowe in the UK.  Walter was straight away taken to hospital in Luton, and Sofie was taken by train to Liverpool St station in London.  The children from the train were lined up and picked by families who had offered to take them in.  Sofie was dressed in traditional green velvet Austrian dress, a feather in her hat and a little case with all her belongings in.  She was chosen by a family who took her up to Edinburgh.

Up in Edinburgh, she would keep in contact with Walter by letter, and when she went to visit him, she would have to report to police stations along the way – making the trip to Luton to see him a very long and difficult journey for her.  But she did it several times.

In Edinburgh, she would sit at the back of the class in school. Her English limited to just a few words, she would read “Janet and John” books to try to learn English as quickly as possible.  She had a strong Austrian accent which she was desperate to lose for fear of sounding “German”.  With the outbreak of war, she was evacuated out of the city with the other children, and she was taken in by Lord Polwarth at his family at Humbie House outside Edinburgh.  A large house, in huge grounds, Humbie was Sofie’s home for many years.  So far away from her parents, and with the only communication with them through Red Cross telegrams, Sofie was taken under the wing of The Hon. Grizell, the daughter of the family.  Grizell would continue to help Sofie learning English, and take her on days out to London for tea, and give her support through the uncertain times.

Meanwhile, Vienna had become too much for Sofie’s parents and one weekend, they decided to make their break and get over to the UK to join their two children.  Somehow, they made their way across Europe and set up home in Belgium.  Keeping a low profile, they drew plans to get illicit passage on a boat to England.   The family had family portrait photos taken in Belgium and sent them over to Sofie.  The family were well dressed, and looked happy together, but obviously so desperately wanted to get back with their other two children.

Heinrich was arrested, however, and sent to a camp in the South of France.  By means unknown, though, he managed to escape and rejoin the family in Belgium.  How he made his way from the southern French coast all the way back to Belgium is a mystery.

Back in the UK, Sofie had now learned enough English to get herself a job as a trainee nursery nurse, and moved to Manchester where she found work.  She also met another Austrian  refuse – Lizzi Sroka – and they became firm friends.  She kept in touch with Walter, and had started to become a woman. The war was still raging, but she was ready for life back with her family after the war, and could now speak English as well as German.

However, in 1942, everything changed.  The Seliger family were taken from their home in Belgium and put on a train.  Carriage number 5 of train number XXII.  The train went to Auschwitz.  It was the last journey Heinrich, Bertha, Kurt and Robert ever made.  On arrival at Auschwitz, Heinrich was separated from his wife and children.  What followed is too horrific to contemplate.

Back in the UK, the news was broken to Sofie by a social worker in Manchester.  She would never see Papa, Mutti, Kurti or Robert again.

Sofie and Walter kept in touch, and after the war, Sofie become a British Citizen and start to create a new life for herself with a job in the British Army as a typist.  Whilst in the army, she met a dashing young soldier called Eddie Diamond, and in 1950 they were married.  They lived together up in Edinburgh where Eddie was stationed and started a family together.  Sofie’s brother Walter came to the wedding, but they lost touch soon afterwards. 

One of Sofie’s uncles from Vienna had made passage to Israel, and Sofie and Walter both kept in touch with him, but not with each other.  Lizzi’s parents survived the war, and so Sofie said goodbye to Lizzi who returned to live in Vienna.  They kept in touch, and Lizzi sent cards and presents for Sofie’s wedding.  Lizzi made a career for herself in Israel and Austria – speaking German, English and Yiddish, she worked with Jewish families who had been forced to move to Israel, helping them to set up home.

Sofie built a new life for herself, had a family and set up home.  Eddie retired from the army and the family moved to Port Sunlight, back near the rest of Eddie’s family on The Wirral.  They had four children, who would then go on to have grandchildren and then there were great grandchildren.

Sofie made it to Israel to see her uncle in 1980, and made one trip back to Vienna in 1992.  She visited Leopoldsdorf and her grandfather’s shop – now a pharmacy.

In 2000, the year of Sofie and Eddie’s fiftieth anniversary, came a letter from London.  “Hello Sofie, this is your brother Walter”.  Back into her life came Walter.  Now living in Wood Green in London, he had been an engineer throughout the years, and spent his time between London and Israel.  He turned up at the house, the spitting image of Sofie and with a similar trace of an Austrian accent.

In 2001, tragedy struck again.  Eddie died from lung cancer.  Not a year or two later, Walter also died.  With his body failing him, he wrote a note and decided to take his own life.  However, between writing the note and carrying out his plan, he fell asleep and died of natural causes. 

In 2003, another letter arrived.   This time from Lizzi in Vienna.  With both Sofie and Lizzi too old to make the journey, they spoke on the phone and exchanged gifts

Earlier this month - on 5th November - Sofie’s time also finally ran out.  On Tuesday 20th November, we said goodbye to her with lots of flowers, a few tears and some happy memories.  

Lizzi responded to the news by describing Sofie as her best friend.  

To me, she was “Granny”.

Ruhe sanft.  Wir alle werden dich vermissen.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Sleepless in Seattle

There, I did it.  A crap joke about the fact that I'm in Seattle and awake at a stupid time in the morning.  I arrived here on Saturday, and applied my usual technique of "staying awake until a normal time on the first night, then going to bed really tired".  It's a technique which has always worked in the past for snapping me into the new timezone.

However, this room has a real flame fire.  It's rather nice.  A little switch by the bed puts the fire on for a timed hour, meaning that you can fall asleep by the light of a roaring fire, and then it'll turn itself off afterwards.  The problem is, though, that a roaring fire makes the room warm.  And a warm room makes for a sleepy room.  And so yesterday afternoon, when I put the fire on to stave off the rain pouring outside, I found myself waking up quite a few hours later thinking "oh, bugger!".  And true enough, despite getting to bed at a sensible time last night, I woke up at 5.30am today.  "Bugger" indeed.

And so here I am, looking out of the window at a sleeping Seattle, with the occasional (well actually rather frequent - and really ridiculously long) freight train rumbling past.  I find it weird the way the train line isn't segregated from the pavewalk (or do I mean sidement?)  in the way we would in the UK.  There are barriers and warning lights for cars and people, but the train line is pretty much open - no fence to stop people wandering onto it.  I guess they just rely on the fact that people won't wander into the path of a train...

Believe it or not, despite having been to a few far-flung places, this is the first time I've been to the USA.  Strange but true - I've made it to the age of 37 without crossing the Atlantic. Until now.  Working at Symbian for so many years meant that my business travel was always in other direction - to Japan, China, Sweden and - erm - Manchester.  Despite the horror stories about US immigration and how many hours can be spent being grilled about the exact nature of your visit; it was under an hour from the plane touching down to when I was in cab heading to the hotel.

I spent yesterday being a bit of a tourist.  "Original branch of Starbucks" - check!  Most of the day was spent wandering around the aquarium.  Then wandering around it again when I realised that I had my camera on the wrong setting and hence all the photos had come out blurred-but-not-blurred-enough-that-you-notice-it-on-the-little-screen-on-the-camera-itself.  Got plenty of photos of sea otters, though.  They are SO cute, it's untrue. Look...