u3a - Kindertransport Memories - Una Kary

Una Kary

Member of Lymington u3a

John Kary's story, as a Kindertransport refugee, as told by his wife Una and son Nick

This story is based around the memories of both Una and Nick in relation to conversations they had with John and his mother Marguerite, and that Nick has had with other family members, and research that he has done. It is also based around a short memoir that John left for Nick at his death.

John Kary was born as Hans Kary in Vienna in 1927 to the 40 year old Marguerite Kary (née Selinko) and 51 year old Walter Kary. They had long given up on having kids and were hugely surprised to be becoming parents, or as Marguerite put it to Una in later years; “I never knew that I would give birth to my grandchild”!

Walter and Marguerite’s marriage in 1905 was one of convenience for the sake of family business interests. Her family ran a large wholesale cloth business called Brüder Selinko and Walter’s ran a prestigious silk import business and shop in the heart of Vienna called Seiden Kary. Walter took over Brüder Selinko when he married Marguerite using the dowry for the marriage and his share of Seiden Kary.

They lived in an apartment within a big building owned by the family on the Stubenring in Vienna’s first district. This was built the same year as that of their marriage. At the time of its construction, the whole building was occupied by members of the family.

It was into this atmosphere that Hans was born, and where he lived till he was eleven. Yet he had left the majority of these memories in Vienna and shared very little of his childhood experiences with any of us. There were only two memories that he told us when he was alive. The first was that of waiting for his father to arrive at their summer house outside Vienna, and when he did, to jump onto the running boards of the car. The other was of the days that the nanny had off, and his great distress at being bathed by his mother.

His memoir exposed a few more memories; of the dual education he had between Catholic mornings and Jewish afternoons, of his parents wanting him to have a choice between faiths. He remembered a story of his cousins setting off a pistol in the apartment below his and the bullet passing through the ceiling. He recalled extra Latin lessons with his Uncle and the upset that they caused him.

There is another witness to the story, but one that was pretty much totally silent until 1984. This is a machine called a Guckkasten, (peep box in English) which housed 300 glass slides. When Hans’ aunt Hilda died in 1984 we discovered another 900 slides concealed under napkins in the dining room. In total there are close to 1200, half of which follow Walter’s movements across Europe as a lieutenant in the Austrian army in the first world war. The other half document the extensive travels of Hans’ parents before he was born, the community of friends and family and finally, his birth and the first 8 years of his life up until his father’s premature death. They form a moving portrait of a united family thriving in an assimilated community and show no evidence of what was going on around them apart from the diminishing quantity of images after 1933.

John Kary

Hans as a child, living in Vienna

Walter served in the Austrian army in the first world war, as a way of pledging his allegiance to the Empire that had allowed his family, despite their Judaism, to be assimilated. Marguerite spent a year or more as a theatre nurse for the seriously wounded soldiers returning from the front. She continued this role after the war and during her time in a concentration camp.

In 1930 Hans’ father contracted encephalitis, dying in 1935 after a harrowing illness. Hans’ mother took over the running of the factory that he had started some years previously, and he was mothered largely by his governess Emma Scheubeutl, a woman we all knew as Ka, and who was responsible for telling Una many of the stories and for saving various documents, including the slides when the family were split apart.

The same year that Hans’ father died so did his uncle Felix Selinko (father of the novelist Annemarie Selinko), and his grandfather Ignaz. Soon Austria became ever more influenced by Germany, antisemitism strengthened its hold and after chancellor Dolnitz was murdered the fate of the Jewish population was pretty much sealed.

The family began to find routes out of Austria, many ending up in South America, Australia, USA and Great Britain by 1938. But for largely unknown reasons, perhaps because she was trying to secure the fate of the business, Marguerite left the departure for herself, her mother Irene and Hans too late, despite having secured visas for Cuba. Hans spent the winter of 1938 with family in Berlin at the Goldschmidtschule because antisemitism there was less severe. But he returned in April 1939 to find that his mother had successfully applied to the Kindertransport initiative for a place on the next transport. This was delayed until June because the Nazis demanded more Reichfluchtssteuer (Fleeing the Empire Tax!).

His mother and Ka left him at the Westbahnhof in Vienna on the 8th of June with two large trunks of clothes in various sizes for the years ahead. There were 300 children on his train and after a 48 hour train and boat journey he arrived at Harwich to be greeted, with appalled surprise, by a white bread sandwich. It was his one memory of arrival.

In his own words “Although I could not have known it at the time, my arrival in the UK was the start of my life as an outsider, a state of affairs which was to prove irreversible for the rest of my life.”

He was met by relatives who had fled the year before with most of their wealth and possessions intact, but after a few pleasant days, he discovered he was to be sent to live in Scotland with strangers. It was the second abandonment within a few days. He arrived in Glasgow to live in a tiny flat in the Gorbals with a lady who had misrepresented herself to the refugee committee for the sake of the money she was to receive. His ‘room’ was a cupboard under the stairs and he remained pretty miserable until being evacuated to Dalbeattie at the outbreak of the war in September.

He was relatively happy for the next few years living with an elderly couple and their daughter who acted as his surrogate mother and to whom he became attached. She died of cancer around the time that he was sent off to a progressive state boarding school at Cally House along with evacuees from the cities. Despite being teased and finding things difficult, he was essentially well. He recounted a particular story when he was picked up by the police and taken to the site of a downed German bomber in order to translate for the survivors. He felt briefly validated.

He then gained a refugee scholarship to Leeds University where he studied textile engineering and lived in a hostel with other refugees run by a couple who had escaped from Vienna. In late 1945 he discovered that his mother had survived 3 years in concentration camps and that his grandmother, uncle, and various cousins had all been murdered. His mother visited in 1947 but was not granted a visa to stay. He could only call her ‘Tante’ and never really rebuilt a meaningful relationship with her.

After a few jobs, he returned to Vienna in 1951 by which time his mother had negotiated the return of the apartment and the factory. He met Una in Vienna in 1954. Hans only changed his name after returning to Vienna having used his German name throughout the 12 years in the UK. Una remembers him driving around the city with a union jack on the front of his car. Neither he nor his mother was particularly happy to have returned to Vienna, but Marguerite had had no choice and Hans had finally felt that going back to help run the business was preferable to staying in the UK.

The 3 children Mark, Tim and Nick were all born in Vienna before all returned to the UK in 1964. John died in 2008.


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