A recent post on the RACP Online Community (ROC) regarding the war in Ukraine bought to mind a collection of letters held in the History of Medicine Library that record the escape of Hans Bandler from Nazi Vienna after it had been annexed by the Germans in 1938.
The letters, mostly written by Han’s aunt Freida ‘Fritzi’ Blumenthal, were donated to the Library by the recipient, Dr. Victor Kinsella.
Dr. Kinsella had met Ms. Blumenthal during his studies in Vienna and London in the 1930’s. She ran a language school in Vienna which frequently brought her into contact with visiting medical professionals as teacher, interpreter and translator. Her nephew, Hans, who worked as engineer, also improved his English by guiding visiting doctors around the city.
Bandler’s Jewish origins and political activism made him vulnerable after Hitler annexed Vienna in March 1938. As well as being Jewish, Bandler was a member of the Socialist Youth Movement and Student Labor Club being targeted by the Nazis. His aunt Fritzi, with whom he lived, feared for his future and began to prepare his escape route from Vienna.
In the first of the series of letters (dated 1st May, 1938), in which Fritzi corresponded with surgeon Kinsella of Sydney, she commented that "there have been formidable changes indeed in this country" and recounts how, that as a Jew, Hans "lost his position immediately and has no more chance of getting any job here in this country” asking Kinsella to assist him find work in Australia.
Within the month Hans had been arrested and taken to Dachau concentration camp, bound for "doing hard work in the swamps of Bavaria."
Although she cannot mention Han's incarceration to Kinsella due to censorship, in her second letter of 1st June 1938 Fritzi thanks him for his "very urgent and necessary response" and his "wonderful and quick readiness of help...happy indeed that there is a chance for him [Bandler] in Australia."
By the 23rd June 1938, Kinsella had secured a position for Bandler with the firm of Radiokes of Redfern, who provided a letter of appointment.
Now Fritzi had to secure Bandler's release from Dachau. In order to acheive this she sold much of what she owned, queued for hours for papers and travelled to Berlin to bribe officials at SS headquarters.
She wrote to Kinsella in August that "Hans has not returned yet but I expect him very soon and hope not to be disappointed" and mentioned that "the landing permit for Australia has still not been received from Canberra" explaining "it is the greatest importance to have the landing permit here for only with the Australian Permit he may enter England for a transitory stay in order to sail from there and I do so much want him to leave the country as soon as possible."
On August 25th she wrote again to Kinsella: "Life is not quite so easy at present and there are obstacles wherever we turn...I am still alone and waiting however I expect him home every day, it is so terribly trying."
Bandler was transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp in central Germany in late September.
Fritzi wrote Kinsella again on Sept 27 that "Hans is not yet here and things are becoming more complicated" however by the 6th of October the necessary landing permit for Hans to enter Australia had mercifully materialised. By this time, Fritzi had also applied for a landing permit to travel to Australia after she accepted the offer of a position in the Kinsella household.
Due to Fritzi's efforts, Bandler was finally released from Buchenwald in January 1939, on condition that he left Vienna within a week. On Feb 3 he wrote a brief letter to Kinsella to confirm his imminent departure from Vienna for London and eventually Australia, and thanked him for his endeavours on his behalf.
As war in Europe approached, Fritzi also made her own escape from Vienna. On the 2nd July she wrote to Kinsella from Livorno on the Tuscan coast – she was on her way to America on a small ship of only 40 passengers as her permit to enter Australia had still not arrived.Her final letter to Dr Kinsella is dated 14th December 1941, a week after Pearl Harbour was bombed and the USA had entered the war. As she had hoped, Fritzi had made it to the United States and was now living in Los Angeles, a block from Hollywood Boulevard. Safe at last, she writes of Christmas and Hollywood films. It is signed 'Fritzi Berne', the name she adopted in her new homeland.
After leaving Europe separately, Fritzi and Hans never saw each other again. Fritzi Blumenthal never made the trip to Australia from California as she had imagined. After teaching French at a school in Santa Monica, she went to Rockford Illinois in 1942, joining her niece Lydia there. She worked as librarian for the Winnebago County Medical Society for eight years before passing away in 1952 at the age of 58. On her death, Dr W. L. Crawford of the Society wrote of her that: “It has been a rare privilege to benefit from the efforts of this kind, genial, devoted, and courageous person.”
Meanwhile, Hans had arrived in Australia on 17th April, 1939 on the Otranto, a Tourist "B' Class Passenger, whose destination was c/o Dr Kinsella, 2 Khartoum Street, Gordon, Sydney. It was the start of an extraordinary next chapter for Bandler. Due to bankruptcy his work opportunity had disappeared and as an 'enemy alien' he was unable to join the war effort as he wanted. He was however allowed to join the Ministry of Munitions and became an Australian citizen in 1944. When his Austrian qualifications were not recognised, he enrolled in a civil engineering diploma course at the Sydney Technical College. He went to work at the Sydney Water Board in 1952, working as a senior design engineer on the Warragamba Dam.
After a short lived marriage ended in divorce Hans met and eventually married Faith Mussing who would lead a 10 year campaign for Aboriginal rights eventuating in the 1967 referendum which changed the Australian Constitution, allowing First Nations people to be included in the census and giving federal Parliament the power to make laws in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Together, their lifelong social justice activism reflected their shared rejection of racism, injustice and inequality as well as a love for the environment, leaving an extrordinary legacy for the world.
Their daughter, Lilon Bandler, graduated in medicine in 1985 from the University of New South Wales. Referencing her ancestry as the granddaughter of Wacvie Mussingkon, who was taken from Vanuatu and brought to Australia as a slave to work on the sugar plantations, she said that she was “looking forward to a time when the graduation of someone like me is no longer an event.” On recently reading the letters for the first time, Associate Professor Bandler reflected that in reading “these letters there is a real sense of the urgency, the desperation and the anxiety that accompanied that time. There is much to absorb here.”
Indeed. And much to teach us about the current state of the world.