Thank you once again for joining us on this special day, and for bearing with the cold outside. As we reflect on the 85th anniversary of the Anschluss this year and the horrors that followed for Jewish people in Austria, I just wanted to share a little more of the largely forgotten story we are remembering today and which I believe exemplified hope, and faith in life. It’s a remarkable true account illustrating the best of the human spirit at the worst of times. It’s about how a British diplomatic team fuelled by moral bravery and unwillingness to simply standby made an incredible and enduring difference.
From March 1938 onwards, as the British Embassy was downgraded first to a Legation and then Consulate-General under Nazi occupation, a dedicated team of diplomats, consular and church officials converted their horror at the persecution of Jews into decisive action. The passport team led by Thomas Kendrick and then which became 25 strong under George Berry – as well as Reverend Hugh Grimes and then Reverend Frederick Collard of the Anglican Christ Church in Vienna – worked together in defiance of their instructions and in danger to their own lives to provide travel documents and baptismal certificates for Jews desperate to cross Austria’s borders to safety. While Grimes and Collard carried out hundreds of baptisms per day in order to make it easier for Jews to be allowed to leave the country, the diplomatic team worked around the clock to exploit all possible loopholes for issuing travel permits and emergency passports, even going as far as issuing fake documents.
It was a dangerous, awful business, with often chaotic and distressing scenes outside the Church and Embassy buildings, described by a member of staff as “a dreadful, dreadful time”. I have read through a number of our staff records from the time – they talk of the terrible Nazi harassment of those Jewish people queuing outside forced to scrub pavements or wash Nazi vehicles in the pouring rain. The deluge of applicants was huge and those who could not be seen that day were given a numbered and dated ticket for the next. One of my former colleagues talks of pregnant women refusing to leave in the hope their child could be born on British territory; there is an awful account of a young couple who could not be processed that day that left to commit suicide, such was their lack of hope. British staff worked through the day and night and wrote of the nightmares in which they could only see tearful, desperate faces. The “Schuld”, the guilt not to be able to do more, pervaded everything. Every day they heard stories of Jewish sons, daughters, husbands who had been picked up and bundled into trucks and then nothing… It was the hearing nothing that was the worst.” Both Collard and Kendrick were separately interrogated and beaten in the Nazi headquarters at the Hotel Metropole, whilst the Jewish-born verger of Christ Church was imprisoned and sent to Auschwitz where he died.
By the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the team had saved thousands of lives; by 1945, thanks to our Foreign Office and Church of England predecessors’ collective efforts, courage and moral stance, tens of thousands of Jewish lives were saved. Until now, many of those British officials’ names were unknown. Some names, for security reasons, will remain unvoiced. But never forgotten. That is why it is a collective plaque today.
We are honoured that so many diplomatic colleagues, survivor families and friends have joined us today. By doing so you honour both the victims and those who worked so hard to help. Thank you again to the Rt Hon Lord Pickles and President Sobotka for presiding over the unveiling on behalf of both the British and Austrian governments. And to Reverend Curran and Chief Rabbi Hofmeister for their prayers and terrific support for today’s event. Our joint efforts to work ever closer together on post holocaust memory and related issues is so central to our strong, values-based relationship today.
For many today, I know it will be an emotional moment. As the granddaughter of a German Kind, no less for me. The celebration of life saved, when so many countless others could not be. An event of collective memory and thanksgiving so appropriately on the Jewish festival day of Purim, which is all about the survival of Jews marked for death in the 5th century, and symbolising triumph over adversity.
Here in the centre of Europe, we today also must bear witness and double our resolve to action against another, modern day genocide. Less than 500 km away, on former Austrian empire soil, millions of Ukrainians daily face Putin’s violent threat to their lives, homes, language, culture and right to sovereign, peaceful existence. Once again, the UK proudly stands firm with our allies for liberty. With a diplomatic service ready to act with integrity and compassion to help bring hope and help in dark times to those most in need.