Freund, Gert Wolfgang
Vienna, Austria; Brighton, London, England
Gert Wolfgang Freund was born May 12, 1929 in Vienna, Austria, the only child of Friedrich Freund and Stella Kollmann Freund. His paternal grandparents died before Gert was born and his father’s only sister was married, did not have any children, and emigrated to Sidney, Australia in 1938 or 1939, before the war started
Gert’s maternal grandfather, Heinrich Kollmann, was born in the Czech Republic, in Sasov (Schaffa), that at one time had a fairly substantial Jewish population. His grandmother, Marie Berkowitz Kollmann was from Teschen, Silesia. They had four children: Ernst, Margarethe, Stella, and Walter.
Ernst Kollmann was picked up on Kristallnacht and went to Dachau, but was released since he could emigrate. He and his wife Anna, a dentist, emigrated to Shanghai, moved to Hong Kong in late 1945 or early 1946, and after a year or two came to Detroit, then moved on to New York. Walter Kollmann and his wife, Herta, wound up in Trinidad, came to the U.S. around 1941, settled in Charleston, West Virginia, and then came to Detroit because “things were starting to boom with the war economy.” Margarethe Kollmann Liebeskind had one daughter, Gert’s only cousin, Ilse Camis.
“My father inherited from my grandfather a plywood veneer business…. On my mother’s side, my grandparents had a grocery store, which was on the first floor of the building in which they lived. There was a shoe repair store down there too. Their apartment was on the second floor. directly above the store itself.
“My grandparents lived in the second district which was the predominantly Jewish district. We lived in the sixth. We regularly walked from our place to my grandparent’s place. We used to go every Sunday and on the major Jewish holidays when we had the family dinners…. My grandparents were moderately Conservative. My grandfather used to go to services. My father was definitely non-religious. And although religion was a required subject in school and the vast majority of students were primarily Catholic, Jewish kids had Jewish instruction in public school. We were pretty much very highly assimilated.
“I’m sure I ran across anti-Semitism because it was almost common speak. Prior to Hitler, I don’t know if there was really much difference in the treatment of Jews by Christians as there was towards black people. I can’t recollect any direct assaults but the comments would be there. But not to the extent that you couldn’t live with it or that you really wanted to do something about it. Right up to the bitter end, nobody thought that it was serious as it turned out to be. My grandparents were aware of the situation but they certainly weren’t aware or even dreaming as to the extremes that it would wind up as.” Heinrich and Marie Kollmann were deported to Theresienstadt and murdered in 1942 in Treblinka (or possibly in Maly Trostinec).
“For me, it actually changed when I was totally unaware. I was not at all prepared for getting onto the Kindertransport…. I don’t know whether or not it was connected, but for some time prior to that, my parents sent me to start learning English. I remember having classes with a couple of other kids. I’m not even quite sure who they were. I guess there’s different ways of teaching language now than there was back then. I didn’t really get a good grasp of the language except picking up a few words, like cat, dog, he, she.
“My aunt Margarethe went to England. At that time, Britain allowed adult foreigners into the country for certain jobs that the British population didn’t want to do and therefore was not a competition for employment. Domestic service was one of them and she wound up working for the Shand Kydd family; Princess Diana is a direct descendent of that family.
“After Hitler annexed Austria, we had to give up our apartment and we moved into my grandparents’ place. I had to leave school and go to a Jewish school…. My mother left Vienna for England in maybe October of 1938. Because my aunt was working for the Shand Kydds, she was able to get my mother out and they both worked for that family. My aunt was the cook; my mother was the housekeeper; and a first cousin on my grandfather’s side was the nanny/governess for the kids in the house.
“And so, close to the middle of March 1939, they put me on the Kindertransport. All of the Jewish kids coming out of Austria would have come through the west train station in Vienna. The only thing that I really remember was being really in shock. I don’t remember the day in itself. Even particularly going to the station or saying goodbye. And the only thing that I remember about the trip itself is that maybe it was a 24-hour ride.
“I do remember getting to the station on the German side of the Dutch border. I know from the reports of other kids that when they got to that station some of them were harassed by Gestapo border police, or whoever it was, and they gave them a hard time. In my case, when we got to the German side of the border, the guy just opened the compartment door, looked in, and left. We didn’t have any traumatic experience going there. After we left the German side of the border, the train stopped on the Dutch side and the Dutch people greeted the transport and gave them hot chocolates, sandwiches, and cookies. I remember that when we pulled up at the station somebody thanked the Dutch people for the hospitality…. All of those trains went to the Dutch town Hoek van Holland where there was a regular ferry service to Harwich in Britain. From the ferry, we went by train from Harwich to Liverpool Street Station in London.
“My mother was at the station when the train arrived…. I thought I was going to stay with my mother but she took me across town to Victoria Station and put me on a train to Brighton, on the south coast of England almost due south of London, about 50 miles…. I stayed for about two weeks with a Jewish family that had a boy about my age and a girl that was a little bit older.
“Very few people in England at that time spoke any foreign language. The general attitude of the British public was that it was up to the people who traveled to learn English rather than up to them to learn to communicate in their language. There was no knowledge of German at all, except for Jewish families to the extent that they spoke Yiddish, which some did and some didn’t…. So, I even used the name of George Friend.
“I wound up in a boy’s hostel in Brighton at 33 Vernon Terrace. There were some 30 to 33 boys. Two or three of them were Czech boys, there were a couple more Germans, then there were Austrians who were all from Vienna…. The funding for the hostel came from the Jewish community locally or somewhere else…. The house was actually run by a couple named Plaut, who were from Berlin and had either owned or run an orphanage in Berlin. There was also a female hired helper but a lot of the routine cleaning we had to do ourselves…. From the front of the building, you went down a flight of stairs; from the back, you walked out into the yard directly. The basement had the kitchen, the scullery, the pantry, and some kind of a furnace room because we had heat in the building. The rooms must have been large enough to accommodate four or five boys to a room. I don’t remember myself being in a bunkbed; I remember being like at floor level with nobody above me.
“We went to public school. It was a normal classroom, with maybe 25 kids. All of us from the hostel were in the same classroom and none of us could speak English to converse. In retrospect, I give the teachers a lot of credit; they were totally unprepared, unable to communicate with the kids because they didn’t speak German. On the one hand, having 20-25 English kids that they were supposed to be teaching; and on the other hand, trying to do the best that they could with people who couldn’t follow what they were saying, I thought they did a really good job…. It wasn’t that long; when you’re in an environment and nobody speaks your language, you quickly pick up enough of the English language to really get by.
“The British had always considered the German/Austrian Jews as being basically German and therefore after France fell in 1940 and the war started, they became enemy citizens. The British got really panicky, including Churchill, and rounded up the Jews over the age of 16. One day the Plauts and one of the boys were gone. They were interned, probably on the Ilse of Man in the Irish Sea between England and Ireland.
“So, they brought in another couple who were English and Jewish. I believe he was a rabbi and Orthodox. The first thing is he forbade everybody from speaking German amongst ourselves. He also initiated even more religious service participation which I didn’t like either.” The majority of the kids, including Gert, went to the Middle Street Conservative Synagogue and its Hebrew school. Gert was put into the choir. “It wasn’t the case whether you could sing or not. But you became part of the choir. And I hated that. We went to synagogue not just on Saturdays, not just on the High Holidays days, but on every minor Jewish holiday. I got to hate it to the extent that even today I don’t go to services.
“I was in touch with my mother by mail and she must have come maybe once a month from London to Brighton on a day trip, presumably on a Sunday. If I went to London, she would meet me at the station…. In 1943, my mother and my aunt left the people that they were working for and went to London. My aunt worked as a waitress. My mother went to work in a war plant, making disposable fuel tanks for airplanes…. They took an apartment in the northwest part of London at 103 Greencroft Gardens in Hampstead, NW6. The area pretty much was settled by the Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia.
“After they moved into the apartment, I left the hostel and moved in with them. The house was maybe three floors and our apartment was on the main floor and there was a walk-out level below us. My aunt had a bedroom. My mother had a bedroom. We had a kitchen and a bathroom. The heating system was a coal fireplace that gave off a tremendous amount of heat for about five feet. But once you got past the five feet, the rest of the house was absolutely cold.
“The really heavy bombing in London was in 1940-41, when I was in Brighton. There was still bombing by airplanes through maybe the beginning of 1944. There was a time in 1944 when my mother sent me to live with someone in Birmingham which was in central England away from any of the attacks.”
Gert attended Hammersmith School of Building Arts and Crafts in the west London district from 1943 until 1946. When he finished, he was hired by John Lewis and Company to work in their property division which looked after all of their properties, including department stores and a fair number of townhouses in London. Since there was no new construction, really all construction at that time was essential repairs to damaged or weather-related things. Gert was a quantity surveyor and prepared the requirements or scope of work that needed to be done.
Meanwhile, Gert’s father, Friedrich Freund, stayed in Vienna. “I don’t think that there was even a possibility for him to come to England because, for men, there wasn’t anything open in Britain. Maybe there were specialties that they would have accepted, but not anything that he would have qualified for…. In the beginning, we heard from him. Everything changed really on September 3, 1939, the date that Britain declared war. Up to then there was regular mail every week. But then after the war started, that took care of that. Whether or not we ever had any direct notice from him, I wouldn’t have, my mother would…. At one point, he supposedly was in Mauthausen concentration camp near Linz, Austria. But somehow, directly or indirectly, he was transferred to Theresienstadt. And from Theresienstadt in 1944 he was sent to Auschwitz. They presume that three or four days later… that was it.”
After the war ended, Gert’s uncle Walter, who had been drafted into the U.S. Army, was discharged and he and his family settled in Detroit. “They must have had sufficient communication with my mother, who apparently decided we’d be better off in the States… We certainly had no intentions of going back to Vienna and wouldn’t have gone to other places in Europe to whatever extent they may have been opened…. So, we applied to immigrate to the States and my mother and I came in August 1948. My aunt remained in London. But finally, she did come here.
“I was 19-years-old. It took me about a week to get used to the country. One of the things that has stayed with me at that time was how total strangers were helpful. I used to go downtown and look for places and just ask where is so and so and people would walk a block out of their way just to show me where to go. And other people suggested places to go or things to do and how helpful people were at that time.”
It only took Gert a couple of weeks to find a job as an estimator at Campbell Construction Company. In June 1951, he was drafted during the Korean war and had 23 months of active service and six years of inactive reserve.
In 1956 or 1957, Gert’s cousin, Ilse, came to Detroit with her husband, son, and daughter. She also left Vienna on the Kindertransport and was in a girl’s home in the north of England, first in Newcastle and then in Windermere in the Lake Country in the north of England. When she turned 18, she joined the women’s branch of the Royal Airforce where she met her husband who was English.
In mid-1965, Gert met and married Andree. They had two daughters, Debbie (Karr) and Denise (Segal), and two grandchildren, Jennifer and Brandon.
His message is that “Things can happen. All kind of things that you never even think about can happen at any time. And maybe just be prepared for whatever comes.”
Date of Interview: March 2, 2020
Length of Interview: 91 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Mark Einhaus