Vijya and Vinay Gupta
Vijya Gupta was the youngest of five children of Mr. Kundan Lal and Saraswati Gupta. The family lived in Ludhiana, in the Indian state of Punjab, where Kundan Lal “was a very illustrious man; a very big business man.” He had a woodwork factory, did a lot of philanthropic work, and was president of Arya Samaj, a religious institution. He was very keen to educate his four daughters and, since there was no schooling for girls after the tenth class, he started a school for them. Later, Mr. Kundan Lal, created a trust and gave his entire property to run a school that today has more than 5000 students.
In 1938, Mr. Kundan Lal went to a hospital in Vienna, which was part of Germany then, for a hemorrhoid operation. Since he was highly diabetic, such an operation would have been very risky in India at that time. In the hospital he met a Jewish gentleman, Alfred Schafranek, whose sawmill in Graz, Austria had been repossessed. Alfred told Kundan Lal that “the so called ‘Aryanization’ of Jewish property had already happened. The Nazis had come the week before and put him and his son, Bruno, in prison. The condition to get them released was to voluntarily sign off their entire property. So, Alfred’s wife, Margareta Schafranek, had to go into the police station in Graz and write a letter saying they had voluntarily given up all of their property to the Austrian state.”
Alfred Schafranek told Mr. Kundan Lal that they were being persecuted and in very great difficulty. “He doesn’t know if he and his family will survive or not survive. And then he probably requested my father if he could help them. And my father felt very bad and had a lot of sympathy for them.” Mr. Kundan Lal, while still in Vienna recuperating from surgery, was able to take quick decisive action and get visas right away for the Schafraneks and another Jewish family: Alfred and Margareta Schafranek and their two teenage children, Bruno and Lizzy, and Alfred’s brother Siegfried; and Alfred Wachsler his wife, and their year-old son Alex. Mr. Kundan Lal also shipped some woodworking machinery to India.
Alfred Schafranek’s brother Siegfried was a car mechanic and ran a car repair shop in Vienna. In order to get him a visa to India, he had to be listed as a woodworker. So with those visas Siegfried and Alfred, Margareta, Bruno and Lizzy were able to cross the border into Switzerland. From Switzerland they made their way to Italy; from Italy they caught a flight to Karachi; and from Karachi they took a train to Ludhiana.
When they reached Ludhiana, Alfred Schafranek and Mr. Kundan Lal tried to find a way to get the other four Schafranek siblings out of Austria. “But communication being what it is and, despite the best efforts of Alfred Schafranek and Mr. Kundan Lal, they were not able to secure visas and the rest of the family perished in the Holocaust.”
In 1938, Vijya was only 4 years old, so a lot of this story is what she heard from her father and from her older sister, Prem Lata, as well as from two surviving members of these families who were located in Perth, Australia and in Florida by Vijya Gupta’s son Vinay Gupta – Lizzy Schafranek and Alex Wachsler.
Kundan Lal built two homes for the two families adjoining his own home. “We used to interact a lot with these families. All the time they are coming in and out of our house and we were coming in and out of their house. So we built a good rapport with them.” Despite the language barriers, “we could communicate very well. Prem Lata was a great friend of Mrs. Wachsler and Alex was a cute little kid to play with. My father had a swimming pool at home. They would swim in our pool or play badminton with my sisters. And I would play with Alex.” According to Lizzy, they were not allowed to go to school. “At that time, India was controlled by the British. And the British would not allow anybody from what at that time what was considered Greater Germany, since Germany had annexed Austria, to go to school in India.”
There were no other Jewish families in Ludhiana, but “there may have been maybe a thousand or a few thousand German Austrian Jewish families in all of India. Many of them were in Bombay, which is now Mumbai.”
Alfred Schafranek was an expert in plywood making. “Mr. Kundan Lal, started a plywood manufacturing facility in India with Alfred Schafranek’s help. So they helped my grandfather as much as he helped them in some ways. And I am told it was one of the first plywood manufacturing facility in India. So there is a technology transfer, at that time.”
Prem Lata recalls that after they had gone, Mrs. Wachsler wrote a couple of letters to her and after that no letters were sent. “After they left Mr. Kundan Lal’s compound, at some point in time, they were interned by the British, not that much differently than the Americans interning the Japanese. The British at that time interned anybody from Austria and Germany as enemy aliens. They were interned at a camp in a town called Poona. And my understanding is they may have spent as much as maybe two years in this camp. There were other Germans and Austrians. The British did not make any distinction between the Nazis and Jews, so interestingly enough there were Nazis and there were Jews in the same camp, living side by side. They were run by British… The camp was not a prison. I think the people, if they were able to find jobs, were able to get out for a few hours every day and go and work. Families lived together. Families were not separated. So it wasn’t hard labor. But nonetheless it was a camp. And there were many such camps in India. Poona was just one of them.”
After they left the camp, Alfred and Siegfried Schafranek, their wives and children, moved to Bangalore and started a very successful woodworking fabrication facility in India. Siegfried’s wife and daughter had joined them using the visas that Mr. Kundan Lal had earlier provided for them. “Siegfried’s wife was not Jewish so she was not particularly excited about leaving Austria to some tiny little town in India. Their daughter Mansi was still in school and she did not want to get her out of school; but once the war started, everybody needed to find a way to get out.”
Mansi met a British man in Bangalore, married, and eventually moved to the United Kingdom. The rest of the Schafranek family stayed in Bangalore until 1947, when they received visas for Australia that they had applied for while they were still in Vienna in 1938. They travelled on the converted warship HMAS Manoora and arrived in Sydney on August 15, 1947.
The Wachslers moved to Bombay/Mumbai, where Mr. Wachsler met a Mr. Greenfield, who owned a furniture store in Karachi. He invited Mr. Wachsler there to build furniture, and he once was commissioned by King George of England to make a coffee table. The Wachslers lived in Karachi until 1947, when Alex was 13 years old, and eventually managed to get U.S. visas, setlling in Los Angeles.
Vinay Gupta started to recreate the family history, “because my son, who is now 17, asked questions and felt the need to know more about the family. As an Indian we weren’t that close to the war. This personalized it.” Thinking about what his grandfather had done sends the message to others that “you have to take action, but you have to be decisive; you can’t just talk about it. Here they were waiting on Australian visas. My grandfather took the action; let’s go do something right now. Let’s not wait. He had to escape too because while he was still there the Germans crossed the border. The hotel he was in, the word got out. He just picked up his stuff and immediately crossed the border into Switzerland. You can’t wait. He was a very decisive fellow. Once some thought comes into his mind, he would take no time to decide. Once decided he will act upon it. If more people had done that maybe things would have been different for a lot of families.”
Date of Interview: August 15, 2014
Length of Interview: 42 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Fred Safran