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Harry Bribring, a survivor of the Holocaust, talks to Bristol History Society about his experiences in Vienna during WWII. 

Harry was just 12 when he watched a Nazi procession pass his front door. A year later, he was forced to flee his homeland and left his parents forever.

On 2 February 2017 the Bristol University History society invited Harry Bribing, a Holocaust survivor, to speak about his experiences. Harry was entertaining, often amusing, and informative as he recounted his childhood in Vienna, Austria, to the disruption of the Nazi annexation in 1938, and his new life in Britain as he fled from his Nazi-occupied homeland.

The Berlin Holocaust Memorial

Born in 1925, Harry grew up aware of his Jewishness but never gave it a second thought. Anti-Semitism was present in Austria – as in other parts of Europe – but nothing like the fever pitch it would reach toward the end of the 1930s.

With his homeland under control by the Nazis in 1938, Harry’s life was changed forever. Friends and teachers turned their backs as the government encouraged people to disassociate themselves with the Jewish population – he recalled other children shunning him in the playground; one teacher telling him there were ‘no desks for Jews’.

He said that the first time he realised the real ramifications of the Nazi’s virulent anti-Semitism was when he was banned from attending his beloved ice skating rink in central Vienna. As parks, cinemas and swimming pools were systematically shut off to Jews, Harry and his older sister became acutely aware of how dangerous it was for Jews just to exist at that time.

It was at points like this that the audience fell completely silent.

Among his many anecdotes, one stood out about his older sister, Gerty. Aged fifteen at the time, she had loved going to the cinema with her friends and was not prepared to stop when the ban was enforced. When her parents found out that she had been sneaking in with her non-Jewish friends, they explained to her and Harry that if they were caught disobeying the new laws their fate would be the concentration camp. Children would be hauled off into vans; their parents would not be notified.

It was at points like this that the audience fell completely silent. The sheer cruelty and brutality of the Nazi persecutions seems almost unimaginable. Yet, as Harry was keen to emphasise, now is a crucial time to understand how such regimes – and genocides – come about. As everyone knows, the political present is interesting in both the UK and America. All minority groups have become deeply aware of how dangerous it is to have political leaders espousing hateful rhetoric.

The telling of stories like Harry’s seem more poignant than ever.

Harry was incredibly fortunate that a British scheme on the eve of the Second World War allowed him and Gerty to move to London. The ‘Kindertransport’ brought nearly 10,000 Jewish children to Britain from across Europe to escape persecution. His parents were not so lucky. Unable to escape Austria, both were victims of the concentration camps.

But what if we had not taken in Harry and his sister? At a time when our country seems to be closing its borders to migrants and actively rejecting those seeking refuge, the telling of stories like Harry’s seem more poignant than ever.


Did you attend Harry’s talk? If so, what did you think you took from it? Let us know in the comments or via social media links below. 

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