A Viennese monarchist at heart, Francis Max Steiner was born in republican Austria on 2 October 1922, and described himself as a ‘Danubian’. His parents were also Viennese (with family roots in Hungary and Poland): father, Richard Paul Steiner (born 25.1.1878) was a high court judge – a civil servant in a republic, but pro Austrian monarchy; mother, Paula Steiner (née Leiter, born 18.03.1894), had studied classics and begun her PhD in linguistics but became a full-time wife and mother.
As a young Jewish man, Richard had converted to the Roman Catholic faith; his free-thinking second wife followed suit in order to marry him and bring up their children as Catholics. Francis (previously Franz), consequently attended Schottengymnasium, a prestigious Catholic private school founded by imperial decree in Vienna’s 1st District; it was to have a significant and enduring influence. Loyalty was paramount, and ‘non-Aryan’ boys were not betrayed to the Nazis, who ‘closed all Catholic schools in 1938’. Francis then became an apprentice in a galvanic electroplating firm, his ‘first close contact with the working-class’.
Largely protected regarding Kristallnacht, Francis Steiner had ‘no unhappy memories in 1938’, though it was ‘evident that there was no future in Austria’. ‘Everything changed in Austria in twenty-four hours – the equivalent of five years in Germany’ he recalled. All non-Aryan judges were ‘sent on leave’ on full pay until the summer then ‘retired’ on a pension, so the family was ‘relatively well-off compared with Jews in trade or commerce’. Francis’s elder brother, Wilhelm, had studied law, and in September 1938 became a Bar student at Gray’s Inn, London, his maintenance guaranteed by relatives. Following Kristallnacht, he learned of the Quakers’ Kindertransports organised via their Vienna office, and of the London-based Catholic Committee for Refugees from Germany and Austria. ‘I’ll be back’, Francis told his parents, seeing him off on the first Kindertransport from Vienna in December 1938.
The parents spent most of WWII in Hungary. Possessing Irish visas but no transit visas, they were trapped when Nazi Germany invaded Hungary in March 1944, duly arrested, and sent to Auschwitz in July 1944. Francis, however, had arrived safely in Britain on 12 December 1938, going first to a freezing Peck Hill (summer holiday) Camp near Lowestoft, then to a Catholic family, but lacking a guarantor went in 1939 to Belmont Abbey School, a Catholic boarding school in Herefordshire, which offered two places to refugees. Although his ‘culture shock’ was ‘mitigated by Catholic Church’ teachings, he was ‘surprised at the corporal punishment’ in the school.
Francis was arrested with his brother in Hampstead in 1940, and interned on the Isle of Man in Central Camp at 22 Central Parade in Douglas, moving to a private house in Onchan then to Hutchinson Camp; his life comprised working for the camp welfare officer, gardening, educational classes, literary and music activities. Released in June 1944 under Category 13, he volunteered for the Pioneer Corps but did not join it. Instead, he gained a BSc in economics and was sent to the Board of Trade, dealing with ‘Distressed Areas’ (renamed Development Areas), where new industries were established, and a relative founded West Cumberland Fashions with his own funds. Following the signing of the European Recovery Programme in 1948, Steiner was seconded to the Organisation for European Economic Development [OECD] International Secretariat in Paris, where his language skills proved useful. By then, he was a naturalised British citizen, and visited Vienna with his brother ‘as a counterfeit Anglo-Saxon’.
Francis remembered his market research post with Manchester Oil Refinery Ltd. as ‘a central European “home from home”’, while the Austrian Youth Association [AYA], in Lowndes Square, SW1 (1942‒1945), had ‘immense influence on his future.’ Nevertheless, Francis became ‘very established’. He met his English Catholic wife, Rosemary, at a 1963 Newman Association conference, and is a senior Reform Club member. An optimist, seizing each ‘lucky’ opportunity presented, ‘Everything in my life has been completely unforeseen and unexpected’, including reading the papers in a minister’s Red Box. Religion has remained ‘very important, and a great support’ to Steiner, who has been Chairman of the Catholic Union of Great Britain, and was made a Papal Knight of the Order of St Gregory the Great. Nevertheless, he is aware of his Jewish roots, and considers himself ‘less resentful’ than some Jews. In 1946 he met with his Polish Great-Uncles Julek (Julian) & Leon (Leo) Halberstam, and learned of his parents’ fate. He has been an AJR member for some twenty-eight years.