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Francis Max Steiner
Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
12 December 1938
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.
Baptised [Catholic] at birth, what’s more. And- and of course I wasn’t the only one. There were a number of what you might call ‘non-Aryan’ ...boys in the school. ...And the other thing about this particular primary school was, that quite a lot of us more as a group went on to the Schotten. So that when we had our last class reunion, in 2010... some of us had been together not only since the beginning of grammar school in 1932, but since our first day at primary school in 1928.
And it was the only school [Schottengymnasium] in Austria, and perhaps greater Germany, which when the Nazis came, did not discriminate. I mean in all other schools in Vienna, Jewish and non-Aryan boys were grouped together in separate groups and eventually concentrated in separate Jewish schools. When the Nazi authorities asked all schools, including the Schotten, what Jewish boys they had, the Schotten with a perfectly straight face, replied, “[You see] the question didn’t arise, because they’d only got Catholic boys.” ...My- everybody knew that those of us that were affected, were well-known in the sch- I mean with... the- the spirit of the locality was that nobody, even Nazis in the school, didn’t give the show away. In the year above me, was the son of a Nazi Gauleiter of Austria, young Seyss-Inquart, whose father was hanged as a war criminal after Nuremberg. He must have known perfectly well who we were, but he too, in the spirit of the school, he kept his mouth shut. And so we were never given away. And we had a ...great deal of reason to be grateful for the school. Because after the Nazis closed the school down...In July ’38. It closed down all Catholic schools... on the grounds expressly that it was the business of the state to educate the young. That was actually given as the reason for closing the school down, and- and others like it.
Now the odd thing is, which is relevant to this project, is that the Viennese - the population of Vienna - did not really behave terribly well after the Nazi takeover. I know Churchill said, “We can never forget in these islands that Austria was the first victim of Nazi aggression.” That is actually true, though most English Jews deny that. It is true. Austria was the- after all we’d been under siege for five years. ...The persecution of Austria by, by its big neighbour next door throughout the 30s cannot be denied. But it is equally true that in 1938 there must have been some kind of- something snapped in the psychology of the locals. Because in early ’38, we could still hope that the- the independent Austria would win the plebiscite ...against Germany. And then on the 13th of March some-something snapped. I can remember the suddenness of it. Because... it’s on the evening, but not the 13th, on the Friday that the German Army marched in. There’d still been street- anti-Nazi street demonstrations that afternoon. And the same late afternoon or early evening, we saw a group of Nazis walking past a group of policemen, and shouting, “Heil Deutsche Wache” to which the policemen replied in chorus, “Heil”. Well... At which one of the Nazis turned to the other and said, “You see what whores they are. Two hours ago they beat us with rubber truncheons. And now they shout Heil.” You can see how some- something must have snapped psychologically. Because the population of Vienna appeared to have turned nasty on one five minutes. Of course it wasn’t the whole population of Vienna, far from it. ...And the seeds of resistance were in fact, which is generally forgotten, that very day. But that’s another story.
So I trooped off to the Quaker office and discovered about the Kindertransport... which of course all the English religious communities were represented. The non-Jewish things - activities - were centralised by the Quakers who had an office in Vienna. And there, the first person I met was a beautiful young woman called Barbara Ward, later Lady Jackson of Glossop [Lodsworth], editor of the Economist... eventually. But she was there representing some Catholic refugee organisation. ...And I had no idea who she was, but I mean except here was an English Catholic representing something to do with refugee aid. And I was interviewed, and after that inevitably my memory goes blank. But I mean... this was... early November or mid-November 1938. And the first Kindertransport train left less than a month later. It is quite incredible, how quickly and efficiently the thing was organised. It may have had something to do with the fact that the home secretary of the day, Sir Samuel Hoare, was a Quaker. I think that might- because otherwise, I mean- Kristallnacht was on the 9th of November, the first Kindertransport train left Berlin I believe on the 2nd of December. So squaring the British government, squaring the British Parliament, making the arrangements with the Nazi authorities – all that inside one month. It is barely believable, but it did happen.
Little did I ex- expect to spend my life as a counterfeit Anglo-Saxon, married into the most English of English family settings possible. ...Almost the second Senior member of the Reform Club in Pall Mall, than which nothing more establishment. Little did I expect to end up with a Papal Knighthood.