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Freddy Berdach

Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
20 December 1938
Interview number:


Dr Jana Buresova

Date of Interview:

Interview Summary:

Born in 1930, Freddy Berdach’s early childhood was spent in an exceptional municipal tenant complex in Karl Marx-hof, Heiligenstadt, in Vienna’s 19th district – considered one of the most well-known of the Gemeindebauten.  His Viennese parents Walter (born 22.5.1904) and Ella (née Sussman, born 8.9.1902) ‘were against God’ after their daughter Renee died, aged only six, so ‘he was not raised as a Jew.’ Nevertheless, he was ‘thrown out of school’ following the Anschluss in March 1938; changes occurred ‘overnight’ he recalled, the Jewish population’s fear ‘was palpable.’ That April, the family was ordered to vacate their flat within fourteen days, and joined Freddy Berdach’s grandparents, Richard and Elisabeth, in their small flat.


By May, family and other tensions caused Walter to go to Switzerland to obtain visas for his wife and son, but he arrived at Bregenz the day Austria’s borders were closed. Managing a special ‘arrangement’ with the Gauleiter,  he later reached Zurich and was advised to register with the police as a refugee. Although the visas were duly granted, the requirements of many authorities in Vienna had to be met before the family could sign confirming that ‘they left of their own free will.’ Ella was allowed only ten Reichsmark when she and Freddy departed by train in September 1938. Reunited with Walter in Zurich, they overstayed by three months, and were ordered to leave within 24 hours.


Reaching London by train and boat via Calais on 20 December 1938, Ella and Freddy were met by Walter’s brother, Irvin, who had fled immediately after the Anschluss and acted as a guarantor. He lodged them in a Hampstead boarding house, where Freddy first sampled ‘Strange!’ cornflakes. When his mother became a resident domestic, Freddy was despatched by the Jewish Board of Governors to his first foster ‘family’ in Kent – which returned him as ‘unsuitable.’ Thereafter, eight-year-old Freddy stayed a maximum of three months with a family – eight different ones in two years. Some families had a Rolls Royce car and TV – others had a ‘swagger stick’ and beat him. He received one letter per week from his mother, and only saw her once, at Christmas, during that period; he also missed three years of school; one in Austria, two in Britain.


Walter Berdach reached Britain in August 1939. He was not interned, and in 1940 joined the British Pioneer Corps; injured in battle, he was given an honorary discharge in 1942. In Taunton, the family was reunited, and Freddy attended a convent school, but was ‘bullied a lot and called a Yid.’ The move to London proved more positive. The shell-shocked Walter ultimately became head waiter at the Dorchester Hotel; Ella used her skills as a seamstress, while Freddy transferred to Holloway County Grammar School, did well, especially in science, and was due to study civil engineering at King’s College, London, in 1949. His father, however, not wishing to return to Austria, had taken British citizenship in 1946; Freddy was consequently called up for National Service, joined the RAF signal section then fought in the Korean War. He therefore never took up his course, which he does not regret.


At eighteen, Freddy Berdach had wanted to ‘feel his Jewishness’, and was aided by Rabbi Harris and the Maccabi. At Kingsbury Synagogue Youth Club Freddy met Vanda Butler, who converted to Judaism, and they married on 19 June 1955; she was readily accepted by the family. Freddy had joined his father’s bow tie business in 1952, for which Ella had prepared patterns, and become ‘a brilliant salesman’, manufacturing and selling quality ties (including the first clip-on bow ties) to shops in the Burlington Arcade, Piccadilly, and around Britain. However, when the business collapsed in 1968/9 due to the rise in purchase tax, Freddy Berdach adapted, looked abroad to new markets and successfully expanded the business to include quality shirts and cashmere jumpers – until his heart attack in 1996.


Freddy’s mother had died, his father was ailing and the business was sold; Freddy and two neighbours then decided that Northwood needed a progressive Jewish home for the elderly, raised the funds within two years, and opened Abbeyfield Care Home in Bushey in 2000,  with twelve single residents. Freddy was first the Committee Treasurer, then Chairman, while his wife became the Volunteer Coordinator, and organised activities for the residents. He retired in 2015, but remains a Freemason, having been introduced to Freemasonry by a friend in 1960. The focus on charitable work continues to be very important to him. Feeling that he had been ‘very lucky’ and ‘given another chance in life when he left Austria’, he ‘wanted to give something back – and to life in general.’


Full Interview


So, in the discussion the Gauleiter [party district leader] said, “OK. I’ll tell you what. You go to the station at eight o’clock this evening there’s a train to Zürich. I want you to wait just outside the barrier and I will be there in one of the corners. And when I give you the sign to go like that you get on that train there and then.” Which my father did. He was there at eight- just before eight o’clock outside the barrier. The train whistle went. The Gauleiter made the- the sign. My father rushed on to the train. And he got to Zürich.

And so in the course of two years I was with eight different families. Some were wonderful. Some had a Rolls Royce and a television in 1939. Amazing. And others were- dreadful. Where there was a spinster – no it couldn’t have been a spinster. She was a lady who had lost her husband in the First World War and still had a swagger stick. He was a sergeant in the British Army in the First World War and… she beat me with that swagger stick if I didn’t do exactly as she said. So there were good times and not so good times. And I wrote to my mother once a week. …And that- she wrote to me once a week and that’s how we kept in touch. I saw her at Christmas basically as twice only in that time.

And my father said, in 1946, “I’m going to teach the English… how to wear a bow tie.” ...And my father paid him and took home the sack, some of which material was useless but some of it was absolutely right for making black bow ties. So my mother, having made a pattern, made a bow tie. One bow tie. You have to make it on the reverse side, you have to reverse- you have to turn it inside out, you have to sew up the ends. You have to iron it. There’s a lot of things to making a bow tie. Bow ties are much more difficult to make than ties. Much more difficult. So my father having made this bow tie… he decided he would start at the top. And he went to Burlington Arcade, to the one menswear shop called ‘S. Fisher’ and showed him this bow tie. And my father said, “I’m making these bow ties. Are you interested?” So the man, Mr. Fisher himself said, “Yes, I’m interested. I want you to make me a dozen.” Trying him out. At that time a lot of officers were coming back from the Army- being dischar- you know, demobbed and so on. There were a lot of parties. So black ties were well in demand.

I’ve come to the conclusion life is as it is. It dishes out good for some and not so good for others and that’s how life is. There are two types of people in life, I’ve found. Those that sit down and say, “Oh, me, oh, my. Oh, woe is me.” And the other one who’ll get up, and says, “I’m going to get out and go and do things.” And if you’re of the latter, then you don’t consider the sad, bad things. You’re positive. You have to think that that’s the cards that life dealt you and you have to make the best of them. You’re not going to be dealt four aces. You get a mixture of cards; you’ve got to make the best of them. And that’s how life is. You- the way from the bottom. There’s only one way you can go. When I arrived and I was sent to eight different families on my own, that was the bottom part of my life. It taught me that- to be self-reliant.

Often [people], are lonely… that I think shouldn’t be lonely, that should be doing things for other people. And that way, you do two things: you make other people happy and you make yourself happy. And that’s what people don’t understand. In giving of yourself you can make people happy and you make- you bring your own happiness. You can’t make happiness.

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