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Karl Bettelheim

Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
Interview number:


Dr Bea Lewkowicz

Date of Interview:

Interview Summary:

Karl Bettelheim was born 1936 in Vienna. His mother’s family had an antique shop near the opera and his father worked as a clerk in a company. After the Anschluss his father was advised to leave and left for Belgium. The parents of Karl’s mother advised the mother not to leave as they could not imagine that something would happen to a woman and a child. At some point the decision was made that Karl and his mother should leave Vienna and they travelled to Aachen where they stayed in a big hotel. The first attempt to cross with a group of dancers failed. The Belgium authorities would only give a visa if ‘the right to return’ was stamped in the German passport. After some time, Karl’s mother managed to get that stamp from a Gestapo officer and they subsequently could travel to Brussels where they were reunited with his father. The options for further migration were limited and the family decided to buy a ticket to travel to Shanghai. They travelled by boat to Shanghai in 1939.


Karl’s first memories are from the journey on the boat. The family settled down and the father managed to get a job. Karl remembers the time before the Japanese came as a happy time. On the day of Pearl Harbour, Karl started his first day in school in the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association school. Despite the fact that the family had to move to a ghetto, following the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, Karl was sheltered by his parents and recalls close connections to Chinese families and the keen interest of his family in Chinese culture. He gets very emotional when he talks about the dog the family adopted during his time in Shanghai. The family stayed in Shanghai until 1949 when they were repatriated as Austrian citizens to Austria.


In Vienna he went to the Bundesrealschule, Krottenbachstraase, 19th Bezirk. He does not recall antisemitism in Vienna. When his father met his former employer, he was offered a job in London and the family moved to the UK in 1950. In London he finished his schooling and went to the University of Leeds to study Biochemistry (1955-1959). He then completed his Phd, at Imperial College (1959-1961) in Microbiology and became a lecturer at St Bartholomeaus Hospital. He had married and three children were born. His wife was from New Zealand and the family decided to move to New Zealand as work conditions were better. He became Senior Scintist on Public Health Laboratoy Service, National Health Institute (1976-1987) and Senior Scientist in Fairfield Hospital, then visiting lecturer at Melbourne University)  Melbourne, Australia (until 2005). In 2005 the family came back to the UK. His mother had re-married in New Zealand and passed away there.


Karl lived with his wife in North London as do his children and grandchildren. Karl feels very attached to Chinese culture and values the items his parents brought back from Shanghai. Karl’s message is that there beauty can be found in every situation, if one looks for it.  


Full Interview


It was easy to get matchbox covers because my father was a heavy smoker & my mother needed them to light the charcoal cooker.

And suddenly the Chinese coolies came one day and started to take all our furniture away. Because we were moving into one room, you couldn’t move with furniture for a three bedroom house. I took a couple of items. I was sort of five then. Took a couple of items into the toilet, locked the door and wouldn’t let anybody in. They tried sweets, they tried all sorts of things. Didn’t work. I finally of course, had to open the door. And off we went into the- we moved… into a tiny room. Single room on the first floor.

And so my father decided that we are not staying in Europe. He’s included Britain in this. He said, “He’s too strong. Hitler’s too strong… He- he walked over Chamberlain, and Daladier, the French Minister”, and did everything possible to to leave. The only two places came, came up as possibilities were Uruguay and Shanghai. And Shanghai came up first. So, off we went. It was just around the Christmas holiday time and we went on a- to Marseilles. Oh, I have to say something. The Jewish community advised- got my mother to sign a piece of paper to say that she’s going to Shanghai against their advice. Because it’s a war zone. Which partly was true.

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