Jewish Families on the Brink of War

Suddenly the Skies Darkened

Greetings from Shanghai

In October 1939, Robert Beck sent a postcard from Shanghai to his daughters, Margarete-Grete and Felicia-Lili in Kent, England. His wife Gabriele had remained in Vienna. About two-and-a-half years later, Gabriele was deported to her death in Minsk. In February 1943, heartbroken, Robert died in Shanghai after being informed of his wife's deportation. Their daughters survived.

Robert Beck and his wife Gabriele-Ella née Pick were both descended from established families in Austria, and lived in Vienna.  Gabriele's mother, Josefine, was a Christian who converted to Judaism before her marriage to Leopold Pick.  During World War I, Robert served in the Austro-Hungarian Army, and two of his brothers fell on the battlefield. Together with his father Adolf, he ran a leather-goods business, and he and Gabriele had three children: Herbert (b. 1917), Margarete (b. 1918), and Felicia (b. 1921).  The Becks were patriotic Austrians, and lived in a Christian area of Vienna, but led a traditional Jewish lifestyle. 

The family business was badly hit in the economic crisis of the late 1920s, but despite this, Robert and Gabriele made sure that their children received a good education and did their best to ensure that they would graduate high school.  Margarete started her university studies in 1937, and managed to complete three semesters. 

After the annexation of Austria (the "Anschluss"), Herbert was fired from his job, Felicia had to leave high school and move to a Jewish school far away from home, and Margarete was thrown out of university.

During the Kristallnacht pogrom in Vienna, Robert went into hiding.  His son Herbert was apprehended on the street and taken to the Rossauerlände jail in Vienna.  His mother managed to have him released, in return for a signed guarantee that he would leave Vienna within two weeks, and she obtained two tickets for Robert and Herbert on a ship that was sailing to Shanghai.  Gabriele also obtained an exit permit for Margarete, and in February 1939, Margarete departed for England.  In her testimony, Margarete talks about the painful parting from her family.  She recalls her young cousin Gertrude Griss giving her a handkerchief and enjoining her to never forget her, and her grandmother, standing alongside her mother and saying, "Enjoy life, because it is very short."

Robert and Herbert sailed from Naples, Italy, and passed through Port Said in Egypt, Aden in Yemen, and Colombo in Sri Lanka, before finally arriving in Shanghai, China.  In May 1939, Felicia joined her sister Margarete in England.  Gabriele remained in Vienna with her sick parents, her sister, and other relatives, not fully aware of the approaching danger.  She sent her husband and son to Shanghai after seeing Jewish men in Vienna being arrested and publicly humiliated, but was sure that she was safe.

On 15 February 1941, Gabriele's sister Kamilla Griss, her husband Jonas-Hans and their 11-year-old daughter Gertrude were sent on the first deportation from Vienna to Lublin.  About a month later, Robert's widowed mother, Cäcilia Beck, was deported from Vienna to Opatow, Poland.  On 2 June 1942, Gabriele Beck was deported from  Vienna to Minsk, her mother Josefine having passed away several weeks earlier.  They were all murdered.

By the time the USA entered the war in late 1941, Margarete and Felicia had received letters in England from their father and brother in Shanghai.

After the war, Herbert immigrated to Australia and made a life for himself in Sidney.  Margarete got married in England and immigrated to Israel in 1950 together with her husband and daughter, moving to Haifa.  Felicia joined her sister in Israel in 1957. 

In 1956, Margarete Beck Klein submitted Pages of Testimony to Yad Vashem in memory of her mother Gabriele, her grandmother Cäcilia, her aunt and uncle Kamilla and Jonas Griss and their daughter Gertrude, and other relatives.  In 2013, Felicia Beck Breitner donated letters, documents and family photographs to Yad Vashem, as well as the handkerchief her sister received from Gertrude Griss before leaving for Engand.

In Their Own Words

Parting from Family

Holocaust survivor Margarete Klein née Beck describes the wrenching separation from her family in Vienna on the eve of her departure to England in February 1939.