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Diary of Elisabeth Ornstein

Ornstein, Elisabeth Diary 1939
US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Elisabeth Ornstein came from a well-to-do family in Vienna. After Nazi Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, the position of Jews deteriorated radically: they were now targeted both by anti-Jewish legislation and acts of street violence, ill-treatment, and humiliation. As a result, efforts by many Jews to emigrate increased substantially in the second part of 1938 and 1939.

One of the ways in which Jews managed to leave Nazi Germany (and its newly annexed territory, Austria) was through the so-called Kindertransport, a series of rescue operations in which Jewish children were transported to Britain.1 A network of Jewish and non-Jewish organizations coordinated the work and negotiated with the reluctant British government to admit as many Jewish children as possible; eventually, thousands of children managed to reach British shores before 1940, when the effort became impossible because of the state of war between Germany and Britain.

Elisabeth Ornstein and her brother Georg were among the children sent to Britain on a Kindertransport. They departed in early 1939 when Elisabeth was barely 11 years old. Once in Britain, Elisabeth started keeping a diary. She wrote about subjects ranging from her uneasiness in the new environment and homesickness to observations of more mundane events that a ten-year-old girl experienced and thought worth remembering. In 1940, Georg and Elisabeth traveled to New York, where they were reunited with their parents. They survived the war.

Elisabeth’s diary is illustrated with small ornamental drawings on almost every page, of dogs, angels, gnomes. Elizabeth does not write again for almost a year after the final entry included in this excerpt. By that point, in July 1941, she is in Buffalo, NY with her parents, and she writes in English, "I've forgotten all my German, dear diary…"

Many years after the war, Elisabeth also published a memoir.2

For an overview, see Mark Jonathan Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer, eds., Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (New York: Bloomsbury, 2000).

Published as Elisabeth Orsten, From Anschluss to Albion: Memoirs of a Refugee Girl, 1938-1940 (Cambridge: Acorn Editions, 1998).

The date is a mistake, the year is 1939.

"Nun ade, du mein lieb Heimatland" is a German folk song written by August Disselhoff in 1848 about leaving one’s homeland.

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[...]

February 1, 1938 [sic]1

Liesl! But my name’s not Liesl anymore. No, the lovely, carefree time is over. Sometimes I’d like to be a baby again, and then, right away, I’m glad again to be almost grown up. I get homesick very rarely, but I feel sorry whenever I see someone crying. Then it sometimes happens that I have to cry secretly into my pillows [...]

 

February 2, 1939

I’d like to see St. Stephen’s Cathedral [in Vienna]. How could one do that? [...] Now I imagine that I can make out St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the haze [...] Then the word “Elisabeth” wakes me from my dreams and I return to reality with a last wistful glance [...]

 

January 2, 1940

[...] I had given up hope of seeing them ever again, but God did not want it to be that way. And I hope to be with my parents again soon [...]

 

April 20, 1940

Today was nothing special. I was late for lunch, because I went for a walk. But I didn’t care. I walked along quite briskly and sang “Nun ade, du mein lieb Heimatland,” and when I got to the last verse, I broke into tears.2 I had been depressed all morning, and now I was all the more so [...]

 

July 23, 1940

This time I will keep my resolution and write in you every day, dear book. Today is the first day of vacation. I don’t like holidays, especially when they’re as long as this—two months. This morning I couldn’t get out of bed. At 10 a.m. I went to school [...] and said goodbye to Toots. She kissed me and I was rather moved. I don’t know whether I will ever see the Garden School again ... In the evening I played with the village children.

[...]

 

July 27, 1940

I was very unhappy today. The peaceful natural surroundings made me homesick. Also, I have read a book that shows what people are really like, and today that is how they seemed to me. Rosemary came with Mrs. C and Gioia from London to see us again, after three months. She didn’t even look at me, and I felt hurt, although she is shallow by nature. All of a sudden I have a longing for my old Catechism. I can still remember the 10 Commandments but only the fundamental truths 1, 2, 5, and 6. I have forgotten two of them. I also use a lot of swear words and am untidy. Mama will take little pleasure in me, and I seriously wish I had never had to go to England [...]

 

August 13, 1940

Today I had a letter from home and showed it to Mrs. C. It was the first one I have had from Buffalo [...]

 

August 31, 1940

Everyone comes back with Mrs. W. and [her] dog. I hear that I am chosen to go. Very happy. [...] I cry for a long time because I don’t want to leave England [...]

 

September 16, 1940 Monday

What a day! I ate my breakfast as usual, but when I went to Aunt Esmé’s room afterwards, I knew that something had happened, because all the others had been there with her. She said, "I have news for you, Elisabeth." I looked at her and then said, "What?" "I'm sorry, but you must go." I looked at the floor because I didn’t want her to see my tears, and read the letter, which she pressed into my hand. I didn’t understand a word. I couldn’t manage any longer, I threw myself onto the bed and cried as I hope I never will cry again. She was very kind and let me cry it out, and then she comforted me [...] The simple parting from the Colliers moved me far more than saying goodbye at school. In the afternoon, we had to buy a suitcase and all sorts of other things [...]

 

September 29, 1940 Sunday

This morning we woke up and had to wash in the 1st Class [washroom]. Some ladies were in there and they were very nice, and we chatted a bit [...] At last we saw skyscrapers and New York, but nobody was at the train station. Everybody had someone waiting, and my eyes filled with tears when I saw children with their parents. Finally a lady from the Jewish Committee came and took me, Gina, and a few others into an underground railway and to her office, where she inquired about my name, etc. She asked me whether I knew anyone in New York, and I said, Mrs. Rose, but not her address. But she found the landlady in whose house Mama had lived, who was supposed to pick me up. I sat there and waited, chatted a bit, looked down at the street, kilometers away, and read a magazine, full of murderers and horrid ghosts. All of a sudden two older ladies and a gentleman come to pick me up. I didn’t know them and was quite afraid.

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Accession Number 2000.417
Date Created
February 1, 1939 to August 29, 1940
Page(s) 20
Author / Creator
Ornstein, Elisabeth
Language(s)
English
German
Location
London, United Kingdom
New York, USA
Document Type Diary
How to Cite Museum Materials