One of Britain’s most distinguished academics has revealed his remarkable escape from Nazi-occupied Austria as a young boy.
Peter Mittler, the 80-year-old Emeritus Professor of Special Needs Education at the University of Manchester, is one of the country’s great champions for the intellectually disabled and has advised the government and the United Nations. But as an eight-year-old Jewish boy in Vienna, his parents put him on the Kindertransport – the rescue mission which brought 10,000 children to Britain to escape Nazi persecution.
Prof Mittler has revealed his remarkable flight in a new memoir, Thinking Globally, Acting Locally: A Personal Journey. He tells how his oppression as a child in Hitler’s Austria led to his pioneering work for special needs education and a lifelong determination to fight injustice. And he expresses his eternal gratitude to Britain for taking him in.
“There were children of all ages on the train but there were also adults to look after us,” wrote Prof Mittler. “We were allowed a little carry-on bag and were given a label with a number and our name which the Germans inspected at the Dutch border – and that was the most frightening part. I remember sleeping in a bunk on the way to Harwich and discovering sheets and blankets for the first time – we only knew quilts in Austria. And they gave use bacon and eggs on the boat without understanding that many Jewish people wouldn’t be able to eat that. But the Kindertransport showed Britain at its best: they took 10,000 of us while the United States only took 1,000. I am forever grateful.”
In the months before Prof Mittler’s escape, Jews had their businesses looted, were banned from work and public places, and saw their children thrown out of school.
In his book, Prof Mittler recounts how a stormtrooper appeared at the family’s front door on April 2, 1938 – the day of his eighth birthday party – and ordered his mother to scrub the streets. She handed the man a ‘donation’ to be left alone. When he arrived in Britain, Prof Mittler was taken in by a family of strangers. He would not be reunited with his mother and father – a prominent anti-Nazi Socialist who made it over to work as a research chemist – until 1942.
Prof Mittler became head of Britain’s first research centre for special educational needs at The University of Manchester in 1968. It grew to become the largest of its kind in Europe. Prof Mittler said: “My own oppression led to a lifelong interest in fighting injustice and changing legislation to help people with disabilities.”
Manchester Evening News