A Girl’s Exile across the Sea: The Life Story of Grete Glauber
Grete Glauber’s article, “My First Impression of England, ” is one of the many artefacts that caught my attention during my Collections Placement at the Jewish Museum London. Her positive tone and confident writing form a strong contrast to the circumstances that brought her to England. Grete is one of approximately ten thousand children who arrived in England through Kindertransport, a rescue mission that aimed to evacuate Jewish children from Nazi-controlled regions. With the museum’s extensive collection of letters and correspondence related to Grete, I was able to piece together a comprehensive biography of her life.
Grete was born on May 6, 1930, in Vienna as the daughter of Elsa Glauber and Ioan Heller, although her parents never officially married. She lived at 16 Untere Augartenstrasse with her mother and developed strong friendships with their neighbours, including Marie Miserowsky, who acted as a grandmother figure to Grete and was nicknamed Tetamama. Grete attended the People’s Schools for Boys and Girls (Volksschule für Knaben-Mädchen ), received excellent marks in courses such as writing, reading, and local history, and good marks in singing, women’s handwork, and religion.
Unfortunately, the peaceful life in Vienna was short-lived. Following the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, the organised atrocities of Kristallnacht prompted many Jews to finally make the decision to leave their homeland. With the help of Tetamama, Grete and Elsa managed to establish contact with Olive Rudkin, a school mistress in England who was willing to provide shelter and protection for Grete.
On April 25, 1939, Grete withdrew from her school in Vienna and embarked on a train journey with a “stateless passport” issued by the Third Reich and a printed ID card from the Inter-Aid Committee, one of the organisations involved in bringing refugee children to England. She arrived in Harwich on April 27, 1939. Throughout this period and the months afterwards, Grete, Mrs. Rudkin, Elsa, and Tetamama constantly exchanged letters filled with hopeful wishes for a future reunion. Elsa mentioned the possibility of receiving a visa within six weeks in her July 1st letter, narrowing it down to the end of August in her letter dated July 12th. In her letter of July 23rd , she stated that she had “received a permit on the 18th and hoped to depart from Vienna between August 15th and 20th.”
Little did Elsa know that the hug she gave Grete before the Kindertransport would be their last encounter. According to Elsa’s letter , her permit only allowed her to leave on August 29, 1939, but the last train to England had departed on the 27th. Devastated by the missed opportunity, Elsa desperately explored other possibilities of exile, including going to Hungary (her birthplace) or applying for shelter as a Hungarian citizen. However, the outbreak of war made the situation even more dire. On November 12, 1942, she sent a final letter to Tetamama before disappearing, presumably taken to the concentration camps. In the letter, Elsa wrote: “I have only one last request for you, my lovely Teta Mama [sic]. You know where my Grete is living at the moment. The war will be over sometime, and then it will be possible for you to get in touch with her; then tell her my last breath as well as my last thought belongs to her only… How much I would give to see her once again.”
Grete only became certain about her mother’s fate after the war. However, she was not uncared for during this time. Olive Rudkin loved and supported her as if she were her own daughter. During the Blitz– the bombing of London from September 1940 to May 1941, Rudkin inquired with the Refugee Children’s Movement about evacuating Grete to the safety of the countryside. Tetamama and Grete’s uncle Willi constantly wrote encouraging letters to her. At the same time, Grete continued her education at Enfield County School for Girls. Despite starting with minimal knowledge of English, she persevered in learning and achieved satisfactory results in her studies. Her aforementioned essay, “My First Impression of England,” was written as a school assignment.
On November 6, 1947, Grete Glauber became a naturalised British citizen. In May 1948, she was adopted by Olive Rudkin and was subsequently referred to as Grete Rudkin in some documents. Following in Rudkin’s footsteps, Grete pursued a career in teaching and received numerous recommendations from her training and work supervisors. One referee described her as “a pleasant, cultured young lady with a keen interest in most intellectual matters, ” while another commented that she “made good progress as a teacher”. She worked diligently until her early retirement in 1969 due to ill-health. Subsequently, she engaged in part-time teaching and continued to help those in need. To provide an example, a letter dated July 2, 1970 from the Welfare Department of Devon County Council expressed gratitude for Grete’s efforts in teaching a visually-impaired girl, who became “happier, more animated, and much more alert” under Grete’s supervision.
Grete’s story is one of loss and struggle, but it is also a story of love and hope. The war forced her into exile and took her mother away. However, she found protection, care, and love from both related and unrelated individuals. Despite the atrocities committed by the Nazis, she was able to grow up, become a teacher and live a fulfilling life thanks to her persistence and the help from all the passionate people who extended a helping hand.
While this brief biography strives to be comprehensive, it is unable to cover the extensive materials the museum has on Grete Glauber. Similarly, Grete’s story is just one of many accounts of Kindertransport kept by the museum. These stories from the past remind us of the current experiences of refugee children fleeing from war, conflicts, and persecution. It prompts us to ask ourselves: What can we do to help?
Key documents consulted:
1993.74.14 My First Impressions of England (told by a foreigner)
1922.214.171.124 Letter from Elsa Glauber to Olive Rudkin with note to Grete Glauber added in English by Olive, September 1939
1993.74.3 Inter-Aid Committee for Children ID card of Grete Glauber
19126.96.36.199 Final letter from Elsa Glauber to Tetamamma, 12 November(?) 1942
1993.74.50 Certificate of Naturalisation granted to Grete Glauber
19188.8.131.52 Recommendation letter for Grete Rudkin, 1955