Immigrant Stories: Austrian-born man flees Nazi occupation
This interview with Dr. George Mizner is a collaboration of the Vail Public Library and the Immigrant Stories Project.
Mizner: I was born in Vienna, Austria, to a well-to-do, sectarian Jewish family. For the first years of my life we lived in a villa on the outskirts of Vienna, and then we moved to the Ringstrasse in the heart of the city, near the opera and the park.
We spent summers in the country and took ski vacations to Kitzbuehel most winters. In March of 1938 we watched from our apartment as Hitler road through the Ringstrasse standing in the back of a Mercedes convertible followed by thousands of soldiers.
Gallacher: What was it like to witness that?
Mizner: I was just 8 years old and didn’t fully understand the implications of what I was seeing, but I could sense my parents’ and grandparents’ unease. Two months later we left Austria.
Gallacher: Were there events that your family witnessed that foreshadowed Hitler’s invasion?
Mizner: My grandfather was the oldest of 10 children and grew up in a small Hungarian village. He came to Vienna as a young man and built a very successful magazine publishing business. He had no enemies, that he was aware of, and couldn’t understand why anyone would want to harm him.
It was my mother who realized that this was an existential threat. She insisted that our family leave and convinced my grandparents to flee, as well. We eventually ended up in England, and my grandparents made their way to New York. My grandfather died shortly after they arrived.
Gallacher: What did your mother see that your grandfather didn’t?
Mizner: Well anti-Semitism had been a feature of European life for many years, throughout history, really. Hitler was clearly anti-Semitic and persecuted the Jews. He took advantage of the enormous inflation and recession after World War I to mobilize German workers who felt they had been deprived. He was able to convince them that Jews were responsible for the country’s problems.
After Hitler marched in we continued to go to school some days but on other days the school was closed. On our first days back at school we were instructed to glue shut the pages of our textbooks where there were poems or writings by Jewish authors.
Jewish men were being stopped in the streets, spat upon and forced to kiss the boots of Nazi officers. And even though we had been baptized as Catholics, Hitler said it didn’t matter. If you were born Jewish you were Jewish.
The handwriting was literally on the wall. We had to leave. Some of our close friends had left years before, and others left just before Hitler arrived. We were lucky to get out. We left on the Orient Express and traveled south into Yugoslavia.
In an effort to salvage something of value, my mother had taped all her jewelry around her body. When the train was stopped at the border, the Nazis sent a woman into our sleep compartment to search my mother and make sure she wasn’t smuggling anything, but when she saw that my brother was sleeping she let us go.
Gallacher: Where was your father at this time?
Mizner: He had stayed behind to see what he could salvage of our textile business. He joined us two weeks later carrying my goldfish in a bowl. That was the extent of what he was able to salvage. I was very pleased, but my mother was furious that he had been unable to bring any of our possessions.
Gallacher: Were you aware how desperate this was?
Mizner: I was aware that something major was going on, but on this first leg of our journey I was not afraid. Later in our trip, there was a time when it looked like the Nazis were going to take my mother away, and that terrified me.
And then there was the time, during our year of wandering, when my mother had to place my brother and me in a Catholic monastery school run by Serbian monks while she went to take care of my grandfather. The monks were extremely cruel to us. I don’t know if it was because we were Austrian or because we were Jewish. They spoke to us in Serbian, a language we didn’t understand, and when we couldn’t answer they beat us.
We were only there a month, but a month is a very long time when you are being abused. I think this was the closest I have been in my life to committing suicide.
I have looked back on that experience throughout my life. It taught me that all of life’s difficult experiences could be endured if I did my best and persisted and continued to hope for a better day.
Gallacher: Where did your mother take you after the monastery?
Mizner: We spent a short time in Belgrade with my father. Living together in that small apartment helped me realize that my parents’ marriage was in serious trouble. From there we moved on to France for three months, and then on to England, but my father stayed behind and joined the French Resistance and fought the Germans in the south of France.
Our years in England were not easy. We were separated from our mother for much of that time. Initially she could only find work as a domestic, but she eventually became a matron in a girls’ school in a nearby town. We were placed with an English family that took in refugee children and got to see our mother one afternoon a month.
Gallacher: From your child’s perspective it must have felt as if your world had collapsed.
Mizner: Yes, it did, but I was good at soccer and rugby, and I used sports as a way to excel at school and feel reasonably good about myself. It wasn’t until I was 14 that I started to take academics seriously.
Gallacher: What was this time like for your brother?
Mizner: You know I always thought that it was easier on him than it was on me. But I was mistaken. Later in life, he became Chairman of the English Department at Colby College and taught a course on the Holocaust, and it became clear to me then that our experience had been even more difficult for him. I realized that the separation from our parents had had a profound affect on him.
I think it helped both of us to begin identifying as English early in life. England welcomed us and took us in.
Gallacher: So at 14 you began to get a different sense about yourself and the world?
Mizner: Yes, I got a sense of myself as someone who was not only competent athletically but academically, as well. The war in Europe ended in May of 1945 just before my 15th birthday. It was around this time that my mother asked me if I wanted to move to the United States.
So in late December of 1945, we got on an old DC 3 and flew to the United States via Reykjavik, Iceland, in a terrible storm. I remember the stewardess holding my head as I vomited in the toilet and me holding her head as she vomited.
We landed in Reykjavik and refueled and headed on to New York City, but the storm was so bad that the New York airports were closed. We landed in Mungton, Canada, and continued on the next day. The storm had subsided, but the city was buried in snow.
We found a place to live, and mother enrolled us in Stuyvesant School in the City.
Gallacher: What did your mother do for work?
Mizner: One of her old friends from Vienna ran a dress shop on Madison Avenue, and she went to work for her.
Gallacher: Did you ever see your father again?
Mizner: Yes, in May of 1947, I skipped my graduation from Stuyvesant High School and, with my mother and brother, boarded a Greek merchant ship and sailed for Europe where we met my father. It was the first time I had seen him in seven years. The war had aged him.
My brother and I had hopes that our parents would get back together, but he had met a German woman in the Resistance. She seemed to be a much better match for him.
We spent the summer in the south of France and returned to the United States to continue our studies.
Note: George went on to receive scholarships to Antioch College and the University of Rochester medical schools. He did his post-graduate training in pediatrics and psychiatry at Yale and Rochester. He went on to serve in the U.S. Air Force Medical Corps in Bitburg, Germany.
In 1963 , he accepted a position in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado Medical School in Denver. He went on to serve as the school’s head of adult psychiatry and eventually became president of the Colorado Psychiatric Society. He retired in 1982.
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