Leaving Lviv

A writer shares her experience of welcoming two refugees from Lviv, the town in which her great-grandparents lived.

Leaving Lviv
Henry Ebner, aged around age 7, in England, circa 1944. Credit: Joanna Ebner

Last week, I received a phone call from Tara at Refugees at Home, setting the wheels in motion for the arrival of two refugees from Ukraine: a mother and daughter from Lviv, together with their Pomeranian, will move into my home next weekend.

Lviv, Chernivitsi and Vienna

Three years ago, I was in Lviv with my father on a "roots tour” to discover where his family had come from. We travelled across Ukraine: first Kyiv, then Lviv, where his grandparents lived, and on to Chernivtsi (then Czernowitz), the smaller southwestern Ukrainian city where his father, Berthold Ebner, was born. This was one of the final trips my father took before he passed away in October 2020. The irony of my current position would not have been lost on him.

My father himself was a refugee. As a young boy, Berthold moved from Chernivtsi to cosmopolitan Vienna after his father refused to convert to Christianity when offered the post of Solicitor-General. In Vienna, Berthold married Margarethe, and together they happily ran two cinemas and were part of a cultured and assimilated Jewish family. After the Anschluss in March 1938, Bethold was carted off to Dachau then to Buchenwald as a political prisoner for refusing to show Nazi propaganda films.

Domestic servants in Norfolk

A political amnesty in April 1939 opened the possibility of leaving Nazi-occupied Vienna, on the condition of being able to show visas and a promise of employment elsewhere. Jumping through the British government’s many hoops, the family – including my two-year-old father – managed to procure visas offering them work as domestic servants for a vicar in Norfolk. They eventually got out in August 1939, two weeks before the war began.

Leaving the remainder of the family behind (all of whom perished), Berthold, Margarethe and their small son Heinz – later anglicised to Henry – fled the country each with a small suitcase, a few personal belongings and the exit tax. Equipped with a book from the German Jewish Aid Committee and Board of Deputies on how to behave while in the United Kingdom – including the suggestion not to speak German loudly in public – they adjusted to their new country and were able to bring up their son in safety.

A new home

Next weekend, a mother and daughter will arrive from Lviv fleeing a war they fear will soon reach their city. They will be provided with a place to live not by a vicar, but by a practising Jew. They will have a base from which they can begin to rebuild their lives – just as my own family did, almost a century ago.

Joanna Ebner is headmistress at Thomas's School, Kensington and headteacher-elect at Immanuel College School.