LONDON — Just before midnight on March 18, 1939, Fredi Stiller was awoken by noise coming from the street below. Looking out of the window, the 10-year-old boy saw German soldiers marching into Ostrava’s town square.
Ten days later, Stiller left the city in eastern Czechoslovakia on a train bound for England. He was taking the place of an older boy — the son of one of his widowed mother’s friends — for whom a place in Britain had been secured, but was now prevented from leaving by the Germans.
As he waved goodbye, Stiller did not know that this would be the last time he would see his mother and two teenage sisters. Like much of Ostrava’s once thriving, 10,000-strong Jewish community, they did not survive the Holocaust. Rounded up, they were sent to a ghetto, then to Theresienstadt and finally to their deaths at Treblinka.
Stiller, who could speak only three words of English when he arrived in Britain, was initially looked after by a schoolteacher, Philip Austin.
Years later, at 18, Fred Austin, as he was now known, secured a place at university. He married a fellow student, Margaret, who came from a Methodist home in Lincolnshire. The couple adopted four children, who were not raised Jewish.
Separated from his family as a child and brought up by non-Jewish Britons, the Austin patriarch’s formal connection to Judaism was lost when he arrived in the UK. In later life, though, that bond was re-established.
Fred Austin went into teaching, later becoming headmaster of a school in Dudley, a town in the West Midlands, close to Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city.
Today, that town is represented in the House of Commons by one of the couple’s four adopted children, Ian Austin.
Austin, who served as an adviser to former prime minister Gordon Brown before becoming a minister in his government, is now one of the most consistent, prominent and vocal critics of Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn and his hard left agenda.
With the party roiled by ongoing allegations of anti-Semitism, and its leadership dominated by virulently anti-Israel attitudes, he is one of the Jewish state’s staunchest supporters in parliament and one of the community’s closest friends.
“This is a crisis,” Austin says of Labour’s problems with anti-Semitism. “We have got to face up to it and sort it out.”
Austin calls for a “zero-tolerance” approach to bigotry within the party, strongly condemns Corbyn’s former membership in a secret Facebook group which contained Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites, and labels anti-Israel activism on UK campuses a “complete disgrace.”
His moxie earned him a place on the shortlist for last month’s Jewish News awards in the “communal ally of the year” category, designed to reward “a non-Jewish hero who has used their voice to fight anti-Semitism or delegitimization of Israel or has simply supported the community in the media, in politics or elsewhere over the last two years.”
Austin’s politics and his father’s story are inextricably linked. As he told Parliament in a speech to mark Holocaust Memorial Day in 2012: “I was brought up hearing about the Holocaust from my parents and hearing stories about the suffering and the appalling cruelty and the scale of the slaughter.
“That left me with a lifelong conviction that prejudice leads to intolerance, then to victimization and eventually to persecution, and that every one of us has a duty not to stand by, but to make a difference — to fight discrimination, intolerance and bigotry wherever we find it,” Austin said.
Austin recalls vividly his father crying as they watched a television series about the Holocaust together in the 1970s.
But that turbulent decade was also a time when support for the far-right National Front was on the rise.
“The impact of racism and fascism were the first political things I thought about as a teenager and led to my interest in politics,” Austin tells The Times of Israel.
Austin is thus angered and dismayed by the accusations of anti-Semitism which now dog his party.
“One of the appalling things about the position that the Labour party is in now is that that is one of things that resulted in me becoming interested in politics,” he argues.
He is similarly incensed by the recent revelations about Corbyn’s former membership in the secret Palestine Live Facebook group, which he brands “a sewer of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.”
I don’t see how he could not have noticed the stench
“Of course, while he did not say those things himself, I don’t see how he could not have noticed the stench,” Austin says. “I just find it really shocking.”
When Labour last year failed to expel former London mayor Ken Livingstone after he had suggested that Hitler supported Zionism, Austin called it a “moment of great shame” and suggested the party owed the Jewish community an apology.
One year on he has even less confidence in Labour’s handling of the issue.
“I’m more concerned because we have had a year and we have done nothing. There’s been no investigation into Ken Livingstone. He remains a member of the Labour party. People talk about whether he will be allowed back in — he was never actually kicked out,” Austin says.
Technically, Livingstone remains suspended from the party.
“Anyone guilty of anti-Semitism or any form of racism has got to be booted out immediately and there has to be no room for them,” he says. “What Ken Livingstone has said about Hitler and the Zionists is anti-Semitism pure and simple. When people compare Israel with the Nazis, it’s totally unacceptable. People with views like that should not be in the Labour party.”
Austin is unimpressed by Labour’s decision to allow some people accused of anti-Semitism to remain in the party after they have completed an awareness training course. “The idea is ridiculous, it’s just ridiculous,” he says.
Austin cites a 2016 poll which shows Jewish support for the party has slumped to just eight per cent — “that’s probably ambitious now” — but says the issue is not about politics.
“A political party which can only command eight percent of any group of Britons, whether it be British Muslims or the Afro-Caribbean community, doesn’t really deserve the support of anybody else,” Austin says.
A political party which can only command eight percent of any group of Britons doesn’t really deserve the support of anybody else
“I am not saying we have got to sort this out so that we can win an election,” he continues. “I am saying if a party has lost the trust of a community, you’ve got to ask yourself serious questions about whether you are fit to govern and you have got to sort that out before you can ask people to vote for you.”
Austin is similarly uncompromising when it comes to the anti-Israel activism on Britain’s college campuses. He has spoken out repeatedly against Israel Apartheid Week and the continuing attempts to disrupt events featuring Israeli speakers.
Marked by weeklong series of events held around the world between February and April, Israel Apartheid Week is currently being marked in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“Israel Apartheid Week is a complete disgrace,” says Austin. “Apartheid was a strictly enforced system of racial segregation where black people and white people weren’t allowed to get married or live in the same areas. Israel could not be further than that. In South Africa, the legal system enforced racism and segregation; in Israel it does the opposite.”
(It must be noted that in Israel, there is no civil marriage and members of different faiths cannot legally be married inside the country. However, if married abroad, mixed-faith couples’ marriages are officially recognized by the state.)
“The whole purpose of Israel Apartheid Week is to demonize Israel and to tell young people who have never been to Israel — many of whom have never met anybody from Israel or a Jewish person — lies about the Middle East’s only democracy,” Austin says. “I am in favor of free speech, but I don’t think that you can have events on campuses where the purpose is to tell lies and to smear and to demonize.”
Austin says that he doesn’t believe that every critic of Israel is anti-Semitic. He also makes clear his own differences with the Israeli government.
“I want to see a peace process. I want to see an Israeli government much more committed to make that happen. I’m worried about the settlements,” he says.
However, he believes that “for some people this is an obsession, and their criticism of Israel goes beyond reasonable criticism and into something which is anti-Semitic.”
“Syria is in the most terrible turmoil — millions displaced, hundreds of thousands dead; Libya in carnage; Iran under a terrible dictatorship; look at what’s happening in Yemen; turmoil in Egypt — and some people in Britain say that this tiny little country of 8 million people is the cause of all the problems in the Middle East. What is it about Israel and the people who live there that leads to that obsession — what could it possibly be?” asks Austin.
Some people in Britain say that this tiny little country of 8 million people is the cause of all the problems in the Middle East. What is it about Israel and the people who live there that leads to that obsession?
Austin says that his father’s background, and the knowledge that Europe’s Jews lacked a safe haven in the 1930s, made him an “instinctive” supporter of Israel. But, he suggests, his attachment is not simply an emotional one.
“I think that the rest of the Middle East should be looking at Israel and learning from it,” Austin says. “If those countries had done what Israel has done in the past 70 years, think what a different place the Middle East would be. Israel is a beacon of democracy in a really difficult part of the world. If you look at the technological advancements, the contribution to culture — all of these things, it’s been remarkable.”
Austin, who supports the creation of a Palestinian state, believes that Britain could do more to support Israel and the peace process. Last month, he and the chair of Labour Friends of Israel, Joan Ryan, attacked the government for failing to pressure the Palestinian Authority to tackle incitement.
They called for British aid to the PA to be cut as long as it pays salaries to terrorist prisoners serving time in Israeli jails, with the money diverted instead into coexistence work and educational projects in the West Bank which support peace.
“When we say cut support, we are not saying cut support for the Palestinians but cut support for the Palestinian Authority, and instead that money should be used to get people working together and young Israelis and young Palestinians working together, because I think that’s the building blocks for the peace process that I want to see,” Austin says.
Austin also joined Ryan in pushing for Britain to ban both Hezbollah’s political and military wings — the UK only proscribes the latter — during a debate in parliament in January. He dismisses the government’s suggestion that it cannot bar Hezbollah in its entirety without hindering dialogue with the Lebanese government.
The idea that Hezbollah has got any role in a positive contribution to make peace is ludicrous
“There’s an idea that this would hinder the peace process, but the idea that Hezbollah has got any role in a positive contribution to make peace is ludicrous,” he says.
Next month, along with representatives of the Conservative party, Austin and Ryan will travel to Poland to participate in the March of the Living, an international, educational program that brings Jewish people from all over the world to Poland on Yom Hashoah (Israel’s Holocaust Commemoration Day) to march from Auschwitz to Birkenau.
A keen supporter of the work of the Holocaust Education Trust, Austin has visited Auschwitz previously, but believes that this visiting the scene of “history’s greatest crime” with survivors will be “a very powerful and moving thing to do.”
Thanks to Austin’s work, Dudley — a town with no Jewish community — now stages one of Britain’s largest annual commemorations on Holocaust Memorial Day (which takes place on January 27 in the UK to mark the liberation of Auschwitz).
Austin recalls attending the event for the first as the town’s MP. “There were eight people there and three were me, my mum and dad,” he jokes.
Today, over 400 people attend what has become a major civic event.
Today, Fred Austin gives talks on the impact of the Holocaust on his family, and has written a book on the subject.
Six years ago, Ian Austin traveled to Ostrava with his father for the first time. They found the site of the synagogue — then one of six — and the Jewish school Fredi Stiller had attended nearly eight decades ago. The single room which now serves as the city’s synagogue has seats for just 30 people.
In the same year, some of his former pupils organized a bar mitzvah for 83-year-old Fred Austin — a milestone that his escape from Ostrava and separation from his family meant he never had.
It was, his son remembers, “a beautiful, lovely, very moving day.”