Austria refugee home inspired by Holocaust experience saved by former resident

Ex-asylum seeker buys house, the legacy of Jewish actor, writer Otto Tausig, who helped found it after Nazis forced him into exile; it’s named for grandmother who died in a camp

Sukhdeep Singh stands in front of the Laura Gatner House in Hirtenberg near Baden, Lower Austria, where he used to live, on January 22, 2021. (ALEX HALADA / AFP)
Sukhdeep Singh stands in front of the Laura Gatner House in Hirtenberg near Baden, Lower Austria, where he used to live, on January 22, 2021. (ALEX HALADA / AFP)

BADEN, Austria (AFP) — The white paint has not yet dried, but as Sukhdeep Singh walks through the house where he used to live in the Austrian town of Baden, he is already picturing the refugees who — thanks to him — will soon be calling it home.

It was where he himself lived after he left his native Punjab region of India as a teenager to start a new life in Europe.

When the Christian organization that previously ran the site as a home for unaccompanied migrant children said it was impossible to continue running it, Singh stepped in to save it from being sold to developers.

“I didn’t want anyone to buy it who had no connection to the house and its history,” says Singh, now married with three small children.

The Laura Gatner house in Hirtenberg near Baden, Lower Austria, on January 22, 2021. (ALEX HALADA/AFP)

Singh’s connection to the house and its founder is a deep one.

The story begins with his arduous journey through Russia and Eastern Europe before arriving in Austria and at the Laura Gatner House, a shelter for about 50 unaccompanied youths.

“To be honest, my first impression was horrible,” Singh recalls.

On the top floor of the three-story house, he points from one corner of a 12-meter-square room to another. “Here was my bed, and here was the second bed,” he says of the space he shared with a teen from Afghanistan.

But over the six years he spent here, he learned to speak the language, made friends and played football.

The nondescript house in an industrial area came to symbolize perseverance and benevolence for Singh.

Holocaust memories

Key to Singh’s fond memories of the home is his bond with Jewish actor and writer Otto Tausig, who was key in setting up the house after his own experience of being forced into exile by the Nazis.

Tausig dedicated the latter half of his life to charity. He helped hundreds of children working in mines in India as well as refugees in Austria.

Otto Tausig at the gala for the Nestroy-Theaterpreis in Vienna where he was awarded for his lifework, October 12 2009. (CC BY-SA 3.0 Manfred Werner/Wikipedia)

After raising the funds to buy the house — including a large personal donation — Tausig gifted it to Protestant charity Diakonie for use as a shelter for youths who, like him, had left their own homelands.

The house is named after Tausig’s grandmother, Laura Gatner, who died in a Nazi concentration camp.

Social workers, teachers and psychologists here helped Singh understand the local culture and master the language. He says he was treated with respect, and graduated from technical high school.

And Tausig became something of a mentor to him personally. When Singh went on to a degree at the Technical University, it was Tausig who sponsored him.

No longer welcome

Singh, now in his mid-30s and a project manager at multinational Siemens, learned from an old friend that the building he’d called home was to be sold.

Diakonie says the decision was made due to “insufficient referrals” of residents coming from the regional authorities in Lower Austria.

As the EU has fortified its borders in recent years, the rate of new arrivals has plummeted.

The number of “unaccompanied underaged asylum-seekers” went from 8,300 in 2015 to just 390 three years later.

At the same time, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has prided himself on his tough anti-migration stances, winning many voters from the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) in the process.

“The welcome I received, it is not the same anymore,” Singh says.

The new Laura Gatner house, however, will be an antidote, with red, blue and yellow mosaic tiles spelling her name still gracing the hallways.

Reconstruction work under way on at the Laura Gatner house in Hirtenberg near Baden, Lower Austria, January 22, 2021. (ALEX HALADA / AFP)

Though most of the 16 apartments will have to be rented out at a profit to pay off the mortgage, at least four will be reserved for asylum-seeker families — who will not be expected to pay a set rent.

A young mother and her 12-year-old daughter, currently in a government-run asylum center, will be among the first residents.

“Can you imagine the girl in this center, where she can’t even study?” Singh says.

The apartment for the two of them will include a separate space for the girl to study.

A further three families are expected to find a home here when construction is finished in March, the same month Singh arrived here in 2003.

Singh is proud of his achievements, and of carrying on Tausig’s legacy.

“If you look for a role model, don’t look towards those who are rich, who have a lot of money,” he says. “Look to those who have a big heart.”

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