British duchess’s 1938 ‘crowdfunding’ campaign saved Jewish family from Nazis

British duchess’s 1938 ‘crowdfunding’ campaign saved Jewish family from Nazis

After Lady Millicent Hawes met a bookseller in occupied Vienna whose wife’s Jewish ancestry put the family in danger, she appealed to newspaper readers to help fund their escape

Portrait of the Duchess of Sutherland in 1904 (John Singer Sargent/Public Domain)
Portrait of the Duchess of Sutherland in 1904 (John Singer Sargent/Public Domain)

An elderly British duchess launched a newspaper-based crowdfunding campaign in 1938 to rescue a Viennese bookseller and his Jewish wife from Nazi persecution, helping to bring them to safety thanks to numerous small donations, The Times reported on Tuesday.

Lady Millicent Hawes, widow of the 4th Duke of Sutherland, traveled to the Austrian capital shortly after the country was annexed to Nazi Germany in the Anschluss in March 1938. Hawes, 70, was in the city to visit her granddaughter, and happened to visit the hotel bookshop which, following the Nazi occupation, was forced to stock numerous copies of Adolf Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf.

According to The Times report (paywall), Hawes entered into a conversation about the dire times with bookseller Karl Buchberger, in his forties, and returned to speak to him over several consecutive days. At one point, he confided in her that though he and his wife were both Catholic, she was considered Jewish under the Nazis’ Nuremberg laws. This put them both at risk, along with their teenage daughter.

Touched by the man’s plight, Hawes promised she would help his family escape the country and reach North America. She then a launched a fundraising campaign, and in a letter to The Times asked for donations to assist the family — eventually raising £400 (worth £26,700 in 2019, or just over $34,000), with which the Buchbergers were able to leave Austria and sail to Canada to start a new life.

Settling down in Toronto, Buchberger opened up a new bookshop, which he ran until his death from a heart attack in 1943. His wife, Mitzi, lived to the age of 90 and passed away in 1983. Their daughter, Herta, continued to run the bookshop for many decades. She died in 2012, aged 91.

The duchess herself lived to the age of 88 and died in 1955.

The story came to light thanks to the research of Herta’s daughter-in-law, Rose Zgodzinski.

In a letter to The Times following the success of the campaign, Lady Hawes expressed her wish to thank “those who added to my own money and enabled me with £400 to send a little group, weeping with gratitude, to Canada.”

She added: “Many who sent small sums — and they were really the small sums that made up the large one — were strangers to me. May God bless them and forgive the tears of gratitude with which we all parted at a Paris station.”

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