Vienna and my family history: the trip I will never forget

posted in: Blog, Europe | 6
My sister, Jo (left) and myself, outside the Admiral Kino

It’s hard to pick one trip or journey which changed my life. Or one that is more important to me than any other. I thought about the first time I visited New York with my boyfriend and realised, in that week, how much I loved being with him, enjoyed his company and didn’t want to be without him. We have now been married for 17 years and when I think of New York, I always smile.

I also thought about trips with our children – taking our daughter to the seaside for the first time and hearing her squeal with happiness as the waves licked over her feet; waving at her as she sat in a baby chair on the back of my husband’s bike or burying her feet in the sand on a beach in Lanzarote. And then there is the happiness as a family of four, the contentment of vacationing as the children grow up and are becoming increasingly good holiday companions.

Instead, I am writing about a very unusual trip which I made. It was just me and my older sister on a very important journey indeed.

We arrived in Vienna in November 2011 and it was all faintly unreal, especially as I walked into the Admiral Kino on the Burgasse, one of the last neighbourhood cinemas operating in Vienna which is not a multiplex.

My grandmother’s cinema licence for the Admiral Kino in 1938, dated a few months before the Anschluss

I felt as if I had stepped back in time as I explored this place, which is a strong part of my family’s history. Long ago it belonged to my grandmother, Margarethe Ebner. She ran it with my grandfather, Berthold.

However, that was another era. That was before my grandfather was arrested for refusing to show Nazi propaganda films. It’s before he was sent to Dachau and Buchenwald for 13 months, and it’s before my grandmother, left with a small baby (my father Henry, then called Heinz), somehow managed to get the three of them out of the country. They arrived in England two weeks before the start of the Second World War.

I had never been inside the Admiral Kino before that trip to Vienna. And I was unprepared when the current owner, Michaela Englert, showed me into the auditorium.

I expected a normal cinema, but instead felt a little light-headed as I walked through the door. It was as if I was going back in time and almost surreal as the room looked so old-fashioned, from the period lights on the wall to the plain seating and decor. I am sure that it hadn’t changed much since my grandparents were here in the 1930s.

My reaction caught me by surprise. I never met my grandfather, who died before I was born (my son, Robert, is named for him) and yet (and I know this sounds strange) I felt as if I could sense him and my grandmother in this small room. It was as if something of them remained there, before their lives changed irrevocably.

I was in Vienna, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but with a less than beautiful 20th-century history, for the screening of Double Exposure: Jewish refugees from Austria in Britain. This documentary is made up of interviews with 25 refugees from Austria who settled in the UK, including my father, who was the youngest to feature.

When she was arranging to take the exhibition to Vienna (where it was on at the Literaturhaus), the maker of the film, Dr Bea Lewkowicz, asked if there was somewhere nearby to screen it.

“When I was told that the nearest cinema was the Admiral Kino, I nearly fell off my chair,” she told me. “Your father hadn’t said that it was still going.”

Unfortunately my father couldn’t attend, so my sister and I decided to represent him. I don’t think I realised how emotional it would be, how strange to feel part of other people’s memories.

The exhibition is a photographic display of the 25 refugees. They include some well-known names, such as the violinist Norbert Brainin (famous for the Amadeus Quartet), historian Richard Grunberger (author of A Social History of the Third Reich) and the composer Joseph Horovitz.

Both film and exhibition are incredibly moving. Many of the people included have strong, clear memories of their Viennese childhoods, of coffee houses and delicious whipped cream. Then they recall the sudden, horrendous changes in their lives after 1938, the friends who deserted them, the whisperings of their concerned parents, and the struggle to leave their homes.

The Germans moved into Austria to widespread acclaim on March 12 1938. This was the Anchluss (annexation) and the Jewish population of Austria at that time is estimated to have been around 200,000, of whom around 180,000 lived in Vienna. Around 65,000 were killed in the war.

Some of the stories in the film are extremely painful. As most interviewees were children at the time, they recall leaving their parents and never seeing them again. Otto Deutsch, who, aged 83, also attended the Vienna screening, told of how his sister was eight months too old to be included on the Kindertransporte (where thousands of children, aged between 6 and 16, were allowed into the UK). He never saw her, or his parents, again, but remembers his sister running alongside his train as he left, telling him to be a “good boy”.

My father, Henry, on screen during the documentary

Another interviewee, Gina Gerson, left with her sister. At the end of August 1939, she was thrilled to receive a telegram from their parents, who had somehow managed to get visas and reported that they would arrive on September 6. War broke out on the 3rd and they never made it.

My grandparents were “expropriated” of their cinemas within days of the Germans’ arrival (they also owned the Johann Strauss Kino which is no longer in existence). The stormtroopers also took all their cash and jewellery. They were very fortunate to get domestic visas to England; many of their relatives, including my grandmother’s mother, were not so lucky and died in Auschwitz. Meanwhile, the Ebners ended up in the tiny Norfolk village of Binham, where they became butler and cook to the Reverend Carroll and his two spinster sisters.

Everyone’s story matters, wherever it is told. And yet hearing the stories while in Vienna gave them so much more poignancy. Many of the interviewees felt conflicted, still Austrian (Viennese in most cases) and yet so grateful to Britain for offering them refuge, for saving them. And I felt conflicted too, as if I shouldn’t have been there. As if, in a different world, I would never have been born, and my Viennese father might still be welcoming people to the Admiral Kino.

To find out more information about, and to access the interviews in the documentary, visit, which contains most of the Jewish-Austrian interviews featured in Double Exposure.


6 Responses

  1. Andy

    I think that it is so great to connect with you family’s history. It really helps you to truly connect with who you are at the core. Thanks for sharing.

    • Sarah Ebner

      Thank you Chris. The cinema has just celebrated its 100th birthday and my father and brother have gone to a special screening to mark this. I really think my grandparents would be pleased (and proud).

  2. BavarianSojourn

    What an amazing family history you have, It must have been very emotional for you to visit, and I am so glad the cinema is still there so you could see it for yourselves. Thanks for commenting on my post! Emma 🙂

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