Exodus from Vienna

Patrick Ferry and Angus Davison
Monday, 20 June 2022

Following the Nazi annexation of Austria in March 1938, many members of Vienna's Jewish community fled, seeking refuge overseas. Among them were Michael and Regine Weiss and their family.

A prosperous Viennese family

Vienna in the 1930s was home to over 176,000 Jewish residents – about 9% of the city's population. Jewish residents made profound contributions to the vibrant business, professional, intellectual and cultural life of Vienna.

Michael and Regine Weiss owned a department store. Family tradition says the family business also supplied shoes to Myers in Melbourne.

Max and Regine had two children: Alexander and Kathe. Alexander went into business, while Kathe was a talented concert pianist. Kathe and her husband Arthur Neumann mixed in Vienna’s cultural and intellectual circles. Kathe even used to attend Sigmund Freud's lectures.

Antisemitism escalates

Antisemitism was always strong in Vienna. This reached fever pitch following the Nazi takeover. After their sons were publicly humiliated by their teachers and classmates for being Jewish, and sensing worse to come, Kathe and Arthur decided to leave Vienna. The family arrived in Melbourne in October 1938, relieved to be as far away from Europe as possible.

The following month, during 'Kristallnacht', Viennese synagogues were destroyed and Jewish businesses ransacked. Soon, the Nazis forced Michael to 'sell' his business.

Anxious about Michael and Regine's safety, Arthur urgently applied to sponsor them to enter Australia in November 1938. They were among the lucky few granted visas at a time when the Australian government was limiting Jewish migration, despite the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Europe.

An odyssey from Austria to Australia

By the time the Nazis permitted Michael and Regine to leave Vienna in January 1940, their Australian visas had expired. Undaunted, Michael and Regine made their way to Italy, travelling on passports ominously stamped by the Nazis with 'J' in red ink.

Michael and Regine then sailed to Shanghai, one of the few places still open to Jewish refugees. There, they got their Australian visas extended. The final leg of their journey took them via Nagasaki, Manila and Thursday Island. When Michael and Regine finally arrived in Melbourne on 23 May 1940, it was 5 months since they fled Vienna.

Michael and Regine's son Alexander and his family fled Vienna too, but got stranded in Shanghai for the rest of the war.

Enemy aliens

Despite fleeing Nazi persecution, Michael and Regine were regarded as 'enemy aliens' in Australia. Instead of being interned, they were granted 'parole', reporting to the police each month. Their movements were also restricted. Arthur and Kathe needed special permission to buy a home.

Trauma and assimilation

Although they had escaped the fate of other relatives murdered during the Holocaust, Michael, Regine and their family still suffered significant trauma. They rarely spoke of their own experiences as refugees.

Instead, they sought to assimilate into Australian society as much as possible. Arthur and Kathe changed their surname to 'Newman' and converted to Anglicanism. After finally making it to Australia in 1946, Alexander and his family also changed their surname, to 'White'.

Rich legacies

Michael Weiss passed away in 1945 followed by Regine in 1962.

Their descendants in Australia have since made significant contributions in fields as diverse as nuclear physics, medicine, psychiatry, law and the arts. One of Michael and Regine's great-grandchildren is Professor Louise Newman AM, a leading expert in the psychological trauma suffered by refugees and asylum seekers.

We thank Michael and Regine Weiss's great-grandchildren Eugene White, Naomi White and Louise Newman for contributing additional information about their family for this story.