A deaf Austrian Jewish family on board the SS Rex, en route from Genoa to New York in May 1940. Among those pictured are Hilda Wiener Rattner (center) and her daughters Nelly (left) and Lilly (right).—US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Hilda Wiener Rattner
Hilda Wiener (later Rattner) was born into a Jewish family in Vienna on June 14, 1904. She was the daughter of Joseph and Mathilde (nee Grunwald) Wiener, and had two older brothers, Rudolph and Emil. Not long after her birth Joseph and Mathilde, a hearing couple, realized that Hilda was deaf. Mathilde was profoundly upset at this and initially did not know how to cope with a deaf child. Two years later, their fourth child, Richard, was born, and he was also deaf. Although Mathilde wanted to have more children, she did not want another deaf child, so on the advice of her doctor she waited seven or eight years before becoming pregnant again and in 1914 gave birth to Isabella (Bella), who was hearing. Emil immigrated to the United States on April 13, 1927, and Bella emigrated to Palestine in the late 1930s.
In the interwar years Austria had several deaf schools, and Vienna in particular had a very vibrant deaf community where Jews and non-Jews mixed freely. In Vienna, Hilda and Richard attended a Jewish school, where they learned to sign. It was through these associations and activities that Hilda met Isadore Rattner, a deaf Jew from Poland. They married, and had three Deaf children: Nelly (born March 21, 1929); a son Joseph (born December 30, 1930) who died at nine months as a result of an accident; and Lilly, (born October 27, 1932). Over the years, various events put a strain on their marriage and they separated some time after Lilly’s birth. Following her separation from Isadore, Hilda and her daughters lived with Hilda’s mother, Mathilde, and brother, Richard. Richard was an accomplished tailor and Hilda a skilled seamstress, so they started a successful business out of their home.
In March of 1938, Germany annexed Austria. As the Nazis consolidated their control and antisemitic laws went into effect, life became increasingly difficult. Nelly and Lilly were prohibited from attending school, and spent their days at home. As Hilda and Isadore prepared to finalize their divorce, an edict prohibiting Jews from divorcing prevented them from it. Strict curfews were imposed, and Jews were only allowed to shop during certain hours. Hilda had to wait in long lines to buy food for the family, and was in constant fear that she would be discovered to be Jewish. She witnessed Nazis humiliating and persecuting Jews in the streets, and Lilly witnessed the temple next door burn to the ground during Kristallnacht. When Hilda saw Adolf Hitler during a military parade, surrounded by saluting Austrians, she realized that she and her family would have to escape. Meanwhile, the area in which they lived, District 2, was in the process of becoming a ghetto. The five Wiener/Rattner family members were forced to live in one room of their apartment, while another family was moved into their other room. One evening, Mathilde heard pounding on the doors of their building, saw flashing lights outside their window, and realized that Nazi raids were underway. The SS officers entered their room and had begun to search, when one officer exchanged glances across the room with Richard. After scrutinizing their papers, which showed that they had all been born in Austria, the officer told the others that there was nothing there and that they could leave. Afterwards, Richard explained that he and the officer knew each other, and had worked together as tailors. The family in the adjoining room, who came from Poland, was eventually deported and sent to a concentration camp.
Hilda began to finalize plans for emigration. Prior to the annexation, her brother Emil had immigrated to the United States, so he was able to supply the family with affidavits and other necessary documents. In addition, they were aided by HIAS (Hebrew Immigration Assistance Society). Finally, in order to take her daughters out of the country, she had to secure the signature of their father, Isadore. Knowing that he would object to their move to the US, she told him that they planned to go to England, or perhaps Israel. They met briefly in the street to complete the paperwork and that was the last time they saw him. In April, 1940, they left quietly in the early morning and traveled by taxi to the train station, then by train to the border of Austria and Italy. There, they waited while the Gestapo inspected the train, searching anyone who they thought looked suspicious, and confiscating any valuables. Fortunately, the family was not detained, as they had a few valuables such as gold jewelry sewn into the shoulder pads of their clothing. They were told that this was the last train that they could have taken out of Austria. After waiting for some time in Italy they secured passage on the SS Rex, an Italian liner setting sail from Genoa. Though they traveled in third class steerage, Nelly and Lilly remember it being a beautiful ship and recalled that they were able to celebrate Passover during the voyage. It was said to be the last ship that they could have taken out of Italy. Later during the war, the Rex was sunk by US bombers who suspected that it was carrying German soldiers.
After a voyage of nine or ten days, they arrived in New York. Lilly remembers the throngs of people waiting at the dock and her mother pointing out the Statue of Liberty to her. Unfortunately, they found that only their hearing grandmother, Mathilde, would be allowed to disembark, because immigration officials were not convinced that four deaf people would be able to support themselves. The following day, they were ferried to Ellis Island, where they remained for five months. While there, Hilda and Richard made dresses for Nelly and Lilly, and even earned a little money sewing for other immigrants there. Tanya Nash, a social worker at the New York Society for the Deaf, visited them frequently and advocated tirelessly for them. They gained admittance to the US in time to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with relatives, but only after immigration officials required that the family pay a $2,500 bond to show that they could support themselves while looking for work. With their brother Emil’s help, Hilda and Richard found employment and apartments, first in the Bronx and later in Brooklyn and Manhattan. After five years of work, they were able to repay the bond loan entirely. In the evenings they attended English classes taught by a deaf teacher from Gallaudet, Alice McVan. Hilde and Richard excelled at their studies and quickly learned enough to pass their citizenship exams.
It was through another student in their class, Fred Fedrid, a deaf Austrian survivor who they had known in Vienna, that they learned the fate of Hilda’s husband, Isadore. He had been sent to a concentration camp with a group of other deaf people and was thought to have died in the gas chambers. Further inquiries with the Red Cross indicated that he had last been seen near Minsk, but no additional information has been verified. In order for Nelly and Lilly to attend school, the family was able to secure the sponsorship of a Jewish philanthropist, Simon E. Osserman, who had a deaf daughter, Beatrice Osserman, and a deaf grandson, Jimmy Stern. Nelly and Lilly attended the Lexington School for the Deaf and there became friends with Jimmy Stern, not realizing until much later that he was the grandson of their benefactor. Hilda never remarried, and went on to reside in Tanya Towers, a home for elderly deaf people in New York City which had been named after their former social worker, Tanya Nash. She died in 1990, at the age of 85. Richard married a deaf survivor, Eva, and had a son. Mathilde moved to Israel to live with her hearing daughter, Bella. Nelly and Lilly grew up to marry deaf men and have both deaf and hearing children. Today, Lilly devotes herself to informing the deaf community about Nazi persecution during the Holocaust from a deaf perspective.
—US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Hilda Wiener Rattner