Interview Commentary

Friedrich Schlaefrig was a retired Viennese civil servant, sixty-four years of age when Hitler annexed their native Austria to the Third Reich in March 1938. Born in Mistelbach in Lower Austria, Schlaefrig was an architectural engineer by profession and a former ministerial counselor in the Austrian Railroad Ministry. As a former member of the Habsburg imperial bureaucracy, he enjoyed a comfortable pension and the respect of his community. In retirement he divided his time between an old hobby studying the acoustical properties of wooden instruments and service to the Jewish community as head of a local B'nai B'rith chapter. Schlaefrig describes initial Austrian Nazi measures against him and his associates, which were part of an anti-Jewish program that greatly impressed officials from Germany proper. He and his wife were able to send their daughter to England as a domestic servant at that time, but they themselves were unable to find a place of refuge before the Nazis banned emigration in October 1941.

Friedrich Schlaefrig's status as a former Habsburg civil servant and a leading figure in the Vienna Jewish community helped determine that he and his wife would be sent to the "old folks" ghetto at Theresienstadt in occupied Czechoslovakia. Initially placed in the fortress at the edge of town and then moved into Theresienstadt proper, they participated in plucky efforts to make the hideously overcrowded facilities capable of supporting at least some of the prisoners. While his wife worked as a nurse in the infirmary, Schlaefrig volunteered for the camp's technical services, using his engineering skills to pipe clean water into the town. He is obviously proud of an achievement that doubtless saved thousands of lives.

Was Schlaefrig one of the privileged Jews who survived by exploiting their prominent positions and contacts with the camp's Jewish leaders? He takes pains to distance himself from Jewish Council chairman Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein and other camp notables, but Boder's probing of this point implies that he entertained some doubts on the matter. Indeed, later in the interview Schlaefrig reveals that on more than one occasion he was able to get his name removed from lists of prisoners scheduled for deportation to Polish death camps. That happened even when members of the important construction detail were losing their previous immunity to deportation. Moreover, Schlaefrig and his wife enjoyed a "very lovely" private apartment that went with his administrative position in the technical services department during the last months of the ghetto. On the other hand, there is no direct evidence that he was corrupted by power. Otherwise it seems unlikely that he would have been entrusted with important postliberation tasks on behalf of his former fellow captives.

When interviewed at the Paris offices of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in August 1946, Schlaefrig was awaiting a telephone call from Lisbon with information on his ship to South Africa. There he hoped to join his son, who had emigrated before the war.

From FRESH WOUNDS: EARLY NARRATIVES OF HOLOCAUST SURVIVAL by Donald L. Niewyk. Copyright (c) 1998 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.