Coun Franz Moritz von aLacy marble bust HGM

I expect that this letter will be terribly long”: Hans (John) Kautsky’s First Letter from the U.S.A.

By Jacqueline Vansant 

Sometime between March and April of 1938, a small group of 15 and 16 year-old schoolboys of Jewish heritage stood on a bridge over the Danube Canal in central Vienna and said good-bye to each other “forever.” Because the persecution of Austrian Jews, which had begun immediately after the Anschluss in March 1938, was particularly virulent, the boys and their parents knew that they had to flee the new Nazi regime as quickly as possible. When these classmates from the prestigious Bundesrealgymnasium Wien 1 met for the last time, they did not know what would become of them, but they promised one another that whatever happened they would do their best to maintain ties. The boys’ original promise resulted in an extraordinary group correspondence or Rundbrief that stretched over fifteen years and criss-crossed three continents.

The classmates turned to the Rundbrief, which was a popular form at the time for groups to stay in touch [1]. Once the path for a round was established, the pile of letters would grow as it traveled from classmate to classmate. Because of the historical circumstances, this group was faced with obstacles that could have easily meant the death of the exchange. To prevent this, the boys were constantly thinking of ways to ensure its survival. For example, they reported any change in their address not to one, but to multiple participants; they wrote individual postcards and letters to any they had not heard from in a while; and, after the war broke out in 1939, they switched almost seamlessly to English believing the letters would pass through the censors more quickly.

One of the most dedicated correspondents was Hans Kautsky, who fled the Anschluss with his parents in August 1938. After a year-long stay in London, the Kautskys immigrated to the United States in November 1939, where Hans quickly adapted to his new life. He Americanized his name, first to Jack and then to John, enrolled in college, and earned money mowing lawns. In 1943 he was drafted into the military, during which time he became a naturalized citizen. After the war he completed his B.A. and M.A. at the University of Chicago and went on to Harvard where he received his Ph.D. in 1951. He subsequently worked for the government and then joined the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis in 1955. As fate would have it, Egon Schwarz, who had attended the same Gymnasium in Vienna before his family fled the Nazi regime, was also on the faculty at Washington University and the two became good friends. Schwarz, who had not participated in the exchange, found it of great historical value and thanks to him the letters John had held onto for years came in the possession of the Archiv der Geschichte der Soziologie in Österreich in 1994.

Hans, who had participated regularly in the exchange since he fled Vienna in August 1938, had become quite dependent on these letters. Having left England in November 1939, he had not heard from his friends for about two months when he received a packet of letters on January ninth. Hardly containing his excitement, he opens his letter, “Do I have to tell you how glad I was when I got your letters to-day?” Hans continues in slightly non-idiomatic English: “To be in connection with you again makes me feel much more at home here and not so much out of the world.” In his next sentence Hans offers a ‘warning’: “I expect that this letter will be terribly long because I have to tell you so much.” Typical for the passionate correspondent, a nine-page letter in very legible handwriting follows.

Hans’ response is typical for the epistolary exchange with the usual status report, news of financial worries, concerns for the well-being of friends, and messages to ensure the continuation of the correspondence. This letter also tells us much about this seventeen-year-old. Covering the two months since his last communication with classmates, it captures his first impressions of his new home and his tenaciousness as well as his sense of humor. Having left England on November 11, Hans had collected many new experiences, including crossing the Atlantic in an ocean liner during wartime, visiting the metropolises of New York and Chicago, traveling across the continent by bus, and settling in Los Angeles. Hans summarizes the latest happenings in his life for his friends. After his very brief account of the “rather rough crossing,” where he “saw no submarines or anything like this,” he offers his first impressions of New York: “As I had expected it is rather ugly.” The skyline, in contrast, challenges his preconceived notions of the city: “What surprised me was that there are not only a few skyscrapers at the tip of Manhattan but that there are hundreds of them and that practically all other buildings are at least 10 or 15 stories high.” Hans’ introduction to the United States is also accompanied by the family’s financial problems. In order to join relatives in Los Angeles, they depended on charitable organizations: “We couldn’t proceed from NY at once as we had intended to do but had to stay there for ten days because the Jewish Committee first made inquiries in Los Angeles before paying the fare.” The mode of transportation, the bus, was yet another marker of the family’s financial standing.

The discomfort often associated with long-distance bus travel is almost totally absent from Hans’ letter. With his youthful enthusiasm, he focuses mostly on the landscape. Of the first leg of the journey, he writes, “The way to Chicago takes 29 hours by bus but we slept quite well. The landscape is nice but not at all exciting.” The city compares favourably to New York, “especially the parts at Lake Michigan and the parks.” After two weeks in the windy city, the family boarded a bus once again, and of the stretch to Denver, Hans notes, “Up to there we went through prairies only which is quite interesting for some time but then it gets pretty boring.” The terrain and the population began to get more interesting for Hans once the family reached Santa Fe. He describes New Mexico’s capitol as “a beautiful little place with lots of old Indian and Spanish buildings.” He comments for the first time on the inhabitants: “Many people in New Mexico and Arizona, where we got the next day, speak Spanish and we saw many Indians and Cowboys in very strange and funny costumes.” Of course, such a trip would not be complete without mentioning a memorable bus experience: “The next day a Nebraska man was in our bus who had gone there in 1885 and he had known Buffalo Bill personally. He spoke to a deaf person and so every body [sic] in the bus could hear his stories.” In his wrap-up of the trip, Hans returns to the scenery. The last day and western most part of the trip were “the most beautiful.” He highlights the newness and the variety of the last stretch: “First desert, then a mountain road much resembling the Dolomites, then desert again but this time with cacti, and then at last we came to San Bernadino, Calif.” The remainder of the trip takes them past orange groves or “orange-woods,” as Hans calls them, and through “many nice villages.”

Writing the letter after his third week in Los Angeles, Hans reserves “a final judgement.” He confesses that he finds the city “a strange mixture of extreme beauty and extreme ugliness” and pronounces it uglier than London, a city some of the correspondents would know. Hans describes the ethnic variety with the city’s Chinese and Mexican neighbourhoods. He also highlights the vegetation and houses typical for Southern California: “There are palms in front of every house and the houses are usually bungalows with gardens, or at least some grass around them.” Hans ends his status report by mentioning the family’s housing situation (a new apartment with little furniture), his father’s employment possibilities, and the fact that he was enrolled in Los Angeles City College. This summation reflects both the family’s position as refugees and the importance that education played in the boys’ lives. As one-time pupils of an elite Gymnasium, the youth all planned to pursue further study and advance in society. Throughout their subsequent letters they would share their progress in achieving academic degrees. With rare exceptions, they all received advanced degrees. The group included doctors, an engineer, a CPA, a college professor, a court recorder, a banker, and businessmen involved in import and export.

After his update, Hans responds to the participants’ individual reports as was the custom, and he marks the transition, noting, “Now, I think, I have ‘finished with me’ and can start to answer your letters.” His comments point to the vastly different experiences of the youth, who found themselves in France, Palestine, England, Switzerland, and the U.S. For example, to Pic in France, he writes, “You are very lucky not to be interned, my brother + 3 of my uncles are in a camp in France although they can get their U.S. visas at the Consulate.” To Ali, his classmate in Palestine, he counters the friend’s anti-British feelings with his own love of the country: “Why shouldn’t we show our gratitude if it exists, why shouldn’t we love England and the English if we have every reason to do so? You really must not judge the British according to your narrow view you get in Palestine. I can understand your attitude only when realizing that you don’t hear any news.” This exchange, like many of the discussions, reveals just how much place shaped and defined the youth.

Hans and his friends undertook extraordinary efforts to preserve the correspondence, which add to its value as a historical document. Notations on Hans’ letter provide an example for their method of documentation. He included the round number (the thirty-first since the beginning of the correspondence), his return address, and the date. By noting the round number and date, the boys could tell if the mail was getting through to them, and how long it took. Having the most up-to-date address also insured contact. He thanks Turl (Artur Kupfermann/Art Cooper), who was then in London, for taking the time to copy the letters from Europe and the United States. Lastly, he voices his concern over the expense of postage: “I’m sorry I cannot afford to send by Clipper but that costs 30¢ which is about s.176d.” As the financial situations of the youth varied, the cost of stamps resurfaced throughout the correspondence.

The effort Hans put into this letter is typical for the group’s dedication to the correspondence. This letter underscores just how much the contact among the classmates meant to the youth, and it highlights their concern for one another. The letters allowed the former classmates to stay connected despite the disruptions of exile and immigration. Because of the correspondence, some of the “boys” remained friends their entire lives despite their geographic distance and disparate paths. For readers today, the letters put a human face on the bureaucratic regulations and statistics about exile and immigration and provide insight into the exile experience of young people and the transition from exile to immigrant to citizen. They also serve as an example of the variety of experiences the members of this fairly privileged group had as refugees and immigrants.

 Author Biography:

Since beginning her work on these letters in 2008 Jacqueline Vansant, Professor emerita of German at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, has presented and published on this collection in numerous venues. She is presently completing an edition of the group correspondence. With the support of the Botstiber Institute for Austrian-American Studies, she organized a related panel for the German Studies Association 2020 conference: “Age, Agency, and Agencies and the Migration of Austrian Children and Youth to the U.S.” Other publications include: Against the Horizon: Feminism and Postwar Austrian Women Writers (1987); Reclaiming ‘Heimat’: Trauma and Mourning in the Memoirs of Jewish-Austrian Reémigrés (2001) and, Austria: Made in Hollywood (2019).

For more information:


 [1] Heinz Jansen, ed., Freundschaft über sieben Jahrzehnte. Rundbriefe deutscher Lehrerinnen 1899–1968. S. Fischer Verlag: Frankfurt am Main, 1991.

 Relevant Links: 

Archiv der Geschichte der Soziologie in Österreich: There is a description of the participants and an overview of the collection. Kurzbeschreibung John H(ans) Kautsky: Konvolut “Rundbrief Wiener Gymnasiasten im Exil” (1938-1953):

Obituary: John Kautsky

 Suggested Reading:

Burgdorf, Walter H.C. and Gerd Plewig. The Urbachs of Vienna and Philadelphia.” Clinics in Dermatology (2014): 32, 161-167. Urbach participated briefly in the exchange and his family hosted Robert Singer, another of the correspondents, when he first arrived without his parents in the United States.

Schwarz, Egon. Refuge. Chronicle of a Flight from Hitler. Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 2002.

———-. Der Politologe John (vormals Hans) Kautsky—nur beim Baseball ein Außenseiter

Der literarische Zaunkönig Nr. 2/1014.

Vansant, Jacqueline. “’Bitte vergeβt nicht, alle Briefe gut aufzuheben’: Shared Agency in einem Briefwechsel österreichisch-jüdischer Schüler in der Emigration.“ S.I.M.O.N. Shoah: Intervention. Methods. Documentation 8 (2019) 1, 4-19.

———-. “Cohesive Epistolary Networks in Exile.” In: Networks of Refugees from Nazi Germany: Continuities, Reorientations, and Collaborations in Exile, ed. Helga Schreckenberger (Amsterdam: Brill/Rodopi, 2016): 247-261.

———-. “‘Damit nie der Kontakt verloren geht’: Rundbriefe Wiener Gymnasiasten jüdischer Herkunft 1938-1942.” In: Alltag im Exil. Daniel Azuélos, ed. (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2011.) 137-151. Proceedings to conference in Amiens, France, November 2009.)

  Suggested Viewing:

Surviving the Anschluss: Interview with Catherine Kautsky (Kautsky’s daughter)

Surviving the Anschluss: Interview with John Kautsky (with Catherine Kautsky)

Die Stubenbastei präsentiert einen Festakt zur Erinnerung an vertriebene Schüler, 2011 A presentation of a CD of students reading excerpts from the letters.

Image of letter: