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On 1o June 1939 the Viennese child psychologist Ilse Hellmann appealed  to an American colleague, Christine Heinig, who had taken up the post Principal of the Melbourne Kindergarten Training College in Australia some eighteen months before. Of the Jewish Faith, Ilse Hellman, then 30 years old, was living and working  in London. A  former student of the developmental psychologist, Dr Charlotte Buhler she was the co-director at Buhler’s Parents’Institute of Psychology for Normal Children in Rowland Gardens, in Kensington. Ilse Hellmann hoped to immigrate to Australia. She was unlikely to find her way back to her homeland. Hitler’s forces had occupied Austria, in March 1938. Buhler had fled,  immigrating to the United States after husband, imprisoned for his anti Nazi stand, was released in Oslo in October 1938.  After Kristallnacht on 11 November 1938  German Jews were allowed to leave Germany and go any country that would take them. In response Britain had closed its borders to males and was accepting women and children under certain conditions. If German Jews had thought to find refuge and succour from the Jewish community in London, they were disappointed.There was no home for them.

Perhaps Hellman’s letter reflected her impending loss. at the time she wrote to Heinig one of her family,  Ernst Richard Hellmann,  had been issued with a passport from the German Embassy in London  was awaiting an entry visa for Australia.  Sponsored by a grazier  Douglas Caird Campbell from Gunnedah, New South Wales, Ernst was heading for a job as a farm worker together with his wife Anne Marie and nine years olf daughter, Christine. Maybe Hermann thought Heinig could direct her to a potential sponsor.

I would be very grateful to you if you would be kind enough to give me some idea of the possible chances for me to find work..either in connection with a children’s clinic, or in a child welfare centre, training college, nusery school etc

Hellman’s credentials were impeccable. After leaving school Hermann had trained as a nursey school teacher before going on to the University of Vienna to study psychology and social science. From 1932 to 1935 she worked with delinquent children at the Children’s Tribunal in Paris before accepting her appointment with Buhler in 1936. Student and teacher had developed  tests for children up to the age of 16. The results  formed the basis of the work with child patients . Hellmann’s  duties included the supervision of teaching and play therapy. She taught and supervised parenting classes at the Institute. She acted as a psychological advisor to a number of London schools, nursery schools and mothercraft centres in South West London.

.Possibly Heinig, unfamiliar with Australian governance, was uncertain about what to do with Hellmann’s letter. She passed it on to fellow American, psychiatrist Dr Anita Muhl who had arrived in Melbourne for a two year consultancy in child and adult psychology less than nine months before. Sponsored by philanthropist Una Cato, Muhl had had to find her way into medical, psychiatric and psychology circles and build trust well enough for her expertise to be sought.  She fowarded Hellmann`s letter to a State government body, the Victorian Council for Mental Hygiene writing,

I think the only thing I can do is ask certain members of the Council…to say what you think her chances are of finding work here… You will see that her letter is dated 10th June 1939, but Miss Heinig tells me that the outbreak of war has only made Miss Hellmann more anxious to come to Australia.

The reply, dated 6 November 1939, was kindly if not entirely encouraging. There was room and need for the sort of person you are mentioning. Indeed we have another fine Viennese here at present, Mrs Lacerta Finton who has spendid training and experience.*

If there was any suggestion or reply to Hellmann this has not been found.

At themoment Anita Muhl received Hellmann’s letter the  Australian government was  organizing its response to the refugee crisis. Of the Dominions New Zealand did not accept any refugees; Canada and South Africa both accepted a limited number. In Australia after the  former Prime Minister, Stanley Bruce, then  High Commissioner in London,  recommended that Australia take 30,000 refugees the government halved the number. On 1st December 1939 it  advised that Australia would accept 15,000 European refugees. Hellmann might have found a sympathetic response from the  Commonwealth Government`s  Department of Interior in Canberra.

In the end Hellmann did not immigrate to Australia. She commenced training as a psychoanalyst in 1942,  became an associate member of the British Pychoanalytical Society in 1945 and a full member in 1952. From 1955 she was a leading figure in the Anna Freudian Group. Her letter to her colleague in Australia reflects the desperation of the thousands if not millions of dispossessed people seeking sancturary from the terrors of Nazism.


*Maria Lacerta Finton, also Austrian,  had arrived in Melbourne on the 25th September 1939. She subsequently worked as a nurse at the Royal Women’s Hospital and, from 1958 to 1968 at the Victoria’s Social Welfare Department.


Letter from Ilse Hellmann to Christine Heinig, 10 June 1939;Reply from Director, Victorian Council for Mental Hygiene, 6 November 1939; Dr Anita Muhl, Correspondence, 1939-1941,  Box 1766/2, State Library of Victoria, Australia.

Louise London (2000), Whitehall and the Jews, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Hellmann, Ernst Richard, NAA: A12508/21/1849, National Archives of Australia, http://www.naa.gov.au