Obituary: Johanna Breitenfeld

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Johanna Maria Schoenborn, charity organiser, born Korompa Hungary 14 September 1899, married 1928 Walter Breitenfeld (died 1971; one son, one daughter and one daughter deceased), died Isleworth Middlesex 9 October 1992.

Johanna Breitenfeld lived a life of caring for others in which a deeply spiritual sense of charity and noblesse oblige were her natural make-up. Whether it was in Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938, when she and her family helped, under great personal danger, those persecuted for racial and religious reasons to escape, or, later, as an exile herself in wartime Britain, working for war refugees and homeless, and after 1945 for 'DP's in post-war Europe, she was always more than just a competent and conscientious welfare lady. Everything she did came from the well-ordered storehouse of a fine mind and a large heart formed in the tradition of the Benedictine virtues of ora et labora.

In 1951 she joined the Austrian embassy in London as head of the social section, newly formed through the intervention of the Austrian Chancellors Figl and Raab, to help the 30,000 Austrian women who worked in the Yorkshire and Lancashire textile mills when Austria was hit by famine, unemployment, continued occupation and the dismantling of factories in the Soviet zone. She was the first to liaison between these foreign workers and their employers and local authorities. There were many problems due to loneliness and inability to communicate in a strange environment to which these young women, mostly peasant girls, had been transplanted. There was a high suicide rate; some ended in mental homes. Johanna Breitenfeld deliberately styled the embassy work a 'service' to differentiate it from the normal bureaucratic functions. Her section was one of the first embassy departments of its kind, and other London embassies followed its example. Although she retired officially in 1966 (she was awarded the Goldenes Verdienstzeichen of the Republic of Austria) she remained in touch with many of her 'proteges' and in 'active service' to the end of her days.

Johanna Schoenborn was born in 1899 at Korompa, near Dolna Krupa, then a Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (today in Slovakia), the younger of the two daughters of Count Franz von Schoenborn-Buchheim-Wolfstahl and his wife, nee Gabrielle Chotek. The girls were brought up in the remote Burg Schleinitz, then southern Styria, now European Croatia. That widely branched Central European family has not only recently celebrated their 800th anniversary but has remained consistently Katholisch. The Schoenborns and Choteks were great patrons of the arts, respectively employing Tiepolo and sheltering the impoverished Beethoven.

Johanna studied psychology and philosophy at the University of Vienna; the eminent Charlotte Buehler and Rudolf Allers were among her teachers. The soup kitchens of post-First-World-War Vienna provided the first practical application of her studies. While her sister married Prince Pallavicino in Rome, she married, in 1928, a 'commoner', Walter Breitenfeld (1884-1971), whom she had met at the university and who later played a prominent role in Austrian Catholicism as a lecturer in social studies at Salzburg's Catholic University and in vain opposition to the growing pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic trend among Austrian intellectuals in the inter-war years.

Non-Jewish, but high on the Gestapo's blacklist, Walter Breitenfeld managed to escape after the Anschluss: his wife and three small children followed shortly afterwards, pretending to go on a Danube outing. Attache cases were all the belongings they could take with them. But they were able to reach the family's property at Futok, near Novisad (Croatia). In 1939 the Breitenfelds came to England to place their children in English schools and were prevented by the outbreak of the war from returning home.

In London Johanna Breitenfeld was instrumental in the founding of the Austrian Catholic Centre at Brook Green, which is run by Sisters of the Gospel, one of the Austrian Catholic Secular Institutes. She also played a prominent part in promoting the beatification cause of the Emperor Charles, the saintly last Habsburg ruler (1887- 1922). She was a beautiful and intelligent woman, characteristics that marked her formidable personality, a truly grande dame of her generation, one of Austria's best.