My best teacher

20th October 2000 at 01:00
I found myself at one of the Nuremberg rallies. I was amazed by the joyful faces all around me and the colour of the flags I was born in Vienna. My father, who died when I was two, was a Hungarian with a passion for England, and said in his will that he wanted his children educated there. So when I was older my mother took me to boarding school in England. We went to see various schools, the first being Roedean. But the girls there were very stand-offish.

The next one was Stonar House school in Sandwich, Kent, which was the absolute opposite. It was housed in a former military barracks, which had been turned into classrooms, and there was a big English country house for the main building. I remember shaking hands with every girl in the school - at least, that's what it felt like. And I curtsied to all the big girls.

I fell in love with that school immediately and Lee Hindley, who was about 25, became the focus of my life. She was my English teacher. the school was amazingly modern for the Thirties, and had six or seven foreign children, and we spent all our time in English lessons for the first three months or so. By the end of that time, every one of us spoke perfect English. We had Lee Hindley from morning to night - she taught all grades from small children to 16-year-olds.

She was very attractive, very slim and very shy, and had a sensitive English rose face, with a wonderful complexion. She was a classic middle-class girl and spoke beautiful English. She had the genius which few teachers have of recognising whatever it was about the individual child that responded to her teaching.

She was also very interested in theatre, art and politics.

In 1934, when I was travelling back to school from Vienna, the train broke down in Nuremberg. I was 11, and a Nazi organisation took care of me. within an hour I found myself at the Nazi party congress, one of the Nuremberg rallies. I was amazed by the timing of the marchers, the joyful faces all around me and the colours of the flags.

When I got back to England I had to rite an essay on The Happiest Day of My Holiday. I described the rally and Lee Hindley said it was "a very good piece of work". But she was probably horrified.

"I think you should understand what you were seeing," she told me. "Read this."

And she gave me an English translation of Mein Kampf. I knew very little about anti-Semitism and asked her, "Why does Hitler keep talking about the Jews?" "He hates them," she said. And she left me to think about this. Forty years later, when I interviewed Albert Speer for my book, I found out that he had organised the Nuremberg rallies.

Both Lee and her husband were communists. I kept in touch; she is now 91 and doing well.

Another teacher also inspired me. When I was in Vienna, I studied at the Realgymnasium Luithlen, my secondary school, where the head-mistress, Martha Fabian was a woman of extraordinary dignity. She taught German, and read Goethe and Schiller to us, and got us to read to her, which was really exciting for me because I was fascinated by theatre.

In 1945, when I returned to Austria, Martha Fabian was the first person I went to see. She was living in an old flat, and I found out that in the middle of the Russian occupation of Vienna she was hiding three young girls from the Russians. Then I found out that she had hidden two Jewish girls for the whole of the war.

Extraordinary courage.

Writer Gitta Sereny was talking to Aleks Sierz

THE STORY SO FAR

1923 Born Vienna, educated Austria, England and France

1949 Marries American Vogue photographer Don Honeyman. Two children

1972 Publishes The Case of Mary Bell, about the child murderer

1974 Into That Darkness, about Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka

1984 The Invisible Children, about child prostitution

1995 Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth, about Hitler's architect

1998 Cries Unheard, book on Mary Bell, incurs wrath of tabloids after she

makes payment to Bell

2000 The German Trauma: Experiences and Reflections 1938-2000 (Penguin

pound;20)


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