John Herbert Subak-Sharpe (1924- ) was Professor of Virology and Honorary Director of the Medical Research Council Virology Unit from 1968 to 1994.
Born in Vienna, Subak-Sharp was brought to Britain by the Kindertransport mission in 1939 and was a farm pupil from 1939 to 1944, before serving in the Parachute Regiment. He graduated with a BSc in Genetics from the University of Birmingham in 1952, gaining his PhD in 1956, and came to Glasgow in 1954 as an assistant in the Department of Genetics. In 1956, he joined the Animal Virus Research Institute at Pirbright and worked on foot-and-mouth disease. After a spell at the California Institute of Technology, he joined the MRC Experimental Virus Research Unit in Glasgow in 1961.
Subak-Sharpe was made a CBE in 1991.
source: (Glasgow University 2008)
INT: Today is October the 12th 2010 and we are here to have a conversation with Professor John Subak Sharpe. Good evening.
JSS: Good evening.
INT: Can I ask you first of all; when and where you were born? And was this your name at birth?
JSS: I was born in Vienna in 1924 on the 14th of February 1924 and my name, and I have the birth certificate here if you want to see it, was Herbert Subak, S-U-B-A-K. And that’s the family name. The Sharpe came later and I can tell you how this came about but is this the right moment to tell you?
INT: I was just asking you about the street where you lived John, could you explain what it was called?
JSS: Oh this is in… Subakova is in Třebič, I never lived there or at least… long after the war with the family. The street, a shabby little street now but still the main street of what was the Jewish quarter, was called Subakova. Then the Nazis changed the name to some extent totally away from it. Well when, later we will come to that. When I joined the army, and at that time that was in 1944, several other Jewish boys had volunteered at roughly the same time and we were encouraged, well it was suggested, that it would be better if we adopted an English name or a British name in case we were either captured or killed. And in our case it was particularly in case our parents were still alive. We didn’t know that they had already been killed at that time. So, my brother, who is, although he is younger he had joined the army somewhat earlier, had also came to Scotland first and that was the first time we came to Scotland. He came to Maryhill Barracks and here he picked a name ‘Sharpe’ which was very similar, in certain ways, same number of letters and so on. And it was obvious to me that the only reasonable thing to do is to take the same name a few months after Gerhard had been. The Subak I took back into my name before we got married so that Subak Sharpe starts from that moment onward. It’s Subakova so this is where the family had a business which at that time was mainly involved with leather.
INT: And this was in the Jewish part of the town?
JSS: Oh yes.
INT: Oh yes.
BSS: The Jewish part is quite separate on the other side of the river from the main town.
INT: Did all your family move to Vienna? Or was it just your…?
JSS: Well my father moved to Vienna, my mother came from another part, actually from Vienna. They were… is the Brühl family, and they got married after the war in 1919. They had a daughter who unfortunately died of peritonitis I understand as quite a small child before I was born and she is buried there in the Brühl Cemetery.
INT: So tell us then. You came to here because you were part of the Kindertransport, can you tell us how that came about?
JSS: Surely yes. Things got worse and worse in Vienna and you have enough information about that that I don’t need to go into great details about that. And my mother became very frightened and worried about what would happen, what would happen to the children. And she heard about a man whose name was Musikant, believe it or not, who unknown to us, who had helped other people, was interested in the refugee children’s movement apparently. And he found a family, or at least a married couple, who had no children. Her name was Peskin, he was David Peskin and she was Dorothy. And they were Jewish, they were, David was Jewish, I’m not sure whether Dorothy had become Jewish. Anyway they didn’t really know much about children, in particular young 14 or 15 year old children but they put down the… I know that they put down the £50 that had to be put down for each child to guarantee that the child would not become a burden to the British tax payer and we managed to get onto the Kindertransport. And so I left Vienna and my brother and I together and on January the 10th we arrived in Harwich and the family we finally got on the 12th of January.
BSS: Well no I’ve got the letters. John was never followed up by any religious thing, no refugee thing. John was never followed up. In fact…
JSS: It was after I had gone to the farms.
BSS: No actually we have a thing from the refugee children saying they have no record of him except that he has of course his Kindertransport… These are the letters sent by a Mr Musikant saying to “Dear Mr and Mrs Peskin, enclosed please find two photos as promised. If I hear anything further I will communicate with you. Kind regards, yours sincerely, Simon Musikant”. And this is sent on the 22nd of the 12th to the Peskins. Then you come to the letter from the Hampstead Garden Suburb Care Committee for Refugee Children, in conjunction with the World Movement for the Rescue of Children from Germany, British Inter Aid Committee. Right? Nothing else. “Dear Mr and Mrs Peskin 61 Audley Road. We are very grateful for the generosity shown in offering a home to Gerhard and Herbert Subak of Vienna 3 Paracelsusgasse. We would be glad if you would communicate with his or her parents but ask you to be extremely careful not to mention anything about conditions in Germany or anything which might in the slightest degree annoy the German authorities”. And the postmark on the envelope is 9:30 am on January the 6th 1939 and it came from Golders Green, and you left on the 10th so…
INT: How interesting.
BSS: …John was never, ever, ever followed up. And there’s a Synagogue chambers, Norris Lane, we’ve never been able to contact them. No official Jewish thing, are you with me?
INT: Yes, you think they maybe mislaid your records?
JSS: No idea.
BSS: You see the only, the Kindertransport people…
JSS: But you’ve got a piece of paper that has my photograph on it.
BSS: Well yes.
JSS: That’s my father there as an Oberleutnant in the Austrian Army. He was a cavalry officer, he was an Uhlanen, you know?
BSS: We have a picture in the hall of him being decorated by the emperor in the field.
INT: My goodness and how did these pictures survive?
JSS: Some of them, not all of them, but some of them were kept, kept by a not related, but by marriage related through my cousins, marriage related family. And they had a big box including some of the things that my parents obviously stored there so that something would be done because they had to leave. They were thrown out eventually, I heard that much later of course, out of their flat, given 24 hours to leave the flat and move to another place where they stayed for a while. And then eventually they were transported. The Germans were very, very careful to document everything. We know exactly the date when the transport went to…
BSS: We know the number of the transport that they were taken on, everything.
JSS: And we know where it went to, Riga, and they were abgemeldet from…do you speak enough German to…? abgemeldet from Vienna and not yet neu gemeldet. So in other words what really happened, I found out much later out from my cousin, was they were sent by train to Riga, stopped just before and they had already graves, not graves but big ditches were prepared and they were shot. And his parents were in a different transport, a little bit later, and he tells me, and I did not know exact details of this but, they were meant to go to Izbica, but they were gassed in the railway carriages, in the carriages that they were transported on.
INT: And who was that?
BSS: That was our cousins
INT: Your cousins.
JSS: Apparently where our son got the name. And I can give you that and their number on the transport in early ’42. My cousin’s parents who lived in the same house but then were parted were transported, also with the information about them, about May/April I think of the same year. They were sent, my cousins, to Izbica, that is known, that was the concentration camp. My parents were sent to Riga and apparently on arrival without going into the town at the railway they had already dug graves. That’s what my cousin tells me. And the people were shot and there is no clear evidence of where my parents… I wanted to go to Riga because my cousin knew Riga from before. Initially he escaped to Riga and that was fine, that was before this all happened, and he strongly advised me not to go because there was nothing there. There is apparently a small monument…monument is the wrong thing, a note or something. Not where they were shot but in the woods where they shot other people. There were a lot of people shot and unfortunately I have nowhere to go to know that my parents actually were murdered. I’ve got the date, I’ve got the good evidence, clear evidence what transport that they were on and if you want I can find it although it’s from Austria. They actually sent it and that’s really all I had. And of course there was no further letters, no card arrived or anything like that, just it all stopped as far as I was concerned in ’42.
This is where people were murdered in Riga and Izbica and Auschwitz and so on are all there for everybody to see if you want to see but without any explanation rather than…
INT: In Vienna.
JSS: In Vienna in the first district. It is in the area where the Gestapo building was still so I’m told.
INT: Were you interested in science when you were a little boy in Austria?
JSS: Not particularly, certainly not biological science because we had a teacher in the Gymnasium who was known as Wurzelsepp, I don’t know if you can read, it’s sort of a, it’s like calling somebody ‘clodhopper’.
INT: Oh I see. Right.
JSS: I mean it’s not…
INT: A compliment.
JSS: A literal translation. He was totally uninteresting, he brought in a stuffed animal.
INT: And muttered.
JSS: And muttered. He had a beard you’re absolutely right that’s why he was called Wurzelsepp. So I had no interest and I’m sure I would either have been a lawyer or would have been directed towards it or medical.
INT: But your…what did you…did you say what your father did?
INT: He was an engineer.
JSS: He was an engineer, not mechanical, a building engineer.
INT: Ah so more of a surveying engineer?
JSS: It’s, look this is, we’re talking of almost a different century, things have changed considerably since then. But he was building sugar beet factories, you know they were extracting sugar from beets, and he was building at Durrenkroten and places like that. He was involved in them but he was junior at that time and so he worked for a bigger outfit and I don’t know very much about it. I mean he was a remarkable man in other ways. He was an engineer who rarely used a slide rule at that time, he did it in his head. He was an excellent mathematician, he taught me quite a bit at that time. I was not very good at learning at school you know and this is almost just before Hitler came in and so on. And eventually my mother complained so he, my father came to me, now he can’t have touched Latin for 50 years at least and this… OK, he took Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, he opened it at the fourth chapter, I never got there at all, and he translated and so he spent the next hour or so with me with translating. By sheer accident the next day the Latin exercise that we had started one paragraph after where we started and it did continue for another paragraph and the Latin teacher said to me, I had a very good mark, said to me “I can’t understand it, I thought you must have been copying from somebody else but there was nobody sitting near you”.
INT: Going back to your Jewishness because I don’t think we’ve touched on that, it was the cause of all your troubles in the first place. Once you came to Britain, I think Barbara said before, you’ve always seen yourself as Jewish. Do you think that’s because of what happened?
JSS: Sure because of that and my family was Jewish. Both my mother and my father were Jewish and my father was not religious so he went to the synagogue on three holidays; Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah and actually in the last year just before Hitler came in I went, I was already getting bigger, you know nearly old enough to go. I went with him and his brother to the Seitenstetten Temple, I don’t know if you know it, it’s the one they didn’t burn during the Kristallnacht. The reason they didn’t burn it because it was so built in that it would have destroyed…
INT: Destroyed a lot of the other houses.
JSS: Anyway, so he kept, we never kept a kosher house, and he was pleased, proud of being Jewish, but he was not religious and he was not really very much involved in Jewish… Most of our friends were Jewish but they were all very similar to us.
INT: Did you know any of the people in Glasgow? Because, well, my mother in law was from Vienna and I would say that her life was very much the same as well.