Celebrating the Life of Hans Leistina


Recently SmallHans Leistina, a dear friend to many on School Days and a well known member of our community passed away at the end of September 2014.


Nick Seward writes, 

I was very sorry to hear of Hans' passing. We remember him for his great love of Kingham Hill and the fascinating stories he told about his life. Kingham Hill School took him in as a young refugee who had escaped from a concentration camp at the beginning of the Second World War. The School became his home and family. Hans retained his links with KHS throughout his life despite living overseas for much of it. He will be greatly missed among the Kingham Hillians community.

Nick Seward, Headmaster

Hans wrote about his own life in an article on Schooldays which is under KHS The War Years- Escape to the Hill. He wrote how he had to say goodbye to his parents and grandparents at the age of 8 and made the journey from Vienna to Kingham Hill School, one of the few fortunate Jewish children that escaped the fate of so many. He was accommodated in Greenwich House in 1939 and remained at KHS until 1945.

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In 1947 he became a UK citizen through a special Neutralisation Act which granted citizenship to Jewish children living in the UK who were still minors and had lost parents during the War. His guardian, Sir Charles Seligman with his secretary, Miss Beers, helped him and found him a family to stay with in London. Hans worked in Sir Charles' bank for a time after Kingham Hill. He then went to Vienna for a couple of years, and continued on to Nova Scotia, Bermuda and Toronto, before moving out to Vancouver. At some point during his Canada years he got his accountant degree and worked for a time as an internal auditor for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Hans later moved to Seattle where he lived until his death on Tuesday 30 September 2014. He was diagnosed with Kidney disease in 2012/2013 with only a few weeks to live, but he beat the odds. He was often visited by friends and it is clear he was greatly loved and admired.

His friends have written expressing their condolences with comments remembering his life. They remark on his unique take on life and sense of humour. He loved the opera and had an enthusiastic interest in History. His quirky ways and positive influence will be missed.

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Lori wrote,

Hans told me that his parents divorced when he was very young and that to his knowledge, they only saw each other once after that on the day that he departed Vienna for England on the Kindertransport. The entire family gathered at the Vienna Westbahnhof Train Station to say goodbye. They must have understood that it might be the last time they would see him. Once at his new school in England, he received letters from his parents but after some time they stopped. A few years later, he was told by the headmaster that his parents were dead.

I believe that Hans' mother's family was first taken to a work camp and then to a concentration camp. His father was killed trying to escape Austria. As I recollect, he had crossed the border into Slovenia, but it was not uncommon that the Nazis shot those in flight even if they had made it over the frontier. I am not sure what year this was, but Hans told me that his father had waited too long to leave Austria. His friends had urged him to go, but Hans believes his stayed because he had fallen in love with Henrietta Cornfield, an Austria operetta singer who was the widow of a prominent Englishman. She was taken to a work camp because she had been in a relationship with a Jew and was punished for this. After the war, she lived in England, and Hans later visited her in London. He said as a child he was not that happy about the liaison, and when the three of them had been out walking together in the Vienna Woods, he would kick up the gravel to annoy the happy couple. Later though, in London, Mrs. Cornfield was very hospitable to Hans, although he said he would have to "endure" her evening soirees when she would sing operetta songs for her guests. Henrietta had been instrumental in getting Hansi on the Kinderstransport because she was well-connected in England, and I believe that Hans' guardian, Lord Seligman, was a friend or acquaintance of hers. Hans, however, maintained that he was one of the children to be selected because he was such an irresistibly cute little boy.

As Barbara has said, Hans' father was a prominent lawyer in Vienna, but had to suffer many hardships under the Nazis. One time, he was forced to leave his lovely apartment in the Alserstrasse so that some officials could live there. He and his father went to stay with Henrietta Cornfield and her elderly father. Hansi slept on a cot in the same room with his father and Henrietta. He said her remembered Henrietta saying to his dad that they needn't worry about making noise during the night because the old man was very hard of hearing. Hansi said they forgot that he was not hard of hearing and that those nights were very, very interesting!

Hans' mother was from a well-to-do family, the Zuckerbergs (Hans always wondered if he might be related to Marc Zuckerberg of Facebook fame). The family lived at Edmund Weiss-Gasse 5 in a very elegant part of Vienna with large, grand houses. If I recall correctly, the family had made a fortune in the grocery business, and they had extensive real estate holdings in the city. The divorce was not a happy event for the family, and Hans believes his father received custody because his mother had been unfaithful. He remembers going to a posh resort on the Simmering in Lower Austria, south of Vienna, where his mother was often in the company of another man. He was about four years old and in the evenings they would put him up on a table and make him dance to entertain everyone. His parents split up shortly thereafter, and his mother then lived with his grandparents. Hansi would stay with them on the weekends. His mother loved to frequent Cafe Demel, a famous pastry shop located near the Hofburg Palace. It is still in existence and is considered to be one of the most chic spots in the city. All of the family's property was confiscated by the Nazis, but some of it was returned to Hans after the war and he was eventually paid some restitution. However, Hans was to learn later that the Viennese lawyer dealing his case most likely swindled him out of a good deal of money at the time. Nonetheless, when Hans returned to Vienna to work for the Americans after the war, he lived quite well, "like a king" at the Hotel de France, still a very elegant hotel on the Vienna Ringstrasse today.

Even with all that happened to him, Hans always spoke quite positively to me about Vienna: he really loved the food, the music, the old European culture. We discovered that I lived only a few blocks from his grandparents when I was in Vienna with Fulbright for a couple of years in the 1980's. We used to reminiscence about all the beautiful places that we both loved to frequent. It was a lot of fun for the both of us.

Unfortunately, I have never tried to write any of this down before now, so please correct me if I have gotten anything wrong, and please add any details. I admired Hans' resiliency and ability to laugh and stay happy through the trials and tribulations of an amazing life. I know he himself may have not seen it that way, but it was most certainly most extraordinary.


Viv wrote,

I would like to add a few more details to Barbara's account.

Hans was only 8 years old when he came to England and sent to Kingham Hill, a Church of England boarding school. His father was a Jewish intellectual, a prominent Viennese attorney. I don't know anything about his mother but it must have been very hard for Hans, so young to be away from his family in an alien country with new ways. Hans would stay with my parents during the school holidays and he was extremely fond of my mother.

Hans stayed in touch with my mother after my parents divorced in 1950. When in London Hans would visit us and take us out, giving us special treats which otherwise we could not afford. I remember he took my sister and I to see Coppelia at Covent Gardens Opera House when I was about 10 years old. We were mesmerised. Hans loved opera and was very interested in history.

When I was young Hans gave me useful advice about my studies etc. Hans told me many stories about my parents and their friends. He had a remarkable memory and remembered some odd facts! In later years I saw less of Hans as he rarely visited London. The last time was in June 2003 when he came to England for a school reunion and we met up in Oxford. Hans always remembered me and would send me a card for Christmas and my birthday plus I could always expect a valentine's card and wondered how many more he sent!

I will miss Hans and his quirky ways. He was a positive influence in my life.


Barbara wrote,

Hans was sent in 1939 to England from Vienna on the kinder transport and to Kingham Hill School in the Cotswolds. His guardian, Sir Charles Seligman, didn't have much to do with Hans but had his secretary, a Miss Beers, deal with him and when Hans finished school in 1945, Miss Beers found him a family to stay with in London for a time and Vivien Parker, whom I met when I was in London in August, was later born to the couple who took Hans in. Hans worked in Sir Charles' bank for a time and later lived in the Y for about 3 years, I believe (I'll have to check my notes). He then went to Vienna for a couple of years, spent the money from the property his father had owned, and continued on to Nova Scotia, Bermuda and, I think, Toronto, before moving out to Vancouver. At some point during his Canada years he got his accountant degree and I know he worked for a time as an internal auditor for the Canadian Pacific Railway. He met his wife, Joy, at the Seattle World's Fair while visiting. They ended up getting married, lived in British Columbia for a time and then moved down to Seattle. Hans and Joy divorced many years ago and Hans did not keep in touch with her and in the end, I believe he thought she had passed away. He mentioned to me that she was an alcoholic and a spendthrift though I don't know if that was actually the case as she was long gone before I met him in 1990 or so, when I lived in Seattle.

Though Hans was indeed alone when he died, he had been visited earlier in the day (September 30) - or the day before, depending on exactly when he passed - by his good friends Wayne Smith and Lori Reinhall. Wayne had been driving Hans to doctors appointments and helping him out in many ways, and Lori and another good friend, Jo Turner, had been visiting and taking him meals. In addition, he had a most wonderful housekeeper, Nicole, who ended up doing so much more for him than you can imagine and he was very fond of her as well.

Though Hans and I had a falling out a few years ago, we had become friends again and when I last visited him in Seattle in January, we met for lunch at the WAC and for dinner at Carol and Wayne Smith's, meals which we always shared together whenever I visited - and before that as well, of course.

Missing Hans and wishing you all well.


Janet wrote,

I was so very happy to receive your letter. Hans wrote me that you had ceased happy banter. I know how much he enjoyed emailing all of his friends. When I learned he had passed, I just had to send him one last, but loving email. I am going to miss him so much. When I called to have the condo management go check on Hans on Tuesday, she said Lori Ann had called earlier she found him at his computer. I choose to believe he was writing one of us, doing what he loved. Whenever I mentioned anything to him, there would be a picture of the subject. He knew I adored dogs, and always found loving pictures to email. I know he was loved by so many. I always called him my dearest friend and treasure my years with him. The coroner said he had passed away around 5am on 30 September.

Right now a few of us have requested to be present when Hans' ashes are scattered. I promise to let the administrator know. Hans requested any celebration of life service lack ostentatiousness. Let me know when you might be in Seattle, I will pass it on and hopefully we can plan for when you will be in the US.

Yes, Hans was married briefly when he moved to Canada. He had no children. I continuously asked him questions about his life in Vienna on Alterstrasse. I have a somewhat sketchy outline of his life in Vienna, his escape on the Kindertransport, his education in England, his work history prior to coming to the US. Was his company in Seattle called Airborn Express? I have forgotten. He was so proud to take me there after an afternoon at the opera. 

Janet Wheeler


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