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Aberdeen pupils inspired by Austrian girl who came to the city to escape Nazis

Harlaw Academy pupil Oliwia Borowski (right) showing her model of a suitcase to her friend Sammy Bucius-Balde.
Harlaw Academy pupil Oliwia Borowski (right) showing her model of a suitcase to her friend Sammy Bucius-Balde.

First and second-year pupils from Cults and Harlaw Academies have joined forces for an exhibition about refugees.

Erika’s Suitcase is inspired by the story of a young girl forced to flee Austria to a convent boarding school in Aberdeen.

Erika Schulhof Rybeck escaped the Nazis after her parents placed the then 10-year-old in Kindertransport. The Kindertransport was an organised rescue effort of children from Nazi-controlled territory that took place during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War.

She arrived in Aberdeen in spring 1939 and went to the Sacred Heart Convent School in Queen’s Cross.

After moving to the United States at the end of the war, Erika started a career as a teacher and married journalist Walter Rybeck.

She died last year at the age of the 92. 

Erika Schulhof arrived in Aberdeen in May 1939.
Erika Schulhof arrived in Aberdeen in May 1939.

Children inspired by story of Erika’s Suitcase

The exhibition opened yesterday at Aberdeen Arts Centre on King Street. It has been funded by the Scottish School Library Improvement Fund.

Pupils from both schools have looked at the experiences of refugees past and present.

They have created their own works of art to depict the items they would take if they suddenly became refugees.

Students drew suitcases with some of the things they would take with them if they suddenly became refugees.

They also picked out books about refugees.

The Erika's Suitcase exhibition is taking place at Aberdeen Art Centre.
The Erika’s Suitcase exhibition is taking place at Aberdeen Art Centre.

Discovered letter from Erika’s father

Alison Üstün, the librarian at Harlaw Academy, said she discovered a document from Erika’s father Fritz.

He wrote to the Sacred Heart Convent boarding school about his daughter’s missing luggage.

Ms Üstün then asked pupils which items they would pack into their bags if they became refugees.

She said: “When I was doing the research on Erika I found out her bags got lost on the way over.

“There is a really touching letter that her father had written to the head of the school listing all the items in her bag.

“You get that personal touch of the things that she specifically chose.

“So we asked the pupils what they would take with them.  It was really moving and they chose items close to them.

“The children have done beautiful work.  This has been a great cross-curriculum project.”

Erika Rybeck's Aberdeen police document.
Erika Rybeck’s Aberdeen police document.

Family ‘grateful’ for exhibition

Erika’s son Rick wrote a message to the children about their work.

He wrote that the “evils and hardships” felt by families in the first part of the 20th century “broke and destroyed” many lives.

Rick added: “But thanks to the love and sacrifice of her parents, and to the kindness and generosity of the Queen’s Cross administrators, teachers and fellow students, my mother survived the horrors of her time and went on to spread knowledge, joy, caring and love to her family and friends throughout the remainder of her life.

“If children and adults are inspired by this course to be kind, caring, generous and pursue justice, Mum’s efforts to overcome evil and make the world a better place will be multiplied more than she could have imagined.”

Erika’s Suitcase is being held at Aberdeen Art Centre on King Street.

It is open between 10am and 5pm and 6.30pm and 9.30pm on Wednesday and Thursday, and between 10am and 3pm on Friday.

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