Leeds’ forgotten ‘foreign’ hero

Johann Pistori.
Johann Pistori.
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He was a teen refugee from Nazi-era Austria, a friendly ‘alien’ who loved Pudsey and its people. Aisha Iqbal reports on a forgotten ‘foreign’ hero.

HE arrived in Pudsey from his Austrian homeland in 1939 as a 17-year-old refugee from the Nazis.

He was carrying just one piece of luggage which held -– among other things – a precious puppet theatre he had made with his father in Vienna before his death.

Now, almost 30 years after his death, Johann Pistori’s daughter Christine is desperate for YEP readers’ help in discovering more about her father’s Yorkshire days, as she writes the story of his life.

The young Johann – pictured – had thought he was joining a farming scheme for schoolboys run by the Quakers, and was being protected from the Nazis because his family were social democrats. It only emerged later that the family’s largely unknown Jewish heritage – on Johann’s mother’s side – had played a part in their fate.

After a happy year in west Leeds – when he developed a lifelong love of Yorkshire Cricket Club – Johann’s rural dream was shattered when he was arrested and shipped off to Australia as an “enemy alien” on the infamous SS Dunera.

He returned two years later and joined the British army, but by then his former Pudsey friends had thought him long-dead – believing he had perished at sea – and all traces of his time there were lost.

Miss Pistori, 63, wants to hear from YEP readers who may have known her father when he stayed at Carlisle Grove, Pudsey and worked at a local mill.

And she hopes these photos will jog some memories.

She explained that after arriving in England in 1938, and an unhappy incident at his first placement in London, Johann was moved to Pudsey.

“It was hard work and he was homesick for Vienna, but he began to get used to English ways.

“He grew to love cricket and remained a Yorkshire supporter all his life. He loved fish and chips, pork sausages, jam roly poly and spotted dick, and he found his first girlfriend!

“I wonder if there is anyone still alive who can remember him or others that worked in the mill at this time. My father remained an Austrian to his death but he loved England greatly for its tolerance and people and most importantly for its sense of humanity.”

In 1940, the UK Government had begun a policy of mass internment for refugees of German and Austrian descent, following an intense and xenophobic newspaper campaign fuelled by the war.

As an “enemy alien”, Johann was arrested and initially interned at Harrogate, then sent to the Isle of Man and on to Australia.

He returned just two years later and joined the British Army, fighting against the Germans and attaining the rank of sergeant.

He lived in the south of England until his death in 1984.

After the end of the war, Johann had returned to Leeds once, with his wife Elli, in the hope of getting back the belongings that had been left behind the night the police had come to arrest him.

“He wanted to show off his puppet theatre, [which was] still strong in his memory of childhood in Vienna,” Miss Pistori explained.

“Unfortunately his trunk, filled with his belongings, had gone.”

Miss Pistori has meticulously researched her family’s and her father’s history, tracing long-lost documents relating to his internment.

One blue paper, which lists his Leeds address in Carlisle Grove, Pudsey, names Johann as a prisoner of war and an “enemy alien”, and shows he was shipped to Australia after initial internment in Harrogate.

If you can help Miss Pistori fill in the blanks of her father’s Leeds life, email her on cpistori@touchstonerenard.com.

Alex Newman, partner at Irwin Mitchell in Leeds

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