Austrian who survived run-ins with Nazi SS officers celebrates 100th birthday in Finchley Road

Ruth Kollner (front) celebrating her 100th birthday with fellow care home residents Lena Hayford (mi

Ruth Kollner (front) celebrating her 100th birthday with fellow care home residents Lena Hayford (middle) and Ruth Ive (rear). Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

A former secretary who survived run-ins with Nazi SS officers to escape persecution during the Second World War has celebrated her 100th birthday – and been congratulated by the Queen and the President of Austria.

Ruth Kollner, of Spring Grove Retirement Home in Finchley Road, marked the landmark birthday on Saturday just three weeks after fellow care home resident Bella Shore blew the candles out on her own 100th birthday cake.

Also choosing to celebrate with cake and champagne, and surrounded by four generations of family, Mrs Kollner was given the added honour of having a personal letter from Austrian president Heinz Fischer read to her by the country’s deputy ambassador to the UK during a party last Friday.

But she dismissed any fuss saying that there was no secret to her longevity and she had led a “simple life”.

“Staying active is always important, but other than that I’ve eaten whatever I wanted and kept smoking my daily cigarette after breakfast,” she said. “I’ve worked hard in my life but I’ve also kept it simple – that, I think, is the key.”

When the 1938 Anschluss saw her homeland annexed by Nazi Germany, her brother Fritz was able to travel to the US through the sponsorship of his wife’s family but Mrs Kollner was left with two choices: follow the many Jewish families illegally travelling to Palestine, or make her way to England and become a house servant.

She chose the latter and after surviving run-ins with Nazi SS officers who confiscated her belongings, she arrived at the house of a London family in December, 1938, to begin a new life as a maid.Her mother later joined her.

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Mrs Kollner’s only child, Kitty Brod, 68, of Belsize Lane, Belsize, suggested it was a confusing time for both.

“For the next few years, mother and daughter worked in a number of households as cook and parlour-maid,” said her daughter. It was both strange and demeaning.”

After meeting fellow refugee and handbag designer Heinz Kollner, she married.

Her clerical and secretarial work, mainly in the field of scientific publishing, was later joined by volunteering for the Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) in Cleve Road, West Hampstead.

The group assists Jewish families in the UK who have also fled Nazi persecution.

Her daughter added: “She has always been fiercely independent and resilient. She had a fall a few weeks ago and the doctors and nurses were amazed at how quickly she recovered.’’

“Her own mother lived until she was 94 so everyone says we must have good genes!”