Peter, 80, is still so proud of his Austrian roots

PROFESSOR Peter Mittler's remarkable past is brought to life in his new memoir, Thinking Globally, Acting Locally: A Personal Journey.

From his mother's courageous act in finding him a foster family in England to studying at the prestigious Cambridge University, Prof Mittler has certainly lived.

But he says the memoir was written by accident.

"I reached the age when people think about writing a memoir," said the University of Manchester's emeritus professor of special needs education.

"But I never planned to write it, the idea just grew when someone suggested it.

"On one level I enjoyed writing it very much because I have spent most of my life working in academia where there are certain rules about writing - all this could be thrown out of the window, there were no editors breathing down my neck.

"And it gave me the opportunity to think about many things I had done in my life."

Born to unobservant Jewish parents in Vienna, Prof Mittler was aware of his religious heritage from a young age thanks to his frum grandparents.

But he now regrets never having given significant thought to the Nazi persecution he and his parents luckily escaped.

Aged eight Prof Mittler was sent on the kindertransport, while his mother stayed behind in Vienna to sell the family flat.

Meanwhile, his father, who was out of the country on business, could not return because he was a known anti-Nazi.

Prof Mittler explained: "I cannot understand how I never questioned my parents about their experiences.

"It wasn't a taboo subject, they never said they didn't want to talk about it, but my historical self was never stimulated by my own experiences as a child - I have asked myself why did I not interrogate them?

"My mother must have had a terrible time on her own in Vienna. She had to learn how to cook because we had always had a maid, she organised the sale of the flat and my kindertransport.

"It must have been traumatic for her."

His journey to England on the kindertransport was full of innocent excitement and joy.

"I had always wanted to go to England because I had heard it was the 'Land of the Free'," he recalled.

"The experience of being on the kindertransport was all very exciting- I was going to a new country.

"I did not understand or take in the extreme danger that my family and all the other Jewish families were in.

"I knew there were problems because I witnessed Jews scrubbing streets, the shutting of Jewish shops and other persecution but I did not comprehend its full significance."

In England Peter was taken on by Kitty and Paul Jellinek, of St John's Wood, who paid for his education, even when he was later reunited with his parents and moved to Liverpool.

After experiencing poor education in the south, Prof Mittler finally began to blossom at Merchant Taylor's and he fell in love with Liverpool's northern charm.

"It was a heaven-sent opportunity to go to Merchant Taylor's," he said.

"It was a complete liberation for me and colours my six or seven years in Liverpool.

"It was so good to be in a school which produced challenges and friends - I always look back on my time there with great affection."

As well as providing Prof Mittler with academic and musical interests, Liverpool also became the place where he was barmitzvah.

Although his parents weren't practising Jews, Prof Mittler's mother wanted her son to learn a portion and become a man in the traditional route.

"My mother was still very much attached to her Jewish roots, but when I was 12 I was surprised to see a rabbi in a hat cycling past our house," he recalled.

"I was totally surprised by this, but I now know my mother had arranged it.

"I have to admit I went to my barmitzvah classes rather reluctantly.

"I enjoyed it because it was a completely new experience - it was an educational rather than religious experience for me."

In fact, Prof Mittler's barmitzvah was the Epsom Jewish community's first one.

After his barmitzvah, Prof Mittler completely lost touch with religion - save for a Jewish friend he met during his national service.

He smiled: "A fellow conscript of mine was a tough, working class, East-End Jewish boy who was on his way to becoming a pro-boxer.

"We became friends and he looked after me.

"He saw antisemitism everywhere we went, even when I was unconscious of it.

"He decided to protect me from discrimination and took it upon himself to find me a nice Jewish girl to marry.

"This was one of the few times I was brought face-to-face with the sort of Jew I never knew existed."

Despite his obvious intellect the professor's journey into academia included many twists and turns.

He admitted: "I didn't always want to be a professor.

"While at secondary school I wanted to be a doctor, but I knew I wasn't going to be good enough so I dropped sciences at sixth form and studied arts."

After serving in the armed forces, Prof Mittler read history at Cambridge for two years before taking on psychology to broaden his studies.

"I wasn't bored with history, but I became aware of the possibility to change subjects," he said.

"I first thought of doing anthropology, but the school was closed when I went to try to talk to someone about it.

"Next door was the psychology department and I was received with open arms."

Prof Mittler attended the department's summer school and completed the degree in just one year.

After graduation he was offered a clinical psychologist training apprenticeship in Oxford and he worked in the NHS for nine years.

He added: "At that time mental health services were just beginning to modernise.

"Exciting things were going on regarding getting people out of hospital and living in the community.

"This led to independent living and it was very exciting to be a part of that."

Although he was quite content working as a psychologist, he was given the opportunity to become a lecturer in child development at London University in 1963.

And in 1968, when he was still doing his doctorate, Prof Mittler was offered the job of founding director at the groundbreaking Hester Adrian Research Centre in Manchester.

The city already had a strong department for educating the deaf and was training teachers to work with handicapped children at the time.

Despite initial reservations about moving his family from London, he was met with a wealth of opportunities and has lived in Manchester ever since.

"I was not trying to get promoted - I was very happy where I was," he continued.

"I was offered the post, but it was a surprise.

"Professionally it was a tremendous opportunity, it wasn't easy, but Manchester brought fantastic opportunities in the end."

Prof Mittler received a CBE in 1981 and went on to become a professor of special needs education at Manchester University in 1982 - later becoming the dean of faculty before retirement.

Now in his 80s, the professor has shown no signs of slowing down and is studying an Open University course in Italian.

"We spend half our time in our apartment just outside Florence and I was frustrated that I was not picking up Italian as fast as I wanted," he laughed.

Prof Mittler speaks fluent French and German and is proud of his Austrian roots.

"I am proud to have been born in Vienna because the city is thought of as the capital of European culture and is the centre of scientific and medical research," he explained.

"I love going back there and am proud of my heritage - but I am not proud of the Austrian people and what they did."

Prof Mittler still feels a deep ambivalence towards his home country and talks with concern about its continued right-wing sentiments.

He added: "Germany has faced up to what has happened in much more serious way than Austria has.

"The Austrians welcomed Hitler with open arms and turned on their Jewish neighbours and treated them abominably.

"Writing the memoir has caused me to think about this more than I did in the past."

© 2011 Jewish Telegraph