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Austrian woman's gift to rebuild German cathedral

Austrian woman's gift to rebuild German cathedral

An Austrian who fled from Germany to England to escape the horrors of World War II has left a 370,000 Euro fortune to help restore Germany's Cologne Cathedral.

The donor - identified as Berta Woodward, from Oxford - specified that the sum should be used to help restore the Gothic church to its former glory.

The story of Berta is one that traces the course of both world wars. Berta Rakowitz, as she was born, grew up in the backwater Czechoslovakian town of Znaim - now called Znojmo - as a German speaker with Austrian roots.

During the years of the Habsburg's Austro-Hungarian empire, the royal city of Znaim near the border with Lower Austria, was mostly populated by German speakers.

It had a unique relationship to the First World War, which would end up redrawing the map of the continent and sweep away the empire which Berta's parents were born into. Znaim was the birthplace of Leopold Loyka, the driver of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand's car when Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo 1914 - the killing which triggered the war.

Her father was a farmer and she had one younger sister called Aurelia. She was born in 1922, educated in Cologne and grew up there.

The church was damaged by British and Allied bombers in World War II, and now local experts say the inheritance will be used to replace and restore the cathedral's doors.

Deliberately attacking Cologne en-masse Blitz-style, to ensure the German fire brigade and anti-aircraft guns were overwhelmed, the vast RAF squadron unleashed hell by dropping 1,500 tonnes of high explosive on the city in an hour and half in 1942.

Almost 500 people were killed and 5,000 were injured.

The cathedral did suffer about seventy direct hits by aerial bombs during World War II but did not collapse - instead overshadowing a flat city.

Legend has it that the cathedral survived because pilots liked using its spire for navigation.

Central Cathedral Restoration Committee official Michael H.G. Hoffmann said: "Without this money we would not have been able to even think about doing this part of the restoration."

When the Second World War came she was 17. When she turned 18 she became a 'Dienstmädchen,' a war worker for the Reich.

Josef Huber, 89, married Aurelia after the war and lived all his life with her near Munich.

A builder of sound studios for radio and TV stations by profession, he was Berta's brother-in-law and has many fond memories of visiting her in Oxford.

He said; "I am not sure what she did, but it was some kind of war work.

"She was a very strong woman, always busy, a powerful woman, single minded.

"But she cared about people and I think she would have been shocked to her core at the destruction she saw in Germany after the war."

He said she fled west with millions of others in the far-flung eastern outreaches of Hitler's empire as the avenging Red Army stormed westwards, raping, pillaging and murdering civilians as they did so.

But had she stayed, and survived the Russians, she would have been expelled anyway.

Czechoslovakia's postwar ruler Edvar Benes instigated what became known as the Benes Decrees, expelling three million ethnic Germans from land they had occupied for centuries in retaliation for the Nazi conquest and brutal occupation of his country.

"I don't remember where she went to exactly," said Josef. "Perhaps it was Cologne."

"I know the destruction of German cities, churches, historical buildings would have had a profound effect on her. I can only assume that it was as a result of this that she decided to do something for Cologne Cathedral in her will.

"She went to Oxford after the war after reading an advertisement in a German newspaper seeking a housemaid at a large house there. The newspapers at the time were full of such adverts; there was a labour shortage.

"It was while she was there that she met the gardener who was to become her husband. They were a devoted couple but sadly they had no children."

Josef lost Aurelia at the age of 80 six years ago.

He said; "The sisters were close as sisters are. We spent nice times visiting them in Oxford. But my wife wanted to remain in Germany.

"I am glad that Berta got her dying wish to leave money for the Cologne Cathedral. She was a woman who, if she made her mind up about something, followed it through."

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