Karl Guttmann, Dunera boat survivor and businessman, dies at 86

Karl Guttmann, a San Franciscan who escaped Nazi-occupied Vienna only to spend two years held by the British in Australia, died on Friday, Oct. 7 in London. He was 86.

Guttmann was born May 11, 1919 in Vienna. Though both his father and mother were ethnically Jewish, they both converted to Lutheranism before Guttmann was born.

“His father was a civil servant and was told, ‘If you want to get ahead, convert,’ so they did,” said Guttmann’s son Steven Guttman of San Francisco.

Guttmann was raised Lutheran and only found out he was Jewish when someone called him a “dirty Jew.”

“He went home and asked his parents, ‘Why did they say that?’ and found out,” said his son.

Guttmann was 19 when Hitler invaded Austria, and even though he considered himself Lutheran, his family understood that “as far as Hitler was concerned, they were Jews,” said Guttmann.

But because they were Lutherans, all the usual channels for helping Jews escape were not available to them.

Guttmann had a friend in college, a Jewish-born Lutheran like himself, who found out about a “Swedish Mission,” an outpost of Swedish Protestantism in Vienna. It was being run by a priest who was also born Jewish. While the priest’s main goal was to convert Jews to Christianity, he ended up being able to get visas for 10 Jews to get to London.

Once in London, Guttmann found himself among 2,000 other German and Austrian Jews deported to Australia. He ended up on the Dunera, a ship that was run by unsympathetic and suspicious British soldiers and attacked by the Germans.

An Australian movie was made about the journey, called “The Dunera Boys.”

Once the Jewish escapees arrived in Australia, the fact that they were German made them a perceived threat. They were immediately placed in internment camps, where Guttmann spent the next two years.

He was released in 1942, and he then joined the Australian army until the war was over.

Guttmann had some family in the United States, and in 1949, he came here, settling in San Francisco. His parents were able to flee Austria too, so they were reunited in the United States.

After a short marriage that ended in divorce, he married Ethel Weiner in 1957. She remained his wife until she passed away in 1991.

In San Francisco, Guttmann created the mechanical engineering firm Guttmann & Blaevoet. While he participated in an oral history project about his wartime experiences, his son said he never was involved in the Jewish community.

In 1993, he married Frances Binnington, the daughter of another Dunera survivor.

In addition to his wife Frances Binnington of San Francisco and London and son Steven Guttmann of San Francisco, Guttmann is survived by a stepson, Rossi Snipper of Minneapolis; six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Donations can be sent to the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California, 1663 Mission St., S.F., 94103 or Trinity Hospice, 30 Clapham Common North Side, London, SW4 ORN, England.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."