LISBON – After Adolf Hitler annexed his native Austria and Allied bombs laid waste to Vienna, Hannelore Cruz traveled to Portugal without her parents as a refugee from hunger, cold and postwar deprivation. She arrived with a group of other children when she was 5 years old.
A Portuguese family raised her and she later married. Eventually, she could only speak a few words of German. She told people she was born in Vienna, but only went back to Austria a couple of times to visit.
Cruz, despite becoming completely Portuguese herself, nonetheless stood out in the country that adopted her, according to the oldest of her five grandchildren.
Her grandson lovingly describes her flamboyant style and vanity. His face lights up when he recalls an outstanding singing voice that “lent magic” to the weddings and church recitals where she performed.
“She had an angelic voice, an angelic voice,” José Miguel Cruz da Costa, 35, said of his grandmother. “It was an extraordinary thing.”
Cruz died of COVID-19 complications on March 25 at a hospital in the city of Braga. She was 76.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of stories remembering people who have died from coronavirus around the world.
More than 5,000 children from Austria were evacuated to Portugal during 1947-1952 through a program organized by the Catholic Church's Caritas Internationalis charity. The child refugees were placed with foster families after a trip by train and ship of almost 3,000 kilometers (2,000 miles).
Most returned to Austria after a year, once they were nourished back to health in temperate Portugal. Hannelore Friederike Andromache Fischer stayed the rest of her life.
Hannelore never knew her father. Her mother died young and came from a family that had musicians and painters in it, but that's all Cruz's grandson knows.
The foster family that took in the young Austrian girl lived in the town of Ponte de Lima in northwest Portugal, a land of deep forests and big rivers, and public buildings made of granite. It was a far cry from Austria’s war-ruined capital, the former seat of an empire and the birthplace of Mozart and Sigmund Freud.
She later studied singing and the piano at the music conservatory in Braga, married a doctor and had four children while continuing a career as a singing teacher. She gave classes at the city’s high schools, the university, a local music academy, and at the conservatory. Along with Mozart, her favorite composer was Bach.
While Cruz did not harbor dreams of stardom and bashfully declined to sing for her family, she performed regularly in public. An amateur YouTube video of an Easter 2010 concert by her local choir features Cruz singing the soprano solo in Cesar Franck’s “Panis Angelicus.”
Her clear, bright voice soars above the rest of the choir, whose harmonies seem to glide in her wake.
Costa, who lived with his grandparents for 18 years, recalls his “extremely beautiful" and well-groomed grandmother regularly turning heads in the streets of Braga.
In a city known for — and proud of — having conservative values that are as dependable as the local granite, Cruz displayed “unthinkable” boldness for a woman, he said.
“The best word to describe her is flamboyant,” Costa said.
“She had a special care in buying certain clothes, not for other people’s sake, but for herself," he said. "Her own taste was something different from Portuguese society. I think she had a way of thinking, performing, dressing and of being that went beyond our own culture.”
“Thirty or 40 years ago, she was known as that lady who, as well as being a teacher, wore some hair colors that were very radical” — blonde, brown and blue, sometimes with highlights, Costa said.
Widowed in 1995 at age 52, Cruz became the family’s sole breadwinner. Diligent and dauntless, she reinvented herself again and began looking after several family properties, managing the farms and overseeing the workers.
Although his grandmother hardly spoke of her childhood, she often used her own life as a lesson showing that difficulties don't stand in the way of goals, Costa said.
“She was very good at getting this message across: I came here fleeing from the war, I came to a family I didn’t know, I couldn’t speak the language here, I wasn’t from this land, I faced huge obstacles, and even so, here I am, I survived,” he said.
In 2016, Cruz moved into a local nursing home. Costa visited her there almost every day until she entered the hospital where she died.
“Of course, I have that nagging thought that I could have done more for her or spent more time with her,” he said.
But he added “I don’t think I left anything unsaid, nor anything that needed doing. That’s how I’ve been able to handle the mourning so well.”