Leaving a bequest: how one University supporter is giving back

8 June 2018
Sixty years after arriving in Australia as a refugee, Anna Breinl has left the University a bequest that could transform students' lives.
Anna Breinl and family in Austria

Anna Breinl and family in Austria

On a winter's night in Budapest in 1956, Anna Breinl and her family prepared to leave their home forever.

Their city was in chaos. The occupying Soviet forces had beaten the Hungarian revolutionaries and there were tanks and troops everywhere. Anna's father decided it was time for his family to leave.

To avoid attracting attention, they took nothing but a single bag with some food and a few changes of underwear.

Each of the four children took a book by a great Hungarian writer. There was no way of knowing whether they would be able to find books in their own language once they left home.

On their long escape to Austria and, eventually, to Australia, Anna and her family were reliant on the goodwill and generosity of strangers.

There was the villager who walked with them through the night, guiding them across the fields to the Hungarian-Austrian border, staying in single file to avoid the landmines. There were the Austrians who opened their homes to the refugees. There was the doctor who treated Anna's frostbite.

Finally, after several months, there was the Australian embassy in Vienna, where they were offered the chance to travel across the ocean to a new life.

Anna and her family were reliant on the goodwill and generosity of strangers.
Anna Breinl during her early days in Australia

Anna Breinl with Tim Dolan, the University's Vice-Principal (Advancement), in 2017

Anna Breinl died in Sydney last week, after a lifetime in her adopted home. She had been diagnosed with adrenal cancer and was violently allergic to the only medication available.

In her later years, Anna decided to make a bequest to the University of Sydney, supporting scholarships for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In making her bequest, Anna was drawing inspiration from her father. In Budapest, he ran a business selling men's suits and overcoats. Without telling his family, he donated clothing for the children at an orphanage near their home.

"He was a humble man," Anna told the University before her death. "I am following his example."

Life in Australia was good to Anna. She worked hard to improve her English and educate herself. By the age of 33 – about 15 years after arriving in her new home – she graduated with a diploma of medical technology. She eventually built a career as a senior hospital scientist and for many years was in charge of the histopathology laboratory at St George.

Given her science background, and the disease that eventually ended her life, it would have been unsurprising if Anna had chosen to direct her bequest towards cancer research. But in her support for scholarships, she was expressing gratitude for the philanthropic support her brother and sister received for their education.

Her brother, who knew little English when he arrived in Australia, received a mature-age bursary and eventually became a lecturer in early-childhood education at Macquarie University.

Her sister, who now lives in the United States, studied home economics thanks to a bequest, graduating cum laude and giving birth to her third child the week before the exam.

Anna understood the power of education. She also knew better than most that offering help to a stranger in need can change their life forever.

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