One other thing worthy of mention happened while we were in Kempsey: Irene discovered that she had some family in Melbourne. We learnt of Sophie’s existence through a letter from Irene’s mother, but as we only knew her maiden name, had some difficulty in tracking her down. We took the Morris Minor to Melbourne, and when we eventually did find her, we discovered that by a coincidence, she and her husband lived in the next street to our old friend Max, who had been so kind to us when we first arrived in Australia.
Sophie was a small, dark haired, soignée, charming woman of excellent intelligence. Her husband, Abe, who was ten years older than she, was a typical European intellectual, ready to discuss any of a dozen subjects at the drop of a hat. By profession he was an industrial chemist; by inclination, a pianist, and he played that instrument with considerable skill. They were not typical Australians; they were typical Europeans of the tolerant, well-educated middle class. If the analytical intelligence, tolerance and understanding they brought to Australia were to become part of the Australian ethos, then Australia would surely benefit.
Sophie spoke English with barely a trace of accent. Abe was grey haired, hawk-faced, and spoke still with a strong German accent. The knowledge they both had of the English language was, however, encyclopaedic. I had always fancied myself as having something better than average skill and vocabulary in my native language, and I was chastened when they both beat me easily at Scrabble.
They had a daughter, Freida, who later married a young engineer, also the son immigrants. I always thought that there was a strong facial resemblance between Freida when young, and Patricia’s little boy, my grandson.
This side of our family was uncompromisingly, (if liberally), Jewish. By “liberal”, I mean the usual interpretation given to these matters. That is to say, customs are kept only if they fulfil a religious purpose, and a very wide tolerance is shown regarding religious matters. In the final analysis, however, a Jew is a Jew, even though one’s personal religious faith may wane on occasion. Moreover, to be a Jew is something of which one can be justifiably proud.
The story of how Sophie and Abe escaped the Holocaust and came to Australia will bear telling very briefly, as a representative of so many others.
Abe and Sophie were married in Germany just before the war. He had obtained his degree and was starting to build the foundations of a career. Because the threat from Nazi anti-Semitism had became so obvious, Abe planned to escape Germany, promising to send for Sophie as soon as he was able to establish himself in a more civilised and less murderous society. As for thousands of Jewish people, things did not proceed smoothly.
On Nov 9 1938 a violent pogrom against the Jews was carried out across Germany. It became known as Kristallnacht. Thousands of men were rounded up and sent to newly built concentration camps. Abe was lucky. Several thousand men were allowed to be released to England, as long as they already had travel documents.
Back in England, an old army camp at Sandwich, Kent, was generously offered for the protection of these men rescued from incarceration on Kristallnacht – it became known as Kitchener Camp. The men had to leave Germany immediately, without any chance of notifying families.
It is only with hindsight that Irene and I understand the difference between the fate of Abe and that of Irene’s brother on that night. Abe had seen a bleak future and had already taken steps to leave. Irene too had had the foresight to arrange travel to leave two weeks earlier. At 18 years old, Irene’s brother Heinrich did not listen to the exaggerations of his little sister, preferring to remain in Berlin with his mother. Only two weeks later, his mother regretted her insistence that Heini remain with her. Despite her pleadings and offers of money, Heinrich, having no travel documents, was rounded up and marched to the brand new, mass extinction gas chamber.
Sophie was also forced to leave Germany and seek refuge in France in order to save her life. Sadly, shortly after the declaration of war, the Germans pushed the English out of Europe and overran France.
Neither Sophie nor Abe knew the fate of the other; their families had been dispersed or sent to concentration camps. Thus, they lost touch with each other for seven years, not knowing whether the other was alive or dead.
Just when there seemed to be some hope for Abe and others welcomed into the camps at Richborough, the harsher face of England showed itself again. As they had done 160 years before, the “powers that be” decided it was time to deport its “enemy aliens” to Australia. 2542 men were put on a ship with only a 1600 person capacity and sent off across wartime waters, including some Italian survivors of a rescue ship that had been taking them to Canada. Abe’s story became a part of the infamous events aboard the ship Dunera. Alongside more than 2000 Jewish, genuine refugees fleeing murder by the Nazi regime, the British included a few hundred Germans and Nazi sympathisers. Combined with poorly trained crew and officers, the detainees were despised, robbed and abused, as if they were all “the enemy”. The hellish trip finally ended on arrival in Sydney on the 6th September 1940. Several months elapsed in the dust-ridden New South Wales internment camp at Hay, before men like Abe were officially recognised as genuine refugees. Despite their journey, Abe and others took the opportunity to volunteer for the Australian Army, seeking to contribute in some fashion to the defeat of the bestial Hitlerian regime that had brought death to so many innocent people.
Unfortunately, while on a training exercise, Abe broke his leg and was invalided out. The resilient Abe then got a job as an industrial chemist with a private firm in Melbourne, and set about establishing himself in this new land.
Back in France, Sophie fled to the southern unoccupied zone and obtained work as a “domestique” or servant girl. She spoke good French, but unfortunately with a recognisable German accent. She explained this by pretending that she was an Alsation – a native of that province on the borders of France and Germany which has been alternatively French and German so many times that the inhabitants are mostly bi-lingual and seemingly fight every other war on different sides.
She changed jobs from time to time, the more so after the Germans occupied the southern part of France. If her employers suspected that she was something other than what she pretended to be, they said nothing, until the time when the Gestapo eventually caught up with her. She was betrayed, captured, and sent to a French concentration camp erected on French soil with the concurrence of the collaborationist Pétain Vichy Government. Conditions here were normal for concentration camps – a bowl of cabbage soup, and a small piece of bread each day if one was lucky. It was not long before people began to die of disease and malnutrition. When they died, the bodies were wrapped up in shrouds, carried outside the camp in stretchers at night, and left there, to be picked up in the morning by the burial carts.
One day a rumour sped through the camp like fire. The Jewish prisoners were to be collected together and sent in railway wagons to the gas ovens of the “Vernichtungslage” in Germany and Poland. Once one was in the railway truck, one was as good as dead. At the same time, escape from the concentration camp was virtually impossible. Sophie sought desperately for a plan to save her life.
With ingenuity and determination, she hoarded her bread ration every day. The bread thus saved was used to bribe a guard to wrap her in a shroud as if she were dead, and leave her outside the camp with the bodies one evening. That this was done is not as surprising as you might think. The guards were also poorly fed, and many not totally committed to their work. At dead of night, she cautiously unwrapped her shroud and ran away into surrounding forest, putting as much distance as possible between herself and the concentration camp.
Once more she supported herself by domestic work, keeping herself to herself, moving whenever she felt it necessary, always on the lookout for a sign that some person may have suspected her secret and betrayed her to the Gestapo. Somehow she survived until the Allied landing in Europe. Her relief when the terrible fear of betrayal and death was finally lifted would be hard to describe in words.
Luck, or fate, can play an equally terrible or fortunate part in our lives. Sophie’s name had been registered on a Jewish Survivors list, by the Red Cross. As fate would have it, friends in New York, who were already in contact with Abe in Melbourne, saw this particular list. Overjoyed on learning this wonderful news, Abe was able to secure passage for Sophie from Marseilles to Melbourne, via Tahiti. Sophie put her language skills to good use, acting as an interpreter aboard ship.
After seven long, anxious years, Sophie and Abe were united again; a happy ending for two people, tinged with sadness and the memory of so many whose stories finished in a different and tragic way.