Ch9 Pt1 Sponsorship to Australia

“They’ve published it,” said Irena. 

She held out a short typewritten note to me.

Dear Sir,

Your letter to The Editor was published in ‘The Sun’ today, and we have pleasure in enclosing a cutting.

                “Yours faithfully ………..”

It was signed by The Associate Editor of the Sydney Sun.

“Well,” I said, “let’s hope it will help us to get on our way to Australia.”

Irene and I were in the small upstairs flat near Notting Hill Gate that we had been lucky enough to rent after our marriage early in 1947. The letter, which had just reached us after journeying half way across the world from Sydney to London, was the result of our latest effort to obtain a sponsor to bring us to Australia.

We had decided many months ago that our future lay in Australia. The idea of migrating had been at the back of my own mind for a long time. After the war it was resurrected by the publicity given to the country by its “Food Parcels for Britain” scheme. The Australian Government also initiated a drive for British migrants. The problem was to obtain berths on the limited number of overcrowded ships.

During the war in Britain we had seen quite a few Australian airmen who were regularly engaged on bombing raids over Germany. Also one saw occasional Australian sailors. I do not recall ever meeting any Australian soldiers. After their stint in the Middle East the Australian Prime Minister of the time, John Curtin, had withdrawn them to Australia to fight the Japanese in New Guinea. This was after a ferocious but well-concealed row with the British Prime Minister Churchill who thought that Australia was expendable, and could be liberated from the Japanese after the defeat of the Germans in Europe and North Africa.

Irene had known a few Australians in Cairo. They were rather notorious for misbehaving themselves and taking bars and bistros apart. She said that basically they were lonely and frustrated, and weren’t really bad at heart.

The Agents General for all the Australian States were in the west end of London, and most of them in The Strand. Thus I could walk across Waterloo Bridge from the Headquarters of the London County Council where I worked and read the Australian newspapers, which were always on display during the lunch hour. I did this for two years so that when the time eventually came for us to go, I felt that I knew as much about modern Australia as I did about England, and when we got there, I would not be a stranger. I also read as many books on Australia and Australian history as I could find in the library with the object of making mental preparation for the future.

Irene was not happy with the London climate after the openness and sunshine of the Middle East. The dirty streets oppressed her and the cold winter chilled her to the bone. Moreover, she viewed with alarm the renewed activities of Sir Oswald Mosley’s fascist hooligans, and wondered how many of her friends who thought she was German would still have been her friends had they known that she was not only German but Jewish. Remember that the clap-trap mouthed by these young fascist thugs who openly began to hold meetings in London was identical with Hitler’s ravings which had encompassed the death of most of Irene’s family little more than three years previously.

Sir Oswald Mosley, by the way, who addressed fascist meetings in the east end, dressed in jackboots and black riding breeches and shirt in pre-war years, had been interned during the war. It was always a mystery to me why the authorities did not shoot him. Instead, with that tolerance for which Britain was at one time famous, they let him loose again.

If these things made Irene begin to doubt the wisdom of continuing to reside in London, I saw the city as a huge stone and concrete prison. A kind of claustrophobia gripped me when I walked its dusty streets, devoid for miles of a single blade of healthy green grass.

The general economic situation at this time was also most depressing, and a sense of urgency began to prick at my mind. I was in my late twenties, beginning to look towards thirty, and I had achieved nothing, neither did I seem to have any prospects. Apart from these things, however, there was another even more important matter thrusting me towards pulling up stakes and starting afresh. Quite simply, I had a quite dreadful personal vision of the England of the future.

I saw the rich getting continuously richer and the poor getting poorer. I saw a country with decreasing access to raw materials and a need to rely increasingly on superior technology to import food and resources necessary for its survival. But who could guarantee that with increasing competition, English manufacturing excellence would continue to be triumphant? Beyond this, the tight little island was grossly overcrowded. Furthermore, the nation had always been riven by class distinction and had never been a true meritocracy with equal opportunity. I saw this inequality and class distinction tearing England apart.

I did not foresee racial strife, because West Indian and Commonwealth immigration had barely begun. What I did see, however, was the spectre of nuclear war.

Already we had been almost brought into conflict with our recent allies, the Russians, over the Berlin question – where that city had been divided into four segments under British, American, French, and Russian control.

There was no way in the world that I would have joined up again to fight the Russians, and I am sure that a very large number of ex-servicemen at that time would have been of the same mind. But it was crystal clear that Russia was to become the next enemy. Nuclear bombs had won the war against Japan, with what terrible effect everybody knew. How long would it be until the Russians mastered the technology and laid waste to England?

These, then, were our reasons for wanting to get to Australia. We were held up because of lack of shipping following the war. The Jumbo aircraft of the modern era had not yet been developed, and all travel to the Antipodes was by ship. The Australian Government, in its drive for migrants, was offering free passage to ex-service personnel. But in order not to prejudice the housing situation in Australia, which was very restricted after five years of war in which little building had been permitted, it was necessary for each migrant who was not a skilled tradesman to have a sponsor. This individual would guarantee board and lodging for six months in Australia. Irene and I had no known relatives in Australia, neither had we discovered any friends who had contacts. Therefore, to accelerate processing of our immigration application we had to find a sponsor. This was the reason for my letter to the Sydney Sun. The letter read as follows:

           Waiting, Hoping ……..

                My wife and I first decided to migrate in 1946, and long before the present ‘free and assisted passages’ scheme came into operation, we were investigating at Australia House here in London, generally gleaning all the information about it that we could.

                There are now about 750,000 applicants for free and assisted passages registered with the authorities – and the list is getting longer every day. So it would seem that if government-assisted migrants eventually leave at the rate of 50,000 a year, a wait of “some years” for those without priority such as my wife and myself may mean 15 years!

                In desperation my wife and I booked private passages with the P and O Line. We should be broke when we reached Australia, but at least we should get there while still young enough to feel ourselves part of the country.

                We were told at the time that we would have to wait 18 months for a berth. Today, more than a year afterwards, we are informed that the shipping position has worsened, and that a wait of three years is envisaged before tourist berths become available.

                When such difficulties and delays are put in one’s way, one feels at times like accepting the fact that one is beaten. Only at times, however, because we intend to come to your country no matter how long it takes, and to settle there.

                I wonder, nevertheless, if there is any reader of your newspaper who would care to nominate a would-be immigrant and his wife — both ex-service, and not afraid to work and learn? 

                When we get settled in Australia, we know at least one family whom we in turn shall nominate.”

About a fortnight after receipt of notification of publication of this letter, we received a further letter from a Mr P, of Campsie, Sydney, New South Wales. Mr P informed us that his parents, to his everlasting regret, had christened him Oliver, and begged us to call him “Oll” for short. He also told us that he would nominate us for a free passage if we received no other offers of help. As it turned out, we did not receive any other offers. Thus, a few weeks later Oll, true to his word, and despite the fact that he and his wife had five children, and his own house was, if anything, overcrowded, had nominated us.

Oll was employed at the GPO in Martin Place (now Martin Plaza), in Sydney. He was an upright, honest, hard working Australian gentleman, who took a chance on a couple of complete strangers. I added him and his wife Alma to my very special list of people whom I regarded it as a privilege to have known.

Ch8 Pt3 Escape from Berlin to Haifa

As far as the Rüdigers were concerned, they looked with concern at the future of the little girl in their charge in an increasingly military, racist and anti-Semitic Germany. Irena was also aware of the changes going on about her. Jews were forbidden by notice to sit on public benches, so-called “Aryan” Germans were forbidden to patronise Jewish businesses under threat of severe penalties, and there were always secret police on the lookout for offenders. Julius Streicher’s Der Stűrmer churned out the vilest and crudest of newspaper libels against the Jews. Thanks to unceasing insults and propaganda Hitler’s mania seemed to have communicated itself to the entire nation.

One day Irena came across two boys who were tormenting an old orthodox Jew by pulling his beard. She picked up some stones, threw them at the boys and bluffed them into moving on. It may have been at this time that she finally decided to quit Germany for good and go to Palestine. She always said that she smelt something dangerous and unhealthy in the air. She might have been fourteen or fifteen years old when she made this decision.

During the years following the end of the First World War, the interest in Palestine of European Jewry had been greatly stimulated. This revival of interest was due mainly to three factors. In the first place, the vast upheaval of peoples occasioned by the war had brought Western European Jews face to face with their eastern co-religionists who were in closer contact with the Holy Land. Secondly, European Jews began to have forebodings of new pogroms, especially in Germany as Hitler rose to power. The walls of the ghetto were down, but the new freedom did not necessarily spell security for the Jew. Finally, there was the Balfour Declaration, by which Great Britain gave her support to the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jews. There had been small Jewish settlements in Palestine since biblical days, but it was at the end of the nineteenth century, during the lifetime of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, that serious if sometimes unsuccessful attempts were made by communities of Jews to return to Palestine and settle there. At the conclusion of the First World War, the Balfour Declaration coupled with the lifting of the Turkish yoke now gave a basis for the realisation of Herzl’s ideas.

In the Germany of the nineteen twenties, as anti-Jewish feeling increased, a movement known as the Jugend Aliyah came into existence through which Jewish children were to be trained for settlement in Palestine. “Jugend” was the German word for “Youth” and “Aliyah” was the Hebrew word for “migration”. Members of the “Youth Migration” movements were sent for varying periods to farm schools in their native countries. They lived in “kibbutzim” or settlements in conditions that tried to simulate those they would find in Palestine. Here they were taught the elements of Hebrew, a dead language which was being revived and which is today the living, universal language of the people of the State of Israel. These Jewish children were carefully watched during their stay at farm schools, for immigration certificates to Palestine granted by the British authorities were limited. Therefore only the best could qualify for them and the Hebrew title of “Halutzim”, or “Pioneers”. The emphasis was on manual work and all-Hebrew speech. By manual work the Jews would redeem themselves and the soil of Palestine. By the use of Hebrew and the renunciation of bastard Yiddish and Ladino they would be truly recreating the spirit of the biblical ancients.

It was to one of these schools that Irena now went, taking tearful leave of Uncle Heinrich and Auntie Netti, and of Oma and Opa Rüdiger, who had been almost like real parents to her. Her mother put no obstacle in her way and appears at times to have been almost indifferent as to where this new step might be leading her daughter. Despite this, her final acquiescence, which still seems to be shrouded in a certain mystery, was to save her daughter’s life. 

In the autumn of 1938 Irena, 15 years old, obsessed by the idea of going to Palestine, and studying Hebrew earnestly, learnt that she was to board a train carrying Jewish children out of Germany. She had made her own arrangements to obtain a passport stamped “Palästinawanderer” after wrangling her mother’s consent. Although differences of opinion were opening between them, the mother did not want her young daughter to leave Germany. Irena had been in hospital with a lung infection and told her mother that she was signing a release form. The mother, her mind occupied as usual by business matters, signed without thinking. Irena also tried to persuade her brother Heini to emigrate with her, but he declined and thereby tragically and unwittingly signed his death warrant. The great Berlin railway station was crowded with parents saying tearful goodbyes to children carrying lunch baskets and spare clothes. But Irena’s mother was not there to see her off. It was a disappointment etched into Irena’s mind. Thus she quit the land of her birth. 

She was only just in time.       

Suddenly the embers of racial and religious prejudice and violence, fanned so assiduously by the Nazis, burst into flame. Anti-Jewish demonstrations broke out everywhere, and the exodus of Jewish children to Palestine was stopped. By lying propaganda, by offering the traditional Jewish scapegoat as the cause of all Germany’s misfortunes, and by appealing to the basest of human instincts Hitler was propelled to the pinnacle of his power. The long-suffering Jews took the first steps on a seemingly unending path of tears to European concentration camps. And the civilised nations who did not want to know about the butchery beginning in the Third Reich found themselves hurtling towards the most destructive war in the history of mankind.

At a later date gentle Uncle Heinrich and Auntie Netti were to find death in one of those concentration camps so aptly called by the Nazis “Vernichtungslager” – “Vernichtung” meaning quite literally “reduction to nothingness. 

After Irena had left Germany the Nazis one night smashed their way into the house where her brother lived and sent him to a concentration camp. Heini, a sixteen years old boy, must have wondered why he was so ill treated, for he had broken no law and harmed nobody. His mother, awake at last to the danger, fled to England, where she frantically canvassed a number of her relatives who had settled there to raise enough money to ransom her son. But she was unsuccessful. And then, with a finality which put paid to all her efforts, Germany invaded Poland. Within twenty four hours England had declared war on Germany and all avenues of communication were cut.

Heini Schreiber disappeared from the face of the earth. He became one of the six million victims of the Holocaust and one of the forty million dead from all sides in World War Two.

Irena had escaped to Palestine on one of the last refugee trains to leave Germany. She travelled by way of Italy, where she took ship across the Mediterranean. The crew was Italian and there were many adult passengers aboard. But the youthful refugees formed a large proportion of the travellers.

Although they were little more than children the young emigrants were unnaturally subdued. Only a few weeks before, they had been looked after by parents and relatives. Now, very suddenly, they had to look after themselves and, perhaps, after each other. Without being able to put their feelings into words they knew that they would be without family for a very long time. They knew also that their parents and loved ones in Germany were in great peril. As if this was not enough they were going to a strange country of which they knew nothing. And all the time they were trying to cope with a new and difficult language. This was Hebrew, whose Semitic words, grammar and writing had nothing in common with their native German. 

After ploughing through the blue and mostly calm Mediterranean the ship berthed at Haifa. Irena felt little joy and some trepidation when she first set eyes on the continental-style cafés along busy Kingsway, the picturesque but run-down Arab quarter, and the white, flat-roofed houses climbing up Mount Carmel. In any event, her stay in Haifa was brief. Almost immediately she was whisked away to the long-established kibbutz of Ashtoth Yakov, some miles out of the city. Here the only language spoken was Hebrew. Even though it was understood German was met with a stony stare, so the newcomers had no option but to learn the language. Older kibbutzniks were intermixed with them to teach them agriculture and accustom their ears to the new tongue. 

The trickle of mail from Germany stopped with the advent of the war. The new arrivals felt like total orphans. This was what most of them were shortly to become.

Ch8 Pt2 Irena growing up.

With the death of Irena’s father, her mother had to support two children. She thus became a commercial traveller, and with her handsome appearance, persuasive manner, and multi-lingual gifts, began to make a satisfactory if somewhat hazardous living. Neither was she always too worried about the quality of the merchandise. Personal survival was the object, and it was legitimate to subordinate everything else to that end if necessity so dictated.

Irena always remembered one occasion when she was with her mother in a small village somewhere in Germany – a “Dorf.” Her mother had been selling fur coats at very reasonable prices against the bitter cold of the coming continental winter, and she had made a killing and got rid of all her stock. They went back to their hotel, Irena hoping for a day of relaxation in the country. But the sky began to cloud over, and a thin drizzle of rain started to fall. Her mother began to show signs of great agitation, and went to the hotel desk, ringing the bell impatiently until the clerk came to attend to her.

“Gnädige Frau?”

“What time does the next train depart for Berlin?”

“At two o’clock, Madam.”

“We are leaving straight away.”

“But Madam, your bags……?”

“They are packed. How much do I owe you?”

The clerk added up some accounts, and she settled the bill. Dashing upstairs, she descended almost immediately, lugging two suitcases. “Irenchen! Komm’ schnell!”.

“But Mutti,” cried Irena, “why do we have to leave so soon?”

“We have to catch the train to Berlin.”

She dashed up the street, lugging her two suitcases through the drizzling rain, while Irena ran to keep up with her. In the distance they could hear the approaching train. Just in time they reached the ticket office, paid their fares, and climbed on board. Irena’s mother hoisted the suitcases on to the rack, and collapsed on the wooden seat, puffing and blowing. The train gathered speed as she regained her breath. Outside the rain began to pour down.

“Mutti,” said Irena, “tell me why we had to leave so quickly.”

“Those fur coats, Irenchen,” said her mother. 

”They were no good. I got them very cheaply. That’s how I sold them so well and made a profit. But I got them because….. as soon as it starts to rain, all the fur falls out.” She began to laugh uncontrollably. 

“Can you imagine? All the fine ladies of the village will be parading up and down in their coats. But as soon as they get a little bit wet, they will all start to moult. Their fur will fall out. They will look like mangy cats……like plucked chickens! Oh, it’s so amusing. But we couldn’t stay in that village when the rain started. We had to leave. Otherwise they would have wanted their money back!” 

”My mother,” said Irena, in later years, “was not always one hundred per cent honest in business.”

But what woman can afford to be honest when she has two children to feed and no husband to look after the family.

The burden of caring for two children was a heavy one for Berta. Both Irena and Heini were sent to foster parents or orphanages to live while their mother travelled the country, buying, selling and cooking up all sorts of deals to keep the pot boiling. Slowly Irena began to spend more and more time with foster parents, while the mother kept Heini more and more with her when she managed to stay in Berlin. Did she sense that Heini was the weaker and Irena was the stronger? Did she feel that it was impossible to keep the two, or that she was only capable of looking after the one? Who can tell? Who can make a valid judgment at this distance when things were so bad in Germany for Jewish people; when Berta had to make her own way, or starve, with her young husband dead. Life must have been so lonely and difficult for her.  

The unfortunate result was that Irena spent practically no time at all with her mother, and did not see her for months on end. She boarded sometimes at orphanages, but mostly with the Rüdiger family, being in the care of the old grandfather and his wife. These became her “Oma” and “Opa”, – her “Grandma” and “Grandpa”.

The Rüdigers lived in Blumenstrasse – (“Flowers Street”) – in a working class district of east Berlin. Three and four storeyed nineteenth century houses had been broken up into flats, each flat on its own level, reached by a common flight of stairs.

The Rüdigers lived one floor above street level. They were good Catholics who attended church regularly. But in addition (somewhat unusually), they were secret communists. There was a special hole in the ceiling where Opa Rüdiger used to hide his personal documents and party propaganda. Opa was a great canary breeder, and the walls of the kitchen at the back were lined with cages he had built himself. When the sun shone through the windows, the canaries would sing their hearts out.

Irena hated the times when she was separated from the Rüdigers and placed for some unfathomable reason in an orphanage. Her sadness was almost traumatic. But somehow she always gravitated back to the Rüdigers. She loved them most of all. From Opa and Oma Rüdiger she received the personal kindnesses, the good night kisses, the embraces, the small expressions of affection without which children die spiritually and emotionally. She felt that she belonged to their family. Her heart cried out for the need to belong to a family. Why had her own original family been taken from her after the death of her father?

There were, however, some relatives close at hand. Just down the road, in the same Blumenstrasse in which Oma and Opa Rüdiger lived, there dwelt also Irena’s Uncle Heinrich and Auntie Netti. These two inoffensive, elderly citizens kept a small clothes shop in another part of the city that Irena sometimes used to visit. There was nothing spectacular about their shop. It was rather cramped, and much of the merchandise was suspended high on the walls on special hangers, which were lifted down by Uncle Heinrich with a hook attached to the end of a long stick. Auntie Netti was a motherly type who enjoyed excellent relations with a long established clientèle. She made it her motto that no customer should go away dissatisfied, and if the required goods were not in stock, then they would be obtained.

It was a true family business in an unhurried age in which there was still time to have a chat with people and not rush them off their feet. Uncle Heinrich, quiet and self-effacing, seemed only there to help Auntie Netti. They went quietly to business together every morning and came quietly home in the evening. Their hobby was collecting silver. They were by no means rich, but over the years had built up a collection of interesting pieces, which Auntie Netti kept scrupulously polished.

Uncle Heinrich and Auntie Netti had no children of their own. But Auntie Netti was the sister of Irena’s father. She had promised him before he died that she would look after Irena, and whilst the little girl could not live with them, due to their need to go to business, they kept an eye on her when they were at home. The bakery was just down from their apartment, and whenever Oma Rüdiger sent Irena to buy a loaf of bread she looked in if she could on Uncle Heinrich and Auntie Netti.

It was typical of Irena’s mother that although she was at great pains to eat kosher and was in some ways very orthodox, in other directions her orthodoxy was conspicuous by its complete absence. For instance, she nearly always placed her daughter to be cared for by Gentiles, not Jews. Thus Irena rapidly began to lose touch with the pattern of Jewish life. The Holy Days meant nothing to her; even the Sabbath. The “most holy day, the bond between God and man” became just another day in the week for her. And it has been truly said…”More than the Jew has kept the Sabbath, it is the Sabbath that has kept the Jew.” 

Yet although Irena lost her Jewish observances, she was conscious always that in the eyes of the outside world she was marked for life as a separate person, a Jew, somebody slightly different from the rest of humanity.