Ch 11 Holocaust survivors

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.

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.