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.

Ch10 Pt6 Kempsey and exam results

Our house was perched on the ridge with beautiful views both ways, especially up the Tweed Valley to Mount Warning. The main window in the lounge was plate glass, and the view was like an oil painting of the Valley by a master landscape artist. Sometimes birds skimmed across the valley and tried to fly straight into our lounge room, often knocking themselves out on the plate glass. But the chief disadvantage in building on such commanding ground was brought home to us one night when a cyclonic wind started to blow. We had not realised the enormous energy created and dissipated in the form of cyclones on the Queensland coast. Now we found out. The house shuddered and shook throughout the entire night, and the wind only abated the next morning. During all this time, Irene and I lay silently in bed, waiting for the next sledgehammer blow to hit the house and make it shudder. Irene was wake and I was awake, but neither let the other know for fear of creating unnecessary alarm. The only people who slept peacefully through that night were Patricia and Peter in their bedrooms on the opposite side of the house. They slept the peaceful sleep of the innocent and the young.

The next morning, when Irene and I got out of bed and realised that we had both been awake simultaneously, we went downstairs to see what had happened to several large tea-chests containing heavy tools, books and household goods which we had stored under the house. They had been blown right across the road, and scattered into the scrub. Now we realised why our builder had actually anchored the house with huge bolts into the concrete foundations, and strongly strutted the wooden “stumps” on which the house stood.

It was very hot in Murwillumbah, and all the neighbours used to leave their front and back doors wide open all day long. Everybody knew everybody else, and in those days you could leave your house open without fear. We had a small bitzer dog at the time. He was only a puppy, but he was full of fun. He would run up and down the street and steal slippers and shoes from other people’s houses. At times I would have up to a dozen odd pieces of footwear hidden underneath the house. He was an incorrigible thief, and people started to complain. In the long run, I had to have him put down. He was a lovable animal, just the same, and the last dog I ever owned.

At the Council, I began to chafe at the large number of people senior to me. I thought I should never get promotion here. So when a job was advertised in Kempsey for an “A” Grade Clerk at Macleay Shire, I took it. I would be that much nearer Newcastle and Sydney, and in any event, I felt that middle age was starting to catch up with me. It was nearly time for me to think in terms of a permanent billet. The Council bought a very nice house for Irene and me at Kempsey, on the understanding that I refinance it from my own resources and pay them back at an early date. The sale of our house at Murwillumbah, and the raising of a further bank loan, fulfilled this task.

Our house in Sullivan Street, East Kempsey was a large fibro residence on sloping ground with a huge garage at the back. It was possibly the best house we had ever lived in during our Australian experience. Every day I walked over the big old-fashioned timber bridge that crossed the Macleay River to the Macleay Shire Council Chambers above Reg Harrington Motors in Belgrave Street, the main thoroughfare. 

I had joined a Masonic Lodge in Sydney, and gone through the 3rd degree in Murwillumbah, on a rainy night just before the entire town was flooded. In Kempsey I was fortunate enough to meet a number of men who embodied all that was good in Freemasonry. 

I never quite repeated the experience elsewhere. I reached the 18th Degree at Kempsey, and later, in Wingham, became the Master of the Royal Arch Chapter before abandoning “The Craft” for one reason and another.

We had had no car at Murwillumbah, but at Kempsey I bought an old but durable 1939 Chevrolet. It enabled us to make trips to Port Macquarie, Crescent Head, and the beaches. We also had a couple of very hazardous trips to Sydney. For in the old Chev the petrol had the habit of vaporising in the middle of a very hot day so that it never got as far as the engine, and the whole contraption stopped until the engine, and the weather had cooled down. I remember that one day we started off for Sydney at eight o’clock in the morning, but didn’t get there until well after midnight, being stranded for hours on what was then a dusty gravel road between Gloucester and Krambach.

After I had been at Kempsey a couple of months, Lloyd, the Shire Clerk, called me in. He said, “My wife has just rung me about you.”

I made a non-committal noise. I hardly knew his wife.

He went on, “She’s seen your name in the Sydney Morning Herald.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Your name was published in the list of successful Technical College examination candidates. You’re a qualified Town and Shire Clerk.”

I don’t remember what I said. I know that an enormous wave of relief swept over me. I didn’t feel that I had suddenly been clothed in a garment of omniscience. I knew my limitations too well for that. But I was vastly pleased that through perseverance I, a stranger in a foreign land, had acquired a qualification that a very large number of the native born who aspired to it failed to obtain. That might mean I was lucky. But it certainly had to mean that I had perseverance and that if I wasn’t a genius, I surely wasn’t stupid either.

I will recall what Irene said when I rang her about it. She was silent for a moment. Then she said: “Oh, my dear, I am so glad.”

The terms of my appointment to Macleay Shire were that if I got my ticket, they were immediately to promote me to Deputy Shire Clerk and, more importantly, pay me the going rate. To the credit of the Shire Clerk and the Council, this was done at once and without any argument.

It was during this time that Patricia learnt to swim at the local pool under the tuition of Neville Duke, the lessee, who was an excellent teacher. Peter, too, liked to paddle at the beach and occasionally dip his toes in the shallow end of Kempsey McElhone Memorial Pool, although he was rather small yet to take much of an interest in swimming. It was in Kempsey, too, that Chris, our Number Two son was born. It was rather fortunate that just before Christopher put in an appearance I had traded in the old 1939 Chev for a brand new Morris Minor. I was not quite 37 years old, and this was the first new car I had ever owned. I was, of course, vastly proud of the little wagon.

Irene had been experiencing discomfort for quite a while, and thought that labour pains had started. The doctor, an expatriate Pommy, put her into the Macleay District Hospital. However, nothing happened, and they sent her home to ”do some washing.” Being who she was, she was up at six o’clock next morning, doing just that in the laundry under the house.                                            

Half way through, she suddenly dashed upstairs, pulled me out of bed, and screamed at me to get the car going. At this stage, I was very glad that I had invested in a new Morris Minor, for the car started like a charm. Patricia and Peter, wondering what it was all about, piled into the back, Irene grabbed her suitcase, and we were away. No sooner were we in the street than she urged me to go faster. I crammed on speed, but then she cried out that I was going too fast and would risk an accident. So I slowed down. However, when I slowed down, I was told to step on it, otherwise I would have to deliver the baby personally in the car. This really shook me, for I hadn’t the faintest idea what would be required of me. Thus, alternately speeding up and slowing down, we shot across the timber bridge over the river, along the deserted main street, and finally arrived at the hospital on the other side of town.

Irene told me to drive right up to the door, practically fell out of the car under the sympathetic eyes of several globular pregnant ladies on the verandah, and into the understanding arms of a nurse who sized up the situation immediately. I was abruptly dismissed. This was women’s work. So I got back in the car and drove home with the kids. 

Reaching home five minutes later, I heard the phone ringing and dashed inside to answer it. They told me that we had another son, and that I could come back to see him. So once more I raced across town and entered the Macleay District Hospital.

There, on a table, Christopher lay stark naked. He was very obviously a manchild, and I will swear that he swivelled his head around on the table and grinned at me as I came through the door. His umbilical cord hung carelessly across his stomach and over the edge of the table. He seemed to be saying, “How are you mate, all right? Are you pleased to see me?”

Our next door neighbour in Kempsey was Ralph, an exceptionally fine man, who had built the house in which we now lived. One of his sons was called Christopher, and Irene told me that Patricia and Peter, between them, had decided that “Christopher” should be the name of their new brother. (“James” was inserted by Irene, after myself). Thus was Christopher named, and I only found out about it afterwards, when the registration had been made. I must confess that I thought it was a good choice. But I always told Irene that I was convinced that she had actually named Chris after the doctor who had attended her during pregnancy. She never failed to deny this with some vehemence. Incidentally, that doctor came charging down the road in his little car about half an hour after everything had happened. Apparently he had been abruptly pulled away from his breakfast, so young Chris really stirred the possum in Kempsey on that memorable morning in 1959.