Walk a mile in their shoes: Displaced, refugees, asylum seekers
Reading from the book “Memories in my Luggage” at Osborne House, Geelong, 20 September 2015, read by author Sabine Nielsen
In the light of what has been happening – the enormous influx of refugees in Europe and the many refugees who are waiting to get to Australia, I revisited the stories of migrants who arrived in Australia in the 1950’s and found a lot of passages in the book that are particularly pertinent at this time. These are people, who experienced war first hand; who lost their homes or homeland and loved ones; who had to flee, to embark on a hazardous journey and became ‘displaced persons’.
‘Displaced’ is such a loaded term – in a way, it applies to all migrants – because in a way, we all find ourselves ‘displaced’ – at least for a while - away from our home, our friends, our families, our language, our familiar surroundings .
Paul Anders was a member of the German Merchant Navy, when he got caught up in WWII. He experienced torpedoes, losses at sea, internment camps – and an extremely hazardous boat journey. He was born in Silesia – what is now a part of Poland. Despite being entirely landlocked, Paul had no greater wish than to become a sailor – and he managed. He joined the German Merchant Navy in 1939 and spent a happy year at sea, sailing for the East-Africa line. Unfortunately, war was declared, and he and everybody aboard his boat – the Adolph Woermann - was taken prisoner by the English. After a spell in a POW camp in England, they were put aboard the Andorra Star. We can only imagine what it is like for refugees today, who attempt a sea crossing by boat. This is what Paul experienced:
We stayed there (at the internment camp; ed.) until June 1940.
In June, the English began to fear a German invasion. All those interned were taken to Liverpool where we were put on the Arandora Star. There were 1200 Germans and Italians on board. Many of the Italians had fled from Mussolini to England and had been living there peacefully until Churchill ordered their internment. The entire crew of the Adolph Woermann was also on board.
On 2 July, at 7am, we were attacked off the north-west coast of Ireland by the German Submarine U-47 under Captain Prien. One single German torpedo struck the Arandora Star, and within thirty minutes, she had sunk. Eight hundred people lost their lives, including our captain, Otto Burfeind. He had stayed on board to organise the evacuation. It was eight hours before a Canadian destroyer, the
St Laurent, picked us up.
There were 586 survivors who landed in Scotland. In Greenock, there is still a monument to the many people who lost their lives, seventy years after the sinking of the Arandora Star. In Scotland, there remains one survivor from the accident; the other one is living here in Melbourne! I didn’t register for the memorial celebration, which was organised last year. I don’t want to travel any more, as I’m only doing day trips. My daughter takes me on those, out to the country; she’s an excellent driver. Sometimes, we go to the Shepparton area, sometimes to the Dandenongs, where the forests remind me of my Silesian homeland, or sometimes to the Great Ocean Road. I can never get enough of this coastal road – the view from the cliffs to the ocean is fantastic. I can go and gaze at it again and again.
I have no desire to go back to Scotland. We were in Greenock for three days in an empty warehouse, and slept on the concrete floor. There were no provisions. The guards gave us some of their food. Six people had to share one slice of bread, which we cut into six pieces!
Eventually, they were put aboard another ship.
Sure enough, on 10 July 1940, we went on board the Dunera. This time, besides the crew, there were British soldiers on board. Many of them were army officers who had taken part in the Battle of Dunkirk. They were not inclined to speak kindly to Germans. We were told in no uncertain terms: “We want nothing to do with you Germans. If there are any difficulties, you’ll all be shot.”
Most of us were Jewish civilians, from Vienna, Berlin and every corner of Germany and Austria – and Italians. But Churchill had given the command: “Collar the lot!” The ship was overflowing. There were 2542 internees crammed together on board. Then there was the ship’s crew, and 309 British soldiers. We had nowhere near enough places to sleep. We slept on the floor, on the tables, on the benches – people even tried to stretch out on the staircases.
I remember arriving on board the Dunera. The British soldiers had spread out big tarpaulins on the deck. There were mountains of suitcases on them. Not neatly lined up, just thrown on top of each other. First, we all had to empty our pockets. Everything was taken off us. Handkerchiefs, fountain pens, small change, anything that was in our pockets. Watches were taken off us, then rings. Those who couldn’t get their rings off were sent to the bathroom to put plenty of soap on their fingers, so that the rings would slide off. At sea, the suitcases were all checked, and anything remotely valuable was taken away. If a suitcase was locked, it would be cut open.
Next to me, someone called out: “That’s my suitcase!” The guard looked at him, grinned, cut the case open and searched through it. When he was finished, he threw the suitcase overboard. I can still see it before me now: case after case flew over the railing and landed in the sea. We Germans had nothing to lose, because we had already lost everything, but these suitcases belonged to the Jews, who had fled under terrible circumstances. Now, the little that they had left was floating on the sea. The British soldiers just hated the Germans. For them, these persecuted Jewish German civilians were simply the enemy.
The English sailors were different. They treated us with respect, although they couldn’t do a thing. The captain said to us: “We can’t do anything. We aren’t responsible for you.” He then warned us: “Be careful!”
Later, after the war, when it became known what had happened on the Dunera, the officer in charge was brought to account (Lieutenant-Colonel William Scott had to face a military court, ed.).
It was 36 hours after the Dunera had left Liverpool that we found ourselves at the site where the Arandora Star had been sunk. It became very quiet on the ship. Those who had survived remembered their comrades. The others had heard of the tragedy. Everyone waited fearfully for another attack, and, sure enough, at 11 o’clock, a terrible explosion shook the ship. Again, we had been struck by a German torpedo. The lights went out, and the machines stopped. Panic broke out amongst the internees. Everyone wanted to get out on to the deck, but the exits had been locked! People poured on to the stairways. Even though those at the top couldn’t open the doors, those down below pushed towards them. A thousand people, all trying to escape up one little staircase! I was stuck in the middle of the crowd – it wouldn’t have taken much for me to have been trampled to death.
After a minute or two, which seemed like an eternity, the lights went on and the machines started up again. The sense of relief on board the ship was unbelievable.
The torpedo had indeed struck the Dunera, but the new torpedoes were no good! There was a problem with the magnetic fuse and it failed to explode, so we were all saved.
We arrived in Australia on 3 September 1940, after 57 days at sea. Of course, we didn’t know that we were bound for Australia. We thought we were going to Canada. A few people said: “There’s always fog near the Canadian coast.” We didn’t see any fog, instead, it got warmer and warmer.
On top of that, the fresh water ran out. The captain sailed to Freetown in order to stock up on water, but there was no water. After three days in which we had only drunk half a cup of tea each, we reached Takoradi in Ghana. As for food – the only food we had was bread. Later, when we arrived in Sydney, the first person to come on board was a doctor, who was horrified that everyone was so thin and starved.
From Takoradi, we sailed on to Cape Town. I had never seen waves like the waves we saw there. They were as high as houses! It was unbelievable how much the ship rocked. The civilians were all seasick. They queued up in front of the toilets, but they couldn’t get there in time. In the end everything had been vomited on, the passageways, the stairs – everything. Because there weren’t enough toilets, the guards had given us tubs, which we were allowed to use if nature’s call was too strong. Now imagine the scene: they had to go up slippery stairs, the ship was rocking – of course they tripped over, and everything poured out over those who were lying there. And the stench was dreadful!
What was it like for Paul when he arrived here? He and his crew members, the Jewish civiliians and the Italian POWs were interned at Tatura.
The train’s first stop was in Seymour. We weren’t allowed out, but young women passed tea and sandwiches in to us. The Australian guard noticed that none of us were smoking.
“You’re allowed to smoke,” he said.
We didn’t have any cigarettes, so he got out his own packet of cigarettes and passed them around.
Another surprise awaited us when we arrived at the internment camp in Tatura : there were laden tables at the ready! We were open-mouthed with amazement when we saw the enormous piles of meat, cheese, sausages, fruit and vegetables. We went and ate, and the officers stood around and enjoyed it. They really had fun filling us up! One of them was walking around with a bowl and asking: “Would anyone like more meat?”
That was our first impression of Australia. It was overwhelming – like a fairyland, a land of milk and honey. We were always well-treated. Every morning at breakfast we were counted, then the camp commander said: “Good morning everybody! Have a nice day!”
How did Paul experience Australia? At the end of the war, he decided to stay here. His mother had died, escaping the Russian army – he had no home to return to. This is what Paul told me at the beginning of our interview:
I went back to Germany three times. The first time was in 1955; I stayed for eight months and even found a job. The second time I went back was in 1959, and the last time was in 1990, for three months in the German summer. I returned to Australia every time, because I just didn’t fit in any more. As my former boss in Melbourne used to say: “Once you’ve had a taste of honey, you’ll never like sour milk again.”
People in Germany are so serious! In Australia, they take life a bit more easily. In the 1950s, the Germans were really only interested in themselves. Everyone was consumed with the post-war reconstruction. How was it going for me? How was I getting on overseas and what was life like? Nobody asked me that. The only thing they asked me was: “How much are you earning in Australia?”
My hometown, Heidersdorf in Silesia, I’ve never seen again. In the 1950s, it was impossible to travel there, and later, I didn’t want to any more. People who have been back have told me that everything has changed. I don’t want to see that. It’s better to hold on to the memories that you have, and to remember how it once was.
And at the end of our talk:
We’ve always celebrated Christmas the German way, on Christmas Eve, and with Silent Night, Holy Night. That’s always beautiful.
I can’t read any more, my eyes will no longer co-operate, but I’ve still got my German records. I always listen to the German programme on SBS Radio, and I watch the German news every morning. I live with two cultures and take the best of both. I often think of my homeland – in a sense, I’m standing with one foot in Australia and one foot in Germany.
But I’m Australian. I’m even “naturalised” – I took on Australian citizenship in 1955. When I arrived here, I knew nothing about Australia, and I’d only ever heard of Sydney and of kangaroos. There are some people who say: “In Germany the margarine tastes like butter.” I believe I ended up in the best country in the world. I arrived at the Tatura camp with absolutely nothing, but they gave us clothing the very next day – socks, shoes, trousers, hat and coat. The Australians treated their prisoners well. I’ve never been sick here, never been hungry, and I’ve always had money. Since I retired, I’ve been on five cruises – even though, long ago, everyone advised me against going to sea!
We’ve all seen and read about the refugees clambering aboard trains in Hungary and Austria hoping to travel to Germany. How these train journeys linger in the minds of those who took them was brought home to me recently.
On the cover of the German version of the book you can see the type of trains that were used to transport migrants – in Victoria usually to Bonegilla. They were box carts that were also used to transfer cattle. Imagine what it must have felt like for someone – a Jewish person – who had been aboard one of those trains on her way to a concentration camp. Sometimes, resistance fighters managed to derail these trains, to break open the doors and let people escape. This woman was one of those, she managed to jump off the train and with her little daughter run into the forest to hide. She managed to get away and eventually she came to Australia. Imagine her horror, when she once again was forced to board a train – just like the one that had taken her towards a KZ!
Those memories linger. Marlis Frazer remembers a similar train journey. 70 years after, the emotion was just as raw. Marlis had been taken to Gotenhafen (in Pomerania, now Gdynia, in Poland) with her family because her father had to work at a torpedo testing station. Here are Marlis’ recollection of the journey there:
The Germans had barely marched into Poland when my father was called up and sent to Gotenhafen. We had to wait six months before we were allowed to join him. My mother, my sister Nanni, my brothers Jonni and Karl, and I. We travelled the whole way by train, from Schleswig to Berlin and then to Gotenhafen. My most vivid impression of the journey was that the train was absolutely packed. Soldiers were constantly boarding the train to make their way to the Russian front. Our compartment was already full to bursting, and then two soldiers came along. “There’s no room in here!” shouted someone, but they came in anyway. The simply climbed into the luggage nets, lay down and went to sleep. The windows were totally and utterly fogged up, and it was forbidden to put the light on. Only a single blue bulb shone from the ceiling of our compartment.
Later, there was an accident at the factory, and her father was killed. Because the work was top secret, the family never found out what had happened, and they did not receive a body that they could have buried. It took months, before a passage was organised for Marlis’ mother and brothers and sister, to return to Germany
My father was 41 years old when he died. It was terrible, and we couldn’t believe it. My mother had a nervous breakdown. My father had been her great love. An uncle of Mother’s came out from Germany to help us. My younger brother Karl was in hospital when it happened. He had a boil that required surgery. My father had taken him there, and when Karl came home, our father was no longer alive. Karl didn’t say a single word for two years. He had somehow got the idea that Father’s death was his fault. And Jonni never got to know his father. I think that was really hard for him later. Somehow, he has never quite managed to cope with his life.
We weren’t able to leave Poland until five long months later. At one point on the journey home to Germany, the train came to a halt. It was a very isolated place, no town, no houses, there was nothing there. But the night sky was lit up by searchlights. I was very scared.
Another train journey: Inga Martinow describes her arrival in Australia.
In August 1948 we arrived in Australia on the Wooster Victory. We leaned on the railing and took a look at our new homeland: the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which arched high over the bay, with its curved steel supports, and Luna Park, the amusement park with its gigantic smiling face. Late in the afternoon we were loaded into trains that took us to Bathurst. It was already dark, and so we saw nothing of the broad landscape, the endless cattle paddocks, and the widely spaced farmhouses and tiny little towns. But the wailing of the locomotive would remind me for years afterwards of the air raids in Germany.
We started our exhibition at Bonegilla – Migrant Reception Centre, they called it – and we hear and see stories of refugees on Manus Island and Nauru. These are Inga’s first impressions:
From the railway station in Bathurst we were taken to a former barracks a few kilometres outside the city. The wooden huts that awaited us were unlined. Through the knot holes in the wood, we could see outside. The only pieces of furniture were iron bedsteads with two hard, grey army woollen blankets - totally and utterly insufficient for cold winter nights.
Percy went straight to the camp administration and got himself a job. He became an assistant in the transport department. That was where the employment of the immigrants was organised. They were sent all over the country. Many had to go and work on the sugar cane plantations of Queensland. Without consulting me, Percy organised for me to work as an office worker in the same department as him. I would have expected to be asked, at least – but on the other hand, we wanted to find work and earn money as quickly as possible, of course. We had landed in Australia with one suitcase per person! Only one suitcase with which to start a new life. I was annoyed when I noticed that others had not taken this restriction so seriously. One man had even brought an industrial sewing machine with him. I had hidden four Meiβener cups in my luggage – the only luxury that I had allowed myself.
With my first pay packet I bought two imported Eiderdown quilts. In those days they were quite unknown in Australia; everyone used woollen blankets. But not even three woollen blankets would have taken the edge off the icy cold, and for the first time in my life, I suffered from painful chilblains, for which there was no remedy in Australia. My mother came to us later, and she too suffered from chilblains for years. The Australian houses had thin walls, and they were not properly insulated. Nor were there any stoves or central heating, only smoking fireplaces in the living room. And in the 1950s, many houses had only dunnys out the back in the garden. We found that most unusual!
In the Migrants’ Reception Camp in Bathurst, the toilets and showers were housed in separate rooms. Poisonous spiders lurked above the door frames. I always held my head in whenever I went through the door. But on the very first morning I was woken by birdsong! A whole flock was trilling, warbling and singing the highest notes. I stepped out into the frosty sunshine. On the low branch of a eucalyptus tree sat a single black and white bird – a magpie. Ever since that day, I have loved eucalyptus trees and magpies!
Inga still loves Magpies, and there is always one pair that makes her garden its home. She feeds them with bits of meat! How did she experience Australia?
Although I had arrived in Australia as a German, and so soon after the war, I was accepted by the Australian population and was seldom confronted with prejudice. The Australian citizens generally regarded us in neutral terms. What was harder to bear was the Australian press. Almost daily, an article appeared which raged against the Germans or denunciated afresh scandalous German wartime deeds. This didn’t bother the Australians; I had the feeling that they were very ignorant. They simply lived too far away from the rest of the world, and information about other countries in the Australian press was sorely lacking. At the same time, they considered themselves very important, and complained that the world didn’t know anything about Australia. I remember taking part in a conversation shortly after my arrival. ‘How much can there be to know about a small European country?’ I was asked in all seriousness.
Of course, the Australians had experienced nothing of the fear and the terror with which Hitler had ruled. They may have heard the Flüsterwitze - whispered jokes which made fun of the Nazis and which we used to tell each other – very carefully, of course, as we were constantly afraid of being denunciated.
After the long, bleak war years, it was especially enjoyable to be able to buy dress fabrics in Australia. So often we had had to unpick old garments and transform them into ‘new’ things. In the camp I found an exceptionally talented Latvian tailoress. She made Wito a little camel-hair coat with a brown velvet collar, and for me she made a mother-of-pearl coloured velvet dress and a delicate green blouse with a beige skirt. Having got by with one pair of shoes for years, I was now able to buy a second and third pair. And in a clothes shop in Bathurst I bought a two-piece suit of black crepe with shiny buttons!
I was eight months pregnant when the director of our camp, Mr Patterson, retired. At his farewell party, I summoned all my courage, chose my words carefully and made him a farewell speech, in which I thanked him for his friendliness and the harmonious working atmosphere which he had created. One of his male colleagues, who regarded himself as above women, was affronted. How was I supposed to know that, as a female, and pregnant at that, I didn’t have the right to address a company of honourable migrant employees of the Australian Employment Office?
Then there were the cultural differences to get around:
One evening there was a supper of sardines. To my great surprise, two tiny sardines were taken out of a tin that was just as tiny. These were put in the middle of a plate. There was bread and butter on a separate plate. I wondered how I could combine the sardines and bread, but English tradition demanded that both should be eaten separately!
And despite the difficulties, and the fact that her friends in Australia mainly were other Europeans, Inga sums up her life:
… emigrating to Australia has doubled my horizons. I’ve done my best, during my lifetime here, to find my own way.
We hear stories of bombing raids, killings, rapes, pillaging in the countries from which the current refugees escape. Bombing raids were familiar to the migrants I spoke, too. How does one live with the constant threat to one’s life, one’s home, one’s family? Fritz Schwab tells his story:
Even now, after 57 years in Australia, I still say that I'm not an Australian, and nor am I a German. I'm a Berliner! Nowadays, people talk about integration a lot, but integration is nonsense - people can't change. I've been over to Germany twelve or thirteen times since I came to Australia, and all I can say is: Berlin is Berlin. You can't get away from it. That's why it is so difficult for Berliners to migrate.
Berlin was always different, never like West Germany. In the war, it was hell. And after the war, the Russians came, and then the Yanks. When the war was over I opened a little shop, the BSB Berlin Typing Office. My wife, Inge, also worked there as a stenographer.
But what happened? The Allies decided that the West Berlin sector should be annexed to West Germany. The Russians refused, issued an ultimatum, and closed the borders. Suddenly, West Berlin was completely closed off. During the blockade, absolutely nothing was allowed into Berlin – not even supplies. How could anyone keep up a business under those circumstances? The vast majority of the population was unemployed. So, off I went to work as a waiter, and Inge worked at night, in a business which produced test tubes. She worked for four hours every night. My shift at the bar began at 8 o'clock in the evening and finished at 6 o'clock in the morning. My salary consisted of ten per cent of the service charges and the tips. “Drink with the women who are on their own”, said my boss. “Order the expensive bubbly, not the cheap stuff.”
There weren't many men left after the war, so it was my job to entertain the women who came into the bar alone.
Then the “airlift” started. Well, I'm not the fearful type, but during the airlift, the planes flew over our heads constantly. Every three minutes, one plane landed and another one took off. The pilots were only allowed one attempt at landing, so of course there were accidents, and sometimes crashes. We never knew how long the Russians were going to stand by and watch.
We had two small children, four and five years’ old, and there was absolutely nothing to eat, except horse meat! Once, my friend, Achim, came across several injured horses. The horses suffered too during the war – they had to pull the cannons. Achim wasted no time in putting them out of their misery. Of course, other people had seen him do it and wanted a share of the loot. All the same, we carried home two buckets of horse meat – a feast! In the next few days there was horse meat on every table in the neighbourhood. The same thing happened after the war. Real horse meat butchers set up shop, for example, in Augusta Strasse – now Blisse Strasse. And the Wurstmaxe sold horse sausages from a kiosk on the Kurfürstendamm!
At that time, it wasn't possible to keep ourselves clean or to do our washing properly. The power was switched on for only two hours at night. Then we experienced the catastrophic winter of 1948. The temperature reached 42 degrees below zero! There was nothing at all to heat with. Wooden doorsteps and the handrails of the staircases disappeared – everything was used for heating. We had neighbours, two old ladies who were twin sisters, they froze to death in their apartment. There was a man living upstairs who froze and starved to death. There weren't even any coffins – people were buried in cardboard boxes.
Fritz’ father was Jewish which made Fritz a ‘half-Jew’ in Hitler’s Germany. His mother had died young and Fritz’ father remarried. At the age of fourteen he left school – his father who had been in the German government during the Weimarer Republic, realized it was no longer safe for him, his Jewish wife and Fritz’ step-sisters. They fled, leaving Fritz and his sister in Berlin with their Arian grandmother.
She hated her grandchildren and both fled, his sister managed to find refuge in a convent, but Fritz had to fend for himself.
Here is how he survived, working at first for a butcher:
From 1936 to 1937, I was with the butcher. At least, I always had enough to eat. I slept anywhere I could find space. First, I went to the allotments to sleep in the summerhouses. Many of the owners had disappeared, and officially, you were not allowed to be there after dark and or to stay overnight. I waited until it was dark, and then I climbed in through a window. Always careful, so that nobody would notice. Every night I slept in a different summerhouse. Sometimes, I went to the expensive residential areas. In the apartment buildings they used to have a couch on the landing, halfway up, so that people could rest awhile on their way up the stairs. There, I lay down and slept or, I would wait until no-one was around, and then creep up into the attic.
Of course, I never stayed long in one place, I constantly moved around, otherwise someone would have noticed that a strong young man was working as a waiter and not doing military service. I got acquainted with people like me who had to hide, those who didn't fit the regime, who didn't have the right papers, who weren't Aryans or didn't have an Ahnenpass - a kind of passport to prove that they were of pure German descent. There were also foreigners – Turks, Spaniards, Chinese – who hadn't left the country in enough time. Added to that were conscientious objectors, deserters, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses (“Bibelforscher”, bible researchers, they were called), or those who were on the wrong side politically. One of them, Achim, slept every night in a different underground tunnel. Later, he was best man at our wedding.
When the war began, all hell broke loose in Berlin. Every night, and then every day, there were air raid warnings. Sixteen hours a day Berlin was bombarded!
At that time I learnt how to wait tables – in the “hidden years”. As a waiter, you didn't need papers, you were “self-employed”. We got tax card and had to buy tax stamps, which were then stuck onto the card. Also, I got the “special of the day” every day, a meal, which you could get without a ration card. Sure, it was nothing much – you wouldn't have found any meat if you'd searched – but it was filling. I was the perfect waiter, although I never trained properly. I got on well with people and they liked me. “Gravel kicker”, Kieseltreter, they called me, because many of the restaurants had a garden bar and the ground was covered in gravel. “But they're only open in summer”, I always said, but the name stuck.
When you live underground, you spend a lot of time on the streets. All day, I was on my guard. It was important not to stand out, thereby attracting attention and getting checked. I had a military pass, which stated: “Excused from military service on the basis of Paragraph 2 of the Nuremberg Laws.” If I had shown this at a checkpoint, I would have been sent straight to Ausschwitz, because there was the proof in black and white that I was not Aryan. In fact, I was once caught at an army checkpoint in Friedrich Strasse.
“Show your papers!” they said.
“My house has been bombed, and all my papers have been burned.'
That was a good excuse. They took me away anyway but at least not to a concentration camp. I was taken to the army interrogation prison in Spandau. It was three or four months before they let me out. They suspected me of being a deserter.
However, I was lucky, as I so often was. Again and again I escaped death. My children often said to me: “How is it that you always managed to survive?” It happened too when I was working at the Hackepeter, a restaurant in Brandenburg Strasse, on the corner of Pfalzburger Strasse. At that time everything in Berlin was going up in smoke, because there were so many air raids. After my shift, I often went to my local pub, Lotte Salzsieder in Wilhelmsaue. When the air raid alarms went off, I just lay down on a shelf in the cellar and got drunk. This happened one night. After a while, I thought that the all-clear had sounded and I went out to have a look. Well, along came the SS.
“Well, you bastard, are you a deserter?” screams the officer. “Hands against the wall!”
He draws his pistol. Three seconds later and I would have been dead. But just then the sergeant from the police station in Berliner Strasse comes around the corner. He knew me, as he often ate at Hackepeter's.
“Leave him alone, the man’s not well,” he said to the SS officer. Only three seconds separated me from certain death – and yet I survived.
A week later the Hackepeter was struck by a chain bomb. I had left the restaurant as usual after my shift in the early hours of that morning. I knew them all, the cooks, the waiters, the kitchen boys. It was only because I was late for work that I survived. All the others, all of them, lost their lives. And there was nothing left of them. It had been an enormous building, five storeys high. I scratched about in the ashes and all I found was a gold watch. It belonged to the proprietor's brother-in-law. He had been so, so proud of his gold watch.
Two of my friends, who were also part of our group, were charged with committing “racial scandal”. That's what it was called when an Aryan married a Jew. Achim, for example, had sent his wife to Bavaria to his family. He came from a doctor's family who could prove their racial purity to the umpteenth degree. In spite of that they got hold of his wife and killed her. He hated the Nazis and became a radical. He was always on the look-out for Nazis, and especially the SS. Of course, I heard a lot of gossip as a waiter. The SS came to the restaurant and ate like pigs and drank plenty. They then got talkative and boasted about their vile deeds. There was one guy who had lost an arm in Russia but who still cruised around in his uniform showing off all his medals. He told of how they had taken the young women in Russia. They had raped them in front of their families. He was still proud of this and boasted about all the details. Achim said to me: “You watch, he's not got long to live.” Sure enough, a few days later I read in the newspaper that a decorated soldier from the Front had been treacherously murdered on the corner of Joachim Strasse and Kurfürstendamm.
I kept out of it when they got too carried away and didn't want to know anything about it.
What is it like to experience war?
Fritz Schwab: When the war came to an end in 1945, all the fanatics fought until the bitter end. In Berlin, on every street, on every street corner. I'll never forget how I saw people in Hildegard Strasse who had been hanged. The renegades, those who no longer wanted to sacrifice their lives for such a screwed up war, who had hidden in the ruins and waited for liberation, the SS strung them up! The Russians were already in the city. They dangled from the streetlights; there were gas lanterns in those days. They put signs round their necks: “I was too cowardly to die for the Führer and the Fatherland.” In Hildegard Strasse, Paretzer Strasse and Augusta Strasse – I'll never forget it.
How do children experince war? Ralph Uhlherr recalls the end of WWII – a child in East Berlin:
Then the air raids started. When the alarm went off, Mother had to carry my younger brother; Ralph, that was me, carried the little suitcase that was always packed and ready. The big brother always had to make sure that everything was brought along, my younger brother was always the pet of the family. I was the eldest, and in my father’s absence I had to be everything and take responsibility. The cellar that we went into had walls that were two meters thick, it was like a were very deep tomb, with hatches, like windows, in the ceiling. The main street with its cobblestones ran directly alongside theses hatches and the walls of the house. Once, towards the end of the war, we heard this very loud rumbling noise and knew that we had to get down into the cellar fast. We had hardly got there when a single tank roared past at top speed. There was a German solider hiding at the end of the street. He was a real hundred-per-center, who absolutely believed in the ‘Endsieg’ – the final German victory. He was standing in a ditch with his anti-tank grenade launcher in his hand, and was firing at the tank! It’s hard to describe what a racket that made. Shortly after that, a whole bunch of tanks went past and headed straight for the soldier. They disarmed him and took him away with his hands raised. That was exciting! When the soldiers had gone, a lot of people – including us children – collected up the brass shell casings. They were valuable as recyclable metal.
The village of Röhrsdorf was near Chemnitz. Late in the evening, we could see the bombers that were flying above us. Once, I saw the pathfinders, the target marking squadrons fly over. It was their job to locate and mark targets, that the bomber force could then take accurate aim at. The sky lit up – we called that “Christmas trees”, then it was completely silent. Luckily though, the lights went out before the bomber commandos could not find their target. Other times, I watched the “dog fights” between Americans and Germans, those were air battles between two fighter planes, which circled one another like dogs before a fight. Shortly before the big air raid on Dresden, our grandmother came to us. She only wanted to stay with us for two weeks, but when she drove back, the street where her apartment had been, was in ruins – there was nothing left. After that she stayed with us.
We experienced that war as children, without taking part in it directly, but we saw the destruction.
Ralph had been born in Palastine – into a Templer family.
It was early September 1939, and my father didn’t return from work one night.
Halfway home, and on the main street of Jaffa he was pulled out of his car, and taken to an internment camp. For days, my mother did not know where he was. The car was simply left in the middle of the street, but Father didn’t come back. Later, we were informed that all men of German nationality, who were eligible for military service, had been interned. That was the first blow, and then, at the same time, the war began.
I was born in 1934 in Jaffa, Palestine. In 1939, when the Second World War began, Palestine was under the British mandate. All of a sudden, we were enemies because we were Templers and of German origin.
When I was born, people of many different nationalities lived peacefully alongside each other ̶ Arabs, Turks, Germans, Templers, Jewish refugees from Germany and Russia. The Templers got on especially well with the Russian Jews, because they had a common interest, namely, farming.
When the Templers left Germany in 1861 due to religious persecution, they found Palestine an inhospitable land. There were large areas of swamps, and malaria and typhus raged amongst the settlers. The Templers were mostly from Württemberg but some came from Pirna like my family. They founded settlements in Haifa, Jerusalem and Jaffa, and began to drain the land. The work was unspeakably hard, and many people lost their lives in the process, but they succeeded in establishing farms, in particular, to start the orange plantations and viticulture. Today, Jaffa oranges are famous and they were planted by the Templers. I don’t really remember much about the surroundings of my early years, but I can still describe the house, our apartment and the rooms in every detail.
Ralph’s father was taken to Australia and interned at Tatura for the duration of the war. His mother, his brother and Ralph had to go to Germany – another arduous train journey. They were not reunited with Ralph’s father until ten years later.
Karin Koeppen (owner of the Cuckoo restaurant in the Dandenongs) was a child when the war broke out.
I was born in Langenreichenbach, in the county Torgau, in northern Saxony. It was such a small village that when a young woman came along wearing silk stockings, we said to one another: “Come on, let’s go and have a look.”
Both of my parents came from Dresden. My father was a landowner, a Junker, and had graduated with a PhD in agriculture. He was also the mayor and the leader of the local farmers’ union, but he was killed in the war. When the Russians came, all the large landowners lost their land, including my mother. She was taken to a camp, along with us five children. It was a former German Army prison called Torgau Brückenkopf. I was eleven years old, and as a child, I didn’t mind being taken to the camp. The property was enormous, and there were lots of children there, so we had fun. My mother was a woman who was typical of her generation, a höhere Tochter. She had done her school leaving exams in Dresden. When she met my father and he started courting her, they were never allowed to be together on their own. Both sets of parents were present at every occasion! And of course, she didn’t take up a profession: she married and had children. From the Torgau camp, we were sent to Bükow, near Halle. My mother hadn’t studied anything, but she was creative and clever. She had made Kasperlpuppen, puppets with heads crafted of papier-maché. The baker baked the puppets’ heads, so that they went hard. She designed and sewed the costumes herself, all by hand. Then she built a stand with holes in it, which she used to display and sell the Kasperl puppets on their sticks. At the time, there were no toys available at all!
We all had to help. It was especially bad in winter, because it was icy cold. That must have been in the years 1945-46. We children were all sent out to look for wood, but the twigs that we found, burned up straight away. Well, I was always a step ahead, and I bought myself a train ticket and rode from one station to the next. I sat right up in the front carriage, in the wagon just behind the engine stoker. When the train set off, I stole pieces of coal! My mother was so pleased when I brought them home, but it was terribly dangerous. These days, no one would allow a child to do something like that. Who knows what might have happened? The cold forced people to use their wits to survive. All five of us children slept in one bed, in order to keep each other warm.
Even in the camp, I was inventive. We children wanted lollies so badly, and next door there was a sugar factory, where the men worked. The trains came at night to collect the sacks of sugar. A chap, who worked there, showed me how they stacked them up on wagons with slatted frames. I came back after dark, crawled under the wagon and slit open a sack with a knife, so that the sugar trickled out. I had laid a cloth underneath to catch the sugar, and when I had enough, I knotted it into a bundle and swung it on to my back. All of a sudden, the police arrived and three policemen were chasing me. I ran along the cobblestones and then, to top it all off, I tripped and fell. I stretched out my hand to break my fall – look, I’ve still got the scar. But I got away, and back in the camp, we made boiled sweets for all the children.
I’ve always been like that, and still am. When you have experienced difficult things yourself, I think, one can understand other people much better, like the refugees who are now coming to Australia.
Once again, Australian soldiers are engaged in active warfare. Ernst Erdt describes a typical situation at the Russian front.
Russia was awful. They sent the new recruits to us at the Front. After only six weeks’ training in Normandy they were sent to the Front. At the railway station they were offloaded and came straight away to the front lines, right up front. We were lying in a field and each of us had a hole. The ground was as cold as ice. As troop commander, I had a somewhat larger hole.
Every day I had to wriite a report to the battalion commander about what was happening at the front. Every day, the losses were so huge. But I had to write down every single one of them. All those names. And they were so young.
I sat in the middle of the platoon, and they were dying all around me, left, right and centre. In their holes, where the icy, wet rain was falling. And their families at home were told that their sons had died heroes’ deaths. This was no hero’s death, and it was no hero’s battle. Shivering with cold, we sat in our hole, and my friend Paul said, ‘I’ll shoot us both in the legs, then we can get out of here.’ And I said, ‘No, then I might be crippled for my whole life.’
There was always this little spark of hope.
How did these migrants fare here? Overall, they all did very well. They found work, they adapted to the language, the different rules and habits, the built or bought themselves houses. They found their niche, living alongside people who had been Australians for much longer – ‘old Australians’ compared to these ‘new ones’. They all maintained a connection to other Germans here.
There are many happy and funny, even joyous anecdotes in their stories.
I looked for those passages that I needed at the moment, to remind myself of what these people had experienced – what it was like for them.
For many of us watching the news r reading the news papers, it is a little difficult to reconcile the face of the contemporary asylum seeker with the people whose stories are told in Memories in my Luggage.
Somehow, it is difficult for us to see reasonably well- dressed, healthy looking people making the trek. We hear that they are equipped with mobile phones – and sometimes they are somewhat disparagingly referred to as “just economic migrants”.
But most of the displaced who trekked across Europe were like them!
They had not been poor or destitute either when they left their homes!
They had houses, good incomes, sometimes, they even came from wealthy estates!
Had they had mobile phones, would they not have been grateful and used them to keep track of family members or find better routes?
They might not look like escapees from napalm-bombed villages – they might look like good middle class citizens – but what they are escaping from is similar to what these German migrants left behind.
And it frightens me to think that this sort of thing is still happening today.
Ralph Uhlherr told me the other day:
“Yes, we did experience all those things – but if we hadn’t, we would not be here – in Australia – today!”