For those who prefer, click the DOWNLOAD button on the right to print a Pdf version – text only Part 1 & 2.
my parents, Hans and Gerta
The Mondrian Jumper
When at Art School in the mid 1970’s creating a new life for myself after a divorce and after leaving my profession as a student counsellor, money was short but creativity was high. My closest art-school friend Helen made all her own clothes and taught me the rudiments of what we referred to as ‘gonzo dressmaking’ after Dr Gonzo, a character in Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. The principle of the thing for us was rough and ready and fun, the only way I could attempt it. From an old bedspread of heavy woven cotton with broad stripes in deep orange, black and cream, Turkish style pants emerged; I made a flared skirt and top from plush velour curtains, once a backdrop for portraiture in my father’s photographic studio, carefully dyed a rich burgundy. But my ‘masterpiece’ was the whacky winter jumper created by cutting differing sized squares and rectangles from old knitted and woollen cloth garments found in the op shop. Pieced together, the varied and rich colours were interspersed with strips of grey-green velvet accentuating the vertical and horizontal elements of the design. When finished it reminded me of a slightly muted Mondrian painting. I was in love with it.
Perhaps a Parallel
My desk is strewn with printouts. Working on my parents’ bitter-sweet émigré story is a juggling act much like the construction of the Mondrian jumper, this time about the sequencing of events. The text relies on memory, on my vast photographic archive, on old audio tapes now digitized, that my father Hans dictated, and on documents kept by him and his father before him. I am grateful that, like me, he was a great documenter, with a sense of history, valuing the past. He and my mother would have described this propensity as ‘sentimental’ but for me it is an invaluable blessing. I do however stumble, confronting significant gaps in my parents’ stories. Did I not interrogate sufficiently, did I not listen attentively or has my memory failed me? Perhaps a mix of all these elements, and there was also much I was not able to ask. With the passing years, I also discover other slippages in what was left unsaid or unasked, a commonly expressed regret after the loss of loved ones.
Their story also relies on information I received from my father in 1991 pertaining to my maternal grandparents and the Holocaust. It had come to him in a large brown envelope from my aunt in the USA. Evidently, after the end of the Second World War, her husband Erich, my mother’s brother, began to seek information regarding the demise of my grandparents, Max and Lola. The envelope contained a few documents, letters written by my grandmother and a short, horrifying note from my aunt specifying that my grandparents had been transported to Minsk, then capital of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, (today’s Belarus), where they were put to death. Amongst the few documents, was a telegram to my grandparents saying: Ausreise Möglich (exit possible), indicating that they had been granted a visa to Cuba. My aunt included a contact name of an organization in Vienna through which I could presumably confirm and maybe elaborate upon the information she had given me. I did not pursue this at the time, the information she had provided being too disturbing to prompt further investigation. Nor did I yet translate the letters. However, what I had received became the catalyst for an extended personal and creative journey in which I honoured my mother and my grandparents through two significant bodies of artwork over a three-year period. see ART/ OTHER PROJECTS/Out of the Shadows (i) & (ii) with considerable accompanying written material, and SELECT EXHIBITIONS/ War Works, and The Personal & the Political.
Now, some thirty years later, I seek to further explore my family story, this time through the written word.
Vienna: the city of my parents’ birth
Vienna, situated on the Danube River in the eastern part of Austria, is a small landlocked country in East Central Europe that borders the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Lichtenstein, Slovakia, Slovenia and Switzerland. Vienna developed from early Celtic and Roman settlements into a Medieval and Baroque city, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The historic centre includes the glorious Gothic cathedral, Stephansdom (St Stephens), Baroque castles, monuments, parks and gardens as well as the late-19th-century Ringstrasse (ring road). Museums and other grand buildings, often further enhanced by the surrounding deep green sculptural topiary, further enhance the elegant Ringstrasse. Its plethora of musical giants-from the classicists Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, through the transition to Romanticism with Schubert and Strauss and onto modernism – consolidated Vienna’s reputation as the ‘musical capital’ of Europe. And then there was the ‘café culture’, where for generations writers, artists, musicians, journalists and other intellectuals, predominantly Jewish, met. Vienna is now a UNESCO world heritage city.
It was into this culture that my parents were born, my father Hans in 1905 and my mother Gerta in 1908. From their youth through to young adulthood, before and after they became a couple, they partook of much of what the city and its surrounds had to offer. They visited the great art museums, were regular attendees of concerts and the opera, all of the highest calibre. They were nature-lovers and hiking in the easily accessible mountains was a shared pleasure. Indeed their love of nature and mountains in particular, stayed with them throughout their lives.
Growing up in Vienna
My mother and her younger brother Erich grew up in a modest, left-leaning, music-loving middle-class family living in a four-storey apartment block with their parents, Max (Meschel) and Lola (Karoline) Schweiger. This was the era of horse-drawn trams, dusty streets from the stone chips created by horses’ hooves on cobblestones, and the introduction of the telephone. Non-observant Jews, they nonetheless had strong cultural and emotional ties to their Jewish heritage and my mother and her brother belonged to a left-wing Jewish youth group. My grandmother Lola was a dressmaker by trade, my grandfather Max ran a small chocolate and confectionary-making business. My mother played the piano and both she and her brother were very musical. She described how she and Erich, both great opera-lovers, took the affordable standing room tickets, an endurance test for most, remaining on their feet for three hours or more. The family was close and loving, and enjoyed hiking in the nearby hills and mountains. Regular contact with the extended family was a feature of their life but their happiness was interrupted by the onset of WW1.
My father and his sister Grete, eight years his senior, grew up in a more affluent Jewish family. His father Fritz (Friedrich) to whom my father was extremely close, held positions as director of several major government-owned banks, and in one, was the director of stockbroking. He was an extremely cultured and musical man who played the violin, wrote poetry and was also something of a collector of art and object d’art. As with my mother’s family, they were non-observant Jews, however they were less invested in their Jewish identity and lacked the socialist leanings of my mother’s family. Despite changing apartments every few years to accommodate grandparents and an uncle at different times, Fritz’s position eventually afforded them an elegant upper middle-class lifestyle, at its peak, a beautifully furnished villa in Gregor Mendelstrasse with a large garden in the leafy 18th district and a trip with my grandmother Rosa to the opening of the Tutankhamun tomb in Egypt in 1921. For two or three months every summer the family – minus Fritz who remained working in the city – rented a flat on the outskirts of Vienna, always with a garden. This was interrupted by what my father described as ‘a proper holiday’ in the mountains or seaside of Italy or Yugoslavia when my grandfather Fritz joined them. There was also the much loved nanny, Tulli, my father’s true ’emotional mother’, who came to the family when the children were very young and remained, loyal and lovingly until my grandfather Fritz’s death in 1937. My father and his sister enjoyed a blessed childhood. Tulli remained a major figure in my father’s life until her death in Vienna at the age of one-hundred and three!
1914-1918: the Kaiser’s War
My mother referred to WW1 as the Kaiser’s (Emperor’s) war. The sacrifices made through WW1 had a significant impact on my mother and her family. It was a tough time. Her father and all the men in the extended family were on the Russian front for the duration. During this time an aunt with her two children, and her elderly mother – my mother’s grandmother who had lived with them – moved into their apartment, now crowded with seven people, challenging family dynamics. My mother, aged six at the outbreak of the war, told me how she resented the favouritism bestowed upon the two other grandchildren by her grandmother, and about how intensely she missed her father, alle weg, (all away) she said. She described the trips to the country made by her mother Lola in search of fresh food, how hunger and deprivation was a reality.
My father’s experience of these years differed from my mother’s. From audio-tapes he made for me many years ago, I gained a rich picture of his earlier life including detailed memories from the period leading up to WW1. In 1914 on a typical family holiday with other family friends, his father Fritz received a phone call from a friend in Vienna telling of the murder of the Archduke of Sarajevo. He remembers the family having a long discussion about whether this indicated the likelihood of the outbreak of war and whether they should all buy a big sack of potatoes in case of possible food shortages. The family returned to Vienna the following day. A few weeks later the family were in Tyrol and my father recalls hearing gunfire on the Italian front. This time his father received a telegram saying: Hageschlag, Ernte vernichtet (hail storm, harvest destroyed), a coded message announcing the declaration of war. They left for Vienna immediately, trains evidently packed with soldiers being sent to the front; at one point his father had literally to crawl over people and climb out the window to obtain food for the family. In his position as the Director of Stockbroking in the bank, he was required to deal with war loans and thus remained in Vienna throughout the war and the family suffered no hardships. My father learned the viola, and like his father before him, enjoyed amateur photography which turned out to be a forerunner of his future direction. After secondary school he went to a technical institute hoping to then study architecture.
In 1918 my mother’s adored father returned safely, physically and psychologically undamaged, and life improved. My mother was a bright student taking Greek and Latin at school, studying French privately and playing the piano.
The Rise of Antisemitism in Austria
As elsewhere in Europe, antisemitism with its long history, was thriving due to economic hardship after WW1 in which Jews had fought patriotically. Austrian Jews were well integrated in the society and constituted 4% of overall population of Austria, 10% of the population of Vienna. According to Jewish scholars at the time, 62% of all lawyers in Vienna were Jewish, 47% of physicians and nearly 29% of all University professors. Jewish people also played a significant role in Austria’s economic, intellectual, and cultural life including luminaries such as artists Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schönberg, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and neurologist and father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, amongst many others. But they too faced severe persecution with the rise of National Socialism (Nazism) through the 1930’s.
My father’s ambition to study architecture as a young man in the mid 1920’s did not eventuate as the family circumstances had changed. Due to escalating antisemitism, Fritz lost his position as bank director and my father wanted to contribute to the family income.
Meanwhile, having studied classical Greek and Latin at school, my mother, a gifted linguist, then gained a degree in German Language and Literature from the University of Vienna. She completed a doctorate degree in the early 1930’s, writing a thesis on the German Romantic poet Eduard Mörike.
My mother, Gerta spoke little of her traumatising experiences as antisemitism worsened but recalled an incident at university. Many male students began to appear wearing brown shirts, the identifying uniform of the Sturmabteilung or SA, originally a paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party. The Brownshirts’ primary purpose was to provide protection for Nazi rallies and assemblies which were on the increase, to disrupt meetings of opposing parties and to intimidate Romany people, trade unionists and especially Jews. A friend and I heard the clamour of footfall outside the room we were in. We opened the door to see a Jewish boy running along the corridor with blood streaming down his face. He was pursued by a group of male students wearing the Brownshirt uniform. We were able to pull him into the room to safety and quickly close the door. I can almost see her shiver as she recalls the event.
Sometime after finishing university my mother met my father at a tea dance and thus began their prolonged courtship. In 1933, she went to Paris for eighteen months to further improve her French, working as an au pair. This was also the year that Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany.
In her copious letters to my father, she writes about the magnificence of Paris, and seems somehow pleased to be out of Austria. She explains the initial difficulty in following fast-spoken French but how her language skills improve steadily. She observes a lack of political and intellectual discussion in the family where she lives, so different to what she is accustomed to. She spends a lot of time talking with ‘Madame’ and gets on well with the family who take interesting holidays on which she accompanies them, and she is fond of the two little children in her care. Meanwhile, her French becomes polished – on my return I spoke perfect French- but the political situation in Austria continues to deteriorate.
Last Years in Vienna
Between 1930-1933 my father was employed at the Vacuum Oil Company in the advertising department, also acting as an occasional photographer to document car racing and automobile club events, something he very much enjoyed, given his interest in photography.
As support for antisemitism and the National Socialists continued to grow, it was deemed ‘inappropriate’ for Jews to occupy ‘visible’ positions and in 1933, around the time his mother died, he was transferred to the sales department where he worked as a correspondent, a job he said he disliked. Against this background and after the death of his father Fritz (Friedrich), my parents finally married in December 1937, but life became increasingly difficult.
Quoting from Hans’ dictated notes about the Anschluss, he says: From one day to the next some work colleagues with whom I had had friendly relations appeared wearing Brownshirts and no longer spoke to me. There were many active Nazis in the company. On the news one night in March,1938, we heard that Hitler had annexed Austria. Within weeks my job, like those of all the other Jewish workers, was terminated. I was lucky that I received inside information via a friend, advising me to request my cash termination payment within the next two or three days as ‘something was brewing’. Three days later the laws changed, and the cash termination payment was no longer an option; the money now had to be deposited into a bank account. But bank accounts were closed. I don’t know whether the others even received their payments, he adds. Jews were dispossessed of their property, synagogues and Jewish businesses were burned, damaged or looted; Jews were prohibited from working, banned from the universities, publicly humiliated, beaten or taken away. The question of emigration was of course discussed with friends, he says. Amongst his documents I find a typed list he had compiled of names and addresses of Jewish friends and colleagues to be forewarned in case of emergency. Aside from my father’s name at top, I recognize two names, fellow refugees who also found their way to Melbourne.
Through a second cousin Steve in America, I gain information about Steve’s aunt Elsa, one of my mother’s first cousins who had emigrated there in 1938. Reflecting on the period immediately before leaving Vienna Elsa says: From the very beginning they would pull anyone off the streets who looked Jewish, and these people would just disappear. We used to make up stories in case we were arrested and asked what we were discussing. It was a very repressive and frightening atmosphere.
The Writing on the Wall
In Germany from 1933 onwards, the National Socialist government enacted hundreds of increasingly restrictive and discriminatory laws and decrees which ultimately denied Jews their basic citizenship rights and banned them from all aspects of public life. In Austria this was slower and took full effect only after the Anschluss of March 12, 1938, when German troops, with the enthusiastic support of most of the population, marched into Austria to annex the German-speaking nation as part of the Third Reich, henceforth referred to as Germany. Nazi leadership quickly implemented antisemitic laws against the 192,000 Austrian Jews. Universities, from which Jews were banned, lost over 40% of their students and professors in a matter of hours. Many people, my parents included, lost property, their means of livelihood and had their bank accounts closed. The noose was tightening and my parents saw that they needed to get out of Europe though never could they have imagined the entirety and horror of what was to unfold.
There were few options of where to flee to, but immediately after the Anschluss several hundred were able to leave for the USA, Palestine and Shanghai.
In the ensuing period tens of thousands of Austrian Jews lined up at the US consulate in Vienna to apply for immigration visas to the United States. The numbers were huge and quotas restricted. However, with the help of the major international Jewish welfare organizations, the community and the Palestine Office were able to assist in the emigration of thousands, many to Palestine.
England, under pressure, took Jews by the thousands in the earlier period, my uncle Erich and his wife amongst them, before they were able to later enter America. The importance of this assistance grew with the straitened circumstances of Austrian Jewry; as against 25% of the emigrants who needed financial assistance in May and July 1938, 70% needed assistance in July and August 1939. Between July and September 1938 emigration reached a monthly average of 8,600.
My parents begin setting in motion the necessary steps to try to leave. My father prioritises Australia over the USA (the reverse being the case with all my mother’s cousins and her brother). They want to move as far away from Europe and Hitler’s reach as is possible. My father also feels that Australia is more aligned to his way of thinking – less competitive, less money-driven, more easy-going than the USA. If they have options, it is to Australia that they want to flee.
Although representations were made to accept Jewish refugees in Australia as early as 1933, the government did not yet have a proper refugee policy and articulated a reluctance to take many. It was stated rather famously: ‘Australia does not have a racial problem and is not desirous of importing one.’ Being pervasive, this attitude affected the willingness of most countries to expand their immigration policies to admit Jewish refugees. Through the 1930’s there was an unwritten practice in Australia that rejected one in ten applications from Jews. By 1938, however, people such as my parents were able to come here without a guarantor if they could produce £200 landing money. Additionally, it was necessary to demonstrate that the occupations of emigrants would not disadvantage Australian workers in need of jobs since the country was just emerging from the Great Depression.
A Matter of Urgency
In November, 1938 the dreadful events of Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) took place, a state-sponsored spree of looting of thousands of Jewish businesses, synagogues and other Jewish property across Germany including the former Austria, organized by the Nazi SA (Stormtroopers) and assisted by civilians. Some 30,000 Jewish men were also rounded up and sent to concentration camps. In the aftermath of Kristallnacht, the Nazi regime ordered the Jewish community to pay a 1 billion Reichsmark ‘atonement tax’ and rapidly enacted many anti-Jewish laws and edicts. Leaving was a matter of urgency. Now unemployed and with bank accounts closed, accessing the £200 was extremely challenging for my father: I decided to approach seven people, all living outside of Austria, in the hope that I would find four who might each lend me £50. The strategy, though difficult, was ultimately successful. He commented that of the seven approached, it was the wealthier who refused, and one of those who lent them money had made considerable sacrifices to do so. There were a multitude of other hurdles to cross since many documents were needed to obtain a visa, often expensive and with expiration dates. I have almost no records but they were fortunate as this process became much more difficult again once the war began. Hans and Gerta were readying themselves to leave Vienna for safety in a new world.
Preparing to Leave: the emotional toll
My parents’ back-stories differ. My father’s parents had died of natural causes a few years apart from one another in the 1930’s in Vienna. His only sibling, Grete, had converted to Catholicism as a young woman, subsequently marrying a Catholic man, Robert. As the Bombach family were secular Jews this was not a major issue. However, the newlyweds evidently acted dishonourably towards my grandfather which negatively impacted my father’s relationship with his sister since he was extremely close to his father.
In 1938 at the time of the Anschluss, the Nuremberg Laws, were immediately applied to Austria. They embodied many of the racial theories underpinning Nazi ideology, providing the legal framework for the systematic persecution of Jews. People with three or more Jewish grandparents were now defined as Jews even if they, their parents, or grandparents had converted to Christianity. Thus, it seemed extraordinary that his sister Grete remained in Vienna with complete immunity throughout what my parents called the ‘Hitler years’, afforded protection through her husband’s military connections. Though in the military, my father was emphatic that Robert, for all his faults, was not a Nazi. But bearing in mind that under the Nuremberg Laws ‘race’ was not altered by conversion, what was the story? People such as her who were born Jewish would always be defined as Jews.
And then, months after beginning this writing, Jon thrusts into my hand an article by Christopher R. Browning in the March 2022 New York Review of Books entitled ‘When Did They Decide?’ It discusses a book titled Wannsee: The Road to the Final Solution. In it I learn the following. In January 1942 at the Wannsee Conference, the issue of the fate of German half Jews and German Jews in mixed marriages was debated and there was disagreement. Options included deportation or sterilization of half Jews and compulsory dissolution of mixed marriages. Hitler, however, was more cautious about complications that could ensue than were any of the conference participants and left the existing policies unchanged. My father’s sister was saved by Hitler! Nonetheless, given my father’s relationship to his sister, it was not difficult for him to be parted from her and their daughter, Marlouise, his only remaining family.
My mother’s reaction to their impending departure was far more emotionally charged as she was leaving behind her beloved middle-aged parents, Max and Lola in their inner city apartment at Obere Donaustrasse 45a, Wien 2, in the hope that visas to a place of safety would subsequently be secured for them. In addition to leaving her parents behind, my mother and father were dealing with the loss of home and motherland, a means of support, and their personal and cultural history. While their preferred future was in Australia, my mother’s brother Erich, his wife Marta as well as several first cousins, chose America though not all were accepted there initially. Aside from Erich, who first went to England, two of the first cousins went to Bolivia later to be brought to New York by other family members.
Curiously, under the Nazi regime, émigrés were permitted to take their furniture with them. So, in August 1938 my father organises with Ullmann, Rink & Co. for furniture and the contents of their apartment in Himmelpfortgasse, Wien 1, an inner-city street of four and five-storey baroque and nineteenth century buildings just a few blocks from the Donau (Danube river) to be stored in a container at the wharf at Southampton for later forwarding.
The Departure, October 1938
From a piece I have just found written by an old boyfriend of mine, I learn that my parents departed Vienna by train to Rotterdam where they stayed with friends of the family for two weeks before commencing their ship voyage. When considering their departure, aside from this recent find I again rely on information obtained largely from my father, and on intuition and imagination. This was a subject I understood to be too painful for my mother to talk about. However, in an amusing aside on a cold Melbourne day my mother once mentioned that they had not brought their heavy winter clothes from Europe, mislead perhaps by the sunny, tropical images on the travel brochures.
They receive an allowance of spending money for the ship voyage, an amount my father described as ‘generous’ and with documents, passports and entry permits finally all in hand, they leave Vienna. The departure must have been a bewildering mix of trepidation and relief, but also a great wrench accompanied by immense anxiety and sadness especially for my mother who will be separated from her entire and well-loved extended family. Even as I think about this now, one generation and more than eighty years removed from the event, her pain lives on in me.
Journey by Sea
I have only the barebones of this, but due to my father’s prescience, which my mother referred to as ‘hoarding’, he has retained, amongst so many documents, brochures from the shipping companies. Thus I learn that they set sail from Rotterdam on October 22, 1938 on the Indrapoera (Rotterdam Lloyd Line) en route to Singapore via Southampton, Lisbon, Marseille, Tangiers, Port Said, Suez Canal, Aden and Columbo. They have a contact in Singapore, a Dutch Jewish woman, Lilly Jacobson, and spend a week here before embarking on the second part of their journey. Lilly will become a very close friend when many years later she moves to Melbourne.
From Singapore they travel on the T.S.S Marella (Burns, Philp Line) to Batavia (Djakarta), Samarang and Surabaya in Java, Bali, Brisbane and finally disembark in Sydney. Only one story of the shipboard experience was shared with me. By agreement with the ship’s purser, they were able to save the allocated ‘generous’ spending allowance thereby enabling my father to immediately repay the most urgent debt – the £50 borrowed from the person to whom it had been the greatest sacrifice.
The Arrival, December,1938
Having fled Nazi Europe, they arrive on December 22, grateful for refuge, determined to build a new life. Their first sight of Australia occurs as they approach Darwin. My mother stands at the railing, dressed in her best European suit, slender waist, elegant, a hat with feather reaching toward the sky. She peers into the depths of the swirling water as they approach the harbour, pondering the new life ahead. Suddenly she is confronted by the horrifying sight of circling sharks, fierce-looking predators unlike anything she has experienced. Ach mein Gott (oh my god). I can only guess at her unspoken words and the state of her beating heart. It has taken them a year of preparations to escape from Vienna.
Stopping briefly in Brisbane, the sea voyage ends in Sydney where the immigration officer has difficulty pronouncing their surname, Bombach, and urges them to ‘anglicise’ it. After a week in Sydney where they spend time with another Jewish refugee friend, they board a train bound for Melbourne, their ultimate destination. The view from the train window on this second train journey could not have been more different than that from Vienna to Rotterdam. What would this cultured Viennese Jewish couple have made of the flat, mostly cleared land, hundreds of kilometers of such unfamiliar country without even the occasional snow-capped mountain in the distance to break the monotony? The hot and gum-scattered paddocks of early summer replace the cold sleet, snow and grey muddy days. And as if the circling sharks were not enough of a shock, the aftermath of the January 1939 Black Friday bushfire in Victoria now confronts them. My mother speaks of her distress and disbelief as they passed through a blackened wasteland strewn with dead kangaroos. She wonders where on earth she has come to.
She does not yet know that more than seventy people lost their lives and over seven-hundred homes were destroyed. She does not know what is yet to unfold in Europe, including the fate of her parents whom she will never see again. They are two of the 65,000 Austrian Jews amongst the total of six-million European Jews who die in the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis. A further five-million non-Jews are victims of the same horror – Romany, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Slavs (Poles, Russians), and physically and mentally disabled people.
Hans and Gerta have managed to escape the ever-worsening situation in Vienna, but these first impressions are a far cry from the poster images of Australia depicting blue skies and sunshine, pineapple fields, beaches, yellow wattle and healthy, bounding kangaroos! Nor does she yet understand the regenerative power of the bush. I find a letter my mother wrote to my father in 1983 while visiting her brother in the USA. As an aside she says: it is always a great wonder/miracle to me how nature recovers here in Australia. In another telling anecdote my father describes their arrival in Melbourne. By prior arrangement they are met at the train station by their host, Mr Hallam, a man who is assisting refugees. They are dressed appropriately for the occasion in their fine European clothes. It is a Sunday, and they are astounded to find their well-to-do host in his gardening clothes! Such informality is unknown to them, another experience of culture shock.
Early Days, Melbourne, 1939
Determination to forge a new and positive life for themselves in Australia required a range of qualities – courage, determination, careful money management, openness to people and new experiences. It is supported by kindness, generosity and a social conscience. They were briefly taken under the wing of an Australian Jewish organization, which organized interim accommodation for them in a flat in Glen Iris. By 1939 they had moved independently to Auburn Rd. Hawthorn. Here they rented a single-storey, two-bedroom maisonette with adjoining mirror-image flat in which the Andrew family lived – Frank a graphic artist, with communist party sympathies and his wife Kenney. My father spoke some English before arriving, my mother none but being an excellent linguist and highly motivated to learn and assimilate, she advanced rapidly.
The Australian government initially defined ‘enemy aliens’ as ‘foreign nationals of countries at war with Australia.’ They deemed refugees fleeing Nazism as such regardless of their Jewish identity, in part fearing the possibility of a fifth column, German or Austrian spies posing as Jews. The population in Australia numbered seven million, the vast majority Anglo-Celtic in origin. On a less official level it is noteworthy that few Australians had travelled overseas, and those that did, mostly visited ‘Home’, the British Isles and Ireland. Relatively isolated, most Australians were unaccustomed to foreigners with their unfamiliar languages and traditions. It is thus not surprising that an influx of ‘aliens’ would cause anxiety. They were viewed with suspicion though some Australians protested at the unfairness of this. The government designation aside, my parents never spoke of a lack of acceptance on a personal level, and my father often commented on how he appreciated the easy-going and helpful nature Australians possessed. As an ‘enemy alien’ the authorities required my father to report to the police each month. They were only permitted to travel within a fifteen-mile radius of the GPO, but he was impressed by how ‘friendly and casual’ the police were. As ‘enemy aliens’ they weren’t permitted a radio or telephone, but the broad-minded, sophisticated Andrews were warm and sympathetic neighbours and made both freely available to Hans and Gerta, and became close and enduring friends.