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  • Jane

Family! Us! Australia!


I ask mum why she is happy, why she loves everyone? I know it's an odd question but I want to hear what she'll say.

She answers: Because you are my family - us - Australia!

I find it interesting that she includes 'Australia' in the list of who she loves.

She and dad were always grateful to Australia - for its freedom. For opening its 'gates' and giving them a chance (after that terrible war) to start again, to build a life far from their tragic memories of dark Europe.

I briefly tell mum about that time in her life - the war - marrying dad - arriving in free Australia. She hangs onto every word. And then she ends the conversation with a confusing Nazi salute (where did that come from?) and the few Hebrew words she knows 'חזק ואמץ, which means 'Be Strong and of Good Courage'.

This is her motto.

Here's another section from the book illustrating this story:

In November 1948, baby Celina, Adolek and I, with our valise holding mainly nappies and books, started our journey to the other end of the earth. We boarded the SS Eridan in Marseilles for the long voyage to Australia. We travelled by sea as stateless immigrants. Our journey from Marseilles to Sydney took nine long weeks. The Eridan stopped at French colonies along the way and sailed through the Panama Canal. At each port we exchanged bad wine for whatever food we could get from the locals.

Life on board was gruelling. It was an overcrowded ship and we were third-class passengers sleeping shoulder to shoulder below deck, with men in one part of the hold and women and children in another part. Rain poured in through the portholes during the frequent storms. The conditions were filthy and the food was miserable, but we did not starve.

The main thing was that we were free.

I was always busy with Celina, now 18 months old, and was privileged to be able to cook porridge for her in the ship's kitchen. The Afro-French cook loved Celina and always put food aside for me. We were three of the 700 refugees from war-torn Europe sailing to a new country, a new life.

We landed in Sydney in January 1949 and stayed overnight at the Salvation Army centre, near the port. We were cold and there were no beds, so we slept on the tables and covered ourselves with the curtains we took down. The next morning, we travelled to Melbourne by train.

Looking out the window during the long train journey between the two cities, we could see the bushland of Australia, such a beautiful wide country. We were two poor students and a baby, with a suitcase full of nappies and five, maybe 10 pounds. But most important to us was the air and the freedom. Despite the uncertainty, it was a big adventure. The Australian people were so friendly and Australia felt so safe compared with the three years we had lived in Germany in the shadow of terror.

All the passengers except us were welcomed by someone at Spencer Street Station. The Jewish Welfare & Relief Society was supposed to organise a sponsor to greet us and help arrange accommodation, but no one turned up. I felt sad and lonely and I started to cry. Adolek rang the only number he had, of a man called Berek, the brother-in-law of his friend. Eventually, Berek arrived and took us to the Bialystok Centre, a Jewish relief centre where we stayed for two nights.....

Their 'valise' - full of nappies and books.

Correction: 'Celina Kohn (18 months), German born of Polish parents...' (not the opposite)

The Eridan, arrived in Sydney January 1949


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