An Australia Day story – friendship triumphs over hate

January 25, 2015 by J-Wire Staff
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Each January 26, Czechoslovakian-born Holocaust survivors Eva Grinston and Ibi Wertheim have celebrated Australia Day as their national holiday and also as an anniversary with deep personal significance.

It was on that day in 1950 that the two friends left the ship on which they had voyaged out of war-ravaged Europe and began new lives in Australia.

At age 16, Ibi had survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and spent the next year in German labour camps.   She recalls: “My dear parents, younger brother and two younger sisters were sent to the gas chamber on the day we reached Auschwitz. I can’t bear talking about it.” More than 30 family members perished. After the war Ibi was supposed to go to the US, where she had a cousin whose family agreed to sponsor her. ”There were long delays to get into the US, but not into Australia, so I applied to immigrate here instead.”

Eva Grinston and Ibi Wertheim in 1950

Eva Grinston and Ibi Wertheim in 1950

Ibi had no connections in Australia. “When I arrived here, I was a naïve young girl, an orphan. I had a terrible feeling of being all alone. I had no family to meet me, spoke no English and had about one week’s pay in savings. Looking back, immigrating here as a 22-year-old in such circumstances was somewhat optimistic”, Ibi smiles.   “But it was also one of the best decisions I ever made.”

Eva too survived Auschwitz, and also Ravensbruck. “Leaving behind Czechoslovakia was unbelievably sad,” she says. “It took the realisation that having lost my beloved mother, my little sister, umpteen aunts, cousins and uncles was a memory impossible to step over, to try to rebuild a life on”.

“I was plagued by what is now known as survivor guilt. Why was I the one spared when so many good people perished?   It became impossible to live with. In the city where I was born every street, every area was heavily laden with memories.”

“I was able to receive a permit to come to Australia as my uncle lived here already”, Eva says. “The push I needed was when he informed me that my dear father, who had been forced to flee Czechoslovakia in 1939, would need me to be in Australia to request an entry permit for him and his second wife. My father and I had only been reunited in 1945. Leaving him for Australia in November 1949 was agony.”

Eva was able to secure a permit for her father but it would be another painful decade before he and his wife were able to join her, as they were denied exit visas from Czechoslovakia.

It was on their sea voyage to Australia that Ibi and Eva became close friends. For both women, travelling overseas was a completely new experience. They travelled first to Amsterdam where they joined a group of other Jewish emigrants in a hostel under the care of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. A fortnight later they were driven to the port of Rotterdam where they boarded the SS Volendam, bound for Sydney. There was a shared sleeping area on the ship for single girls. Ibi landed the bunk below Eva’s.

“The Volendam was a real rust bucket, a former troop ship,” Ibi says, “but the sea voyage was a very happy time. I have lovely memories of the fresh air, sunshine, music and becoming the deck tennis champion. Some older couples on the ship took us under their wing – lovely people.”

Eva too looks back on the weeks spent on the ship as “a memory so sweet, so cherished. We had left a rather cold Europe behind. As we sailed into the sunshine, we hoped this would be a good omen.”

Ibi in Sydney, 1950

Ibi in Sydney, 1950

The Volendam did not make it to Sydney. On arrival at Fremantle, the passengers were told they would have to disembark in Melbourne, as the ship had serious engine problems. They disembarked in Melbourne on Australia Day, a Thursday. Their apprehensions about all the unknowns they faced in their newly adopted country were eased by a group of local Jewish women who brought them food packages for their train trip to Sydney that evening.

“It was the first of many kindnesses we were shown on our arrival”, Ibi says. “Those warm, friendly smiles made such a difference”.

After an overnight train trip, the two women arrived at Sydney’s Central Station the following morning.

“I was a little overwhelmed when I saw the station full of travelers, strangers, getting ready for the holiday long-weekend”, Eva says. “But then I spied the dear face of my uncle in the crowd. The tears flowed and I was not afraid any longer.”

“The day awaiting me was sheer magic”, she recalls. “Blue skies, sunshine, a vista so unexpected. The bus ride to the lower North Shore where my uncle lived, took us across Sydney Harbour. The view was the most wonderful sight I had ever seen. I was so grateful, so happy to have been transported to paradise.”

“I had no family to turn to”, Ibi says. “I was pleasantly surprised to be met by some people from the Jewish Welfare Society. They found me accommodation and, most importantly, a job opportunity”.

Ibi was determined to be independent.   “I did not want to owe anything to anyone. I was young and free. My life was my own. It was exhilarating”.

During her first week in Sydney Ibi started work as a milliner and enrolled in night classes to learn English. “With my first wages I bought a radio to learn English more quickly”.

At work, Ibi’s heavily-accented rendition of the ‘Aeroplane Jelly’ jingle had everyone in stitches. “They then it sang it with me”, she remembers.

Eva Grinston and Ibi Wertheim Australia Day, Sydney, 2015     Photo: Henry Benjamin

Eva Grinston and Ibi Wertheim Australia Day, Sydney, 2015 Photo: Henry Benjamin

For both women, having lost so many family members to the Nazis, close friends often became like a surrogate family.

Ibi says that the women she worked with, including her boss, treated her “like their own child”. “They were warm and compassionate and included me in their social lives”, Ibi recalls fondly. “They too had known hardship during the Depression and the war.   I loved their wicked sense of humour. They became lifelong friends”.

Eva had several jobs before finding suitable employment. She too forged strong friendships at work. “My boss became a father figure, who was at my wedding as a witness”, Eva says.

The friendship between the two women has never waned. “For a time we even shared accommodation with some other people”’ Eva says. “In later years we were able to see one another when not working. We have shared our lives, the ties forged on the Volendam as tight as ever. My father and stepmother loved Ibi like their daughter”.

“We both met our partners to be at about the same time”, Ibi says. “Eva wore a hat I made for her at her wedding, and also a pair of my shoes. My son and Eva’s eldest child were born about 6 months apart.   We shared the joys of motherhood, the highs and the lows, even paediatricians. Our families often got together, and we continue to speak frequently.”

Both women are now widowed.

Eva and Ibi remember the past.... Photo: Henry Benjamin

Eva and Ibi remember the past….
Photo: Henry Benjamin

“I met a man I dearly loved”, Eva says. “We married and I am blessed with three wonderful children who made us proud. All did well at school, became professional people, and fine members of society. And I now have four adorable grandchildren. That is why each Australia Day it has been my ritual to walk across the Harbour Bridge, enjoy once again its beautiful vista, find a spot where I can be alone and say my private words to Australia. Thank you. Thank you for opening your doors to me, for allowing me to live here.”

Ibi says, “My husband was the love of my life. We were together for 54 years. For twenty of those years we were in business together working very hard for long hours. But we were so happy.”

Ibi has a son, two grandsons and, since last August, a beautiful great grand-daughter. “Some years ago, the Australia Day honours list announced that our son was to be made a Member of the Order of Australia”, she says. “It added a new layer of significance to the day. I am so thankful that my husband was still alive to share the thrill. As migrants to this country we would never have imagined such an honour in our wildest dreams. Australia is indeed a special country and Australia Day is really a special day, a day to count our blessings and give thanks for our freedoms and largely hate-free, tolerant way of life. We should never take these things for granted.”

For many years, Ibi and Eva celebrated Australia Day with other Volendam passengers, but they have now passed on. This year, to mark the 65th anniversary of their landing in Australia, Ibi and Eva and their families will celebrate Australia Day together.


2 Responses to “An Australia Day story – friendship triumphs over hate”
  1. Nina Moss says:

    The inspirational story about Ibi and Eva….their pain and courage brought tears to my eyes. What remarkable women! May they have many more Australia Days

  2. Raymond Phillips says:

    That is beautiful and may they for many more years.

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