Australia Farewells a Noble German

August 15, 2011 by Frank Walker
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Jurgen Corleis was the son of a Jewish mother and Jewish grandmother. He practised no religion but always said he was Jewish. No-one in the Sydney Jewish community knew him except J-Wire. The man cremated today in Sydney was a high calibre foreign correspondent and documentary maker. The film which plays continuously to visitors at the Bergen-Belsen camp was made by Jurgen Curleis. Former Sydney Morning Herald journalist Frank Walker told Jurgen’s story this morning….

Alexandra and Jurgen Corleis

I first heard of Jurgen Corleis when I was about 18 or 19. I was visiting my parents in Germany where my father was the press attaché at the Australian Embassy in Bonn. I remember he came home one night very excited – “I’ve just persuaded Germany’s top documentary filmmaker to go to Australia to make films,” he said.

Jurgen had made groundbreaking documentaries and magazine stories about the Cuban Revolution and Che Guevara, repression of freedom in eastern Europe and the growth of the terror group the Baader-Meinhof Gang in West Germany.

I remember my father was beside himself – in the 1970s to get a journalist of this high caliber to do in-depth stories about Australia was a great coup.

Well, Jurgen produced very significant documentaries and print stories about Australia shown across Germany, including the great mining boom and the success of multiculturalism.

But something else happened Down Under. Jurgen fell in love with Australia. He loved the sense of freedom here, he was overwhelmed by the welcome he got and the friendly people. He was wrapped in the notion of the fair go, and the fact Australians accepted you for the character you are, not your family background or the past you come from. He loved it so much that in 1981 he packed his bags and migrated to Australia and became one of the first non-English speaking foreign correspondents basing themselves in Australia. He wrote for the massive Springer press – Germany’s equivalent of the Murdoch empire – for the next 30 years.

It wasn’t until Jurgen eventually sat down in 2007 to write his autobiography ‘Always on the Other Side’ that I discovered why he was so driven to expose how political leaders manipulate and draw on fear to enhance their own power.

Imagine you are 11, 12, 13, 14, years old. You are in Germany as the Nazis take power and launch the Second World War.  You have a family secret, a secret that if anybody finds it out, could get you killed. Jurgen had Jewish heritage  – his mother’s mother’s mother was Jewish, so his mother Amelie was quarter Jewish. Although she wasn’t a practicing Jew, it would have been enough for the Nazis. His father Helmuth was a senior officer in the German army, and knew the danger his family was in.

Jurgen’s mother and father divorced three years before the war as the Nazi power grew. Amelie married an Englishman, Alan Hansbury-Sparrow, a Colonel in the First World War who still had close links to the British Army. He met Amelie in Germany and he could well have been a spy. Young Jurgen liked the friendly Englishman he called Uncle Alan – so different from the stern stiff militaristic father he rarely saw.

As war approached Helmuth told Amelie  she could leave Germany with Alan, but Jurgen and his elder sister Gisela would have to say. Jurgen said he always hated the German folk song Mussi den – later made famous by Elvis Presley – as his sister sang the song as his mother and Uncle Alan left on the train at Hamburg for England.

Helmuth played a smart card to try and save his son from the Nazis – he put him in a military private boarding school. Jurgen was just 10 when he started at the school, but the dreaded SS took it over. It was a school for future elite SS soldiers with pure Aryan blood. And among them was a part Jewish kid, living in fear that his secret would one day be discovered. Jurgen survived. He hated the things that he had to do to keep up the façade, things he regretted and felt guilty about for the rest of his life.

Jurgen turned 16 in 1945. He was conscripted. Most of his classmates went into the SS and headed to the Russian front. But Jurgen’s father, by then a Colonel in the signals division, got Jurgen assigned to a special unit developing rockets. He probably saved Jurgen’s life. The post was in Bavaria and Jurgen’s unit spent most of the time hiding in forests waiting for the Americans to come so they could surrender.

After the war Jurgen discovered his 19 year old sister was killed by British bombs dropped on Dresden. He also discovered his mother and Alan had had a baby called Christina. Sadly when Jurgen’s half-sister was 18 months old she was killed by German bombs dropped on London.

It’s natural this horrific experience would have a huge impact on Jurgen’s life. He had a lifelong hatred of those who use racial hatred and fear to manipulate people. He thought he’d found a refuge from that in Australia. He was thrilled and proud of his adopted country at the Sydney Olympic Games. It was his highlight as a foreign correspondent.

But in the years since, he became distressed as he watched Australian politicians whip up fear of illegal immigrants and minorities and sought to ennoble war through the Anzac legend – Jurgen felt this wasn’t the Australia he’d fallen in love with.

Jurgen fought against this sort manipulation all his life in the best way he could – by exposing the lies and manipulations and warning where they can end up.

If you go to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp today, there is a documentary film showing in the camp’s information centre that runs non-stop. Millions of people have watched as it tells how the Nazis manipulated public opinion, and how the Germans followed. It will play to the visitors for many more years. The powerful film was made by Jurgen Corleis.

Frank Walker is a former Sydney Morning Herald journalist and New York correspondent for The Sun-Herald who now writes non-fiction books and freelances.


One Response to “Australia Farewells a Noble German”
  1. Gabrielle says:

    What a story. Thankyou

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