Lisl Ziegler 1917-2020

March 9, 2020 by  
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Many factors made Lisl Ziegler the woman she was – first, growing up in Vienna surrounded by enlightened thinkers with socialist values; second, the challenging circumstances of her childhood, an orphan by the time she was 17; and third, the destruction of all that was dear to her with the rise of Nazism and the need to begin life anew. 

Lisl Ziegler

She was 21 years old when she arrived in Australia in June 1939 with her husband, Erich, with no money, no English and more challenges on the horizon.

Elizabeth (Lisl) Ziegler was born in Vienna on August 23, 1917, as Elisabeth Schacherl. Her father, Isidor Schacherl, was born in Vienna, one of four boys and four girls. Her mother, Elsa, one of six children, was also born in Vienna.

The Schacherl family was a household of free thinkers. Elsa was a strong, independent and self-sufficient woman, well-read and politically active.

While she had not planned to have children, she cared for both Lisl and her older sister, Fritzi, while successfully running a small wholesale button business from the family home. Unfortunately, Isidor had returned from his military service for Austria in World War I shell-shocked and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, never able to re-enter the workforce.

Elsa valiantly cared for him, and despite their terrible financial hardships, she ensured that both her girls went to school and joined the local socialist youth group.

Lisl went to a vocational high school, where she specialised in nutrition and cooking. When she was 13, her mother contracted cancer. With their father unable to work and doctors’ bills mounting, both girls had to leave school, Fritzi to run the button business and Lisl to care for their desperately sick mother. Elsa died in 1932, followed by Isidor less than two years later.

The two orphan girls continued to live in their parents’ flat with some support from their mother’s oldest married sister. Lisl’s friend, Brigitte Steinitz, made sure the girls were always included in Friday night dinner at her well-to-do family home. It was a household frequented by Vienna’s prominent artists, writers and socialist politicians.

It didn’t take long for the Schacherl girls to realise the value of a “jour fixe”. Wednesday night became open house at their small flat, where like-minded friends and comrades gathered to discuss socialism and politics.

The “jour fixe” led to the marriages of both Fritzi and Lisl. Lisl met her husband-to-be, Erich Ziegler, as a patient. Erich was a medical graduate from Vienna University. Lisl had returned from a trip to Dalmatia, where she had smuggled socialist brochures, with a backache and chills. Erich made a house call and soon became involved in the Wednesday night meetings.

Lisl Ziegler: early days in Sydney

Lisl got along well with Erich’s parents and other members of his large family – Erich’s father was one of 17 children, so Erich had many aunts, uncles and cousins who were murdered in the Shoah (Holocaust), along with his parents. However, two of his cousins assisted his escape from Vienna to Brussels in 1938 on false papers.

Meanwhile, Lisl, just shy of her 21st birthday, was able to obtain a visa for England because of her cookery qualifications. Her intended flight from Vienna was fully booked; fortuitously for her, she could not get on the flight, which crashed, killing all passengers.

Instead, she caught a train to Paris and spent a week with Fritzi before leaving for England. She was sponsored by a couple as a housemaid, having arrived without a word of English. She soon discovered that her employers were unable to help her as they themselves were very poor and had children to support. Six weeks later she left England to join Erich in Brussels.

In Brussels, she was befriended by the Koppelmans, Polish Jews from Lodz, who helped her in many ways. They introduced her to a family whose maid had left, so she became the housekeeper and carer for their daughter. The Koppelmans looked after Lisl and Erich, now her fiance, even organising their wedding in Brussels on November 26, 1938, at a registry office.

The newly-weds were desperate to leave Europe. Erich’s sister, Lisa, contacted a business acquaintance in Australia, Gustav Star, who wrote to the Australian immigration department. He had seen an advertisement asking for doctors to work in the country. Star went personally to Canberra to obtain visas for Erich and Lisl. Two days after their wedding, a letter came from Canberra with the permits – the best wedding gift they could imagine.

They sold family jewels and borrowed money from a relative of Erich’s to raise the money for tickets to Australia and the 200 pounds in “landing money” required by the Australian government.

They arrived on June 21, 1939, Lisl not yet 22 and after tragedy and turmoil, preparing for a new life in a foreign land.

The Stars’ friends and neighbours formed a small community of Russian and Polish Jews who came to meet the new immigrants from Vienna.

As more doctors joined Australia’s war effort, a shortage led to an emergency service to allow foreign doctors to practice under license, but only at a given place and not one of their own choosing. Erich was one of the few who passed the exams biased against non-English speakers, and he was posted to the small Hunter region town of East Gresford. He and Lisl left in 1943 with their infant son, John who was born in late 1942. They did not yet know that Erich’s parents had been murdered in an Aktion a month earlier.  

They lived there for the next five years; Aviva was born in 1944. Erich ran the general practice with Lisl enjoying the role of receptionist.

The concept of Viennese Jews in 1940s Gresford seems odd, for the people of Gresford had never seen a foreigner, let alone a Jew. At that time, Australian Catholics and Protestants did not mix socially, so being Jewish and not hiding the fact, the Zieglers were neutral and eventually befriended by both groups.

When they decided to return to Sydney, the residents unsuccessfully tried to persuade them to stay and then gave them a loving farewell. Almost 40 years later, Lisl returned with Aviva for a short visit to film a reunion for her documentary film What is a Jew to You. The interest they had garnered in those early days was quite a talking point.

They later lived in Auburn, where they had bought a medical practice and became part of the Strathfield Jewish community. She became a lifelong member of WIZO, a women’s Zionist organisation that supported orphaned children in Israel.

Just when life seemed to be settled, Erich at the age of 63 suffered a severe stroke and survived at home for another six years until 1976. Yet again, Lisl found that inner strength to continue on – which she did for more than 40 years, as another chapter in life began for her.

Through a friend she heard of a position as a receptionist at the Family Planning Association of NSW in Chippendale. Lisl loved her work there for the next almost 15 years; she also attended all the lectures she could, always eager to learn.

Even as her health failed, she would push herself to be active and engaged, impressing one friend as a role model on how to look at life without histrionics, and an almost stoical detachment, steadfast to the end.

She is survived by her daughter, Aviva Ziegler, an award-winning producer and director of human interest TV documentaries, her son, Professor John Ziegler, a paediatric clinical immunologist, 3 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren.“

Elizabeth (Lisl) Ziegler

Born Vienna: August 23, 1917

Died: Sydney: January 29, 2020

This is an edited version of the eulogy written and delivered by Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins

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