My grandmother was a boat person…writes Inge Woolf

September 3, 2015 by Inge Woolf
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My grandmother was a boat person. Her name was Rosalia Stiassny.

In 1939 her husband David died as a result of being beaten by the Gestapo in  their home town of Vienna.

In order to flee the Nazis Rosalia found ways to join  an overcrowded rickety boat taking refugees fleeing from the Nazis to Palestine


Rosalia Stiassny

Leaving from Bratislava in Czechoslovakia, it took nearly a year to travel down the Danube  into the Black Sea eventually reaching the Mediterranean.

The vessel stopped many times for repairs and to take on  overpriced food and fuel supplies on the way.

When they reached Haifa harbour the ship was stopped by the British blockade and the passengers moved to the ” Patria”, a vessel which would have transported them to Mauritius with plans to intern them there.

Despite moving pleas to the British Governor in Palestine from her youngest son living in Tel Aviv to allow his mother to enter the country under  his care, permission was not given.

None of the other desperate people on the “Patria” trying to escape certain death in their homeland was given permission to land in Palestine.

After three weeks of futile negotiations,  a plan was formulated to disable the boat using explosives which would hopefully force the British to allow the passengers to land in Haifa.

The plan misfired.  The explosive charge was too powerful and the ship sank in Haifa Harbour on the 25th November 1940.  My grandmother Rosalia was among the many drowned.

It comes as no surprise that I identify with all the refugees who today are taking the same risks to flee from death and destruction in their countries of origin.

I understand the enormity of the problem. 75 years after the Holocaust the world is again facing a major humanitarian crisis, but we must learn from history and not repeat the same mistakes.

Instead of trying to keep to inadequate refugee quotas, we need to show leadership using a more humane approach and set up systems to manage, absorb and integrate these people into the culture of New Zealand.

New Zealand should double its quota now, not wait until next year when it will be up for review.

The people of this country have benefitted from the refugees from all over the world who found a new home.

They and their children are motivated to be good citizens. They are on the whole hard-working with the first generation often employed in low paying jobs which no-one else wanted or setting up small businesses in which they worked long hours.

The next generation benefited from New Zealand’s wonderful education system and they showed leadership in the professions. The Jewish community has plenty such examples as have the Chinese and Indian communities. Their food and cultures have enriched our nation.

Often our small country has led social change. Let us do so now.

Inge Woolf is the Director of the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand


One Response to “My grandmother was a boat person…writes Inge Woolf”
  1. Ian Grinblat says:

    It is true in personal matters that when the head and the heart are in conflict, going with the heart will leave you with no regrets. However, in matters of state, and with due respect for the people who died aboard the Patria, we cannot speak in terms of head and heart when faced with a wave of 20 million refugees. To use your own suggestion, if NZ doubles its refugee intake, it will still have a quota and there will inevitably be calls for the quota to be raised further or abolished.
    Immigration is an economic and political matter. The proper and decent management of refugees – at all times, not just when we have yet another crisis – is a world matter, perhaps regional for more practical management. Is is decent or even reasonable for refugees to demand to be allowed to go to any place of their choice? Is it reasonable for governments to say OK to all comers – again I think not because governments exist for the well-being of their constituents. Yes, in times of crisis, governments do have to get out in front of their constituents but it would be unsafe for them to simply throw open the gates and then hope that the future will take care of the ensuing economic and social problems.
    Please remember that for every refugee freshly out of Syria there is at least one who has been sitting in a ghastly refugee camp for years. Anyone can be kind to a stray kitten but it is the mangy old cats that really need the love.

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