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Newsletter of the Adelaide Jewish Museum – March 2003

More Stories about Jewish Adelaide

It was exactly two years ago when I wrote the first newsletter for the Adelaide Jewish Museum. Reading through it I realize that we are still on track in terms of what we set out to do. In that newsletter I outlined our ambitions to document stories about Jewish Adelaide.

There are about 30 stories on the virtual museum so far, with another 10 short stories in the making.

When people send stories about personalities from the past to the museum, it benefits us all. Epitomising these contributions was the recently received biography of one of Margot Salom?s ancestors. Margot is the granddaughter of Maurice Salom, a pioneer of early South Australia who arrived on the Marchioness in 1853, and became one of the early Presidents of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. Salom married into the prominent Solomon family and the marriage between Kate Solomon and Maurice Salom produced 16 children, all strictly raised within the Jewish faith. Margot writes that all but one of the sons married out of the faith as a result of a lack of suitable Jewish women in the latter part of the 19th century: assimilation into the dominant culture in this period of early settlement was a key feature of Jewish life.

So Adelaide is, and has always been, a small Jewish community, and we may as well use this as an opportunity to get to know each other. That is why I have been focussing mainly on contemporary Jewish Adelaide, on the present, on people living in Adelaide. However, in the case of the story about Jo Bolaffi, it is serendipitous that Richard Milosh was doing research for his doctoral thesis on the life experiences of those of European ancestry born in Egypt. Only months before the passing away of Jo Bolaffi, Milosh had taped his experiences as a “foreigner” living in Egypt. What emerged is a fascinating account of Jo Bolaffi’s Italian and Iraqi ancestry, his love of the cosmopolitan Cairo society, graphic accounts of the effect of the mass exit of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Egypt in the 1950s, and humorous and insightful comparisons between the lifestyle in Australia and the Egypt he grew up in.

An engaging story, captured for posterity. So representative was his recording, so faithful in rendering of the story, that to some extent I feel that I know the man even though I never met him.

Brigitte Flatau Yallen agreed to have her story recorded, and she reminisces about her exit from Germany with her parents in 1933, soon after Hitler came to power. Her story documents how they left Berlin for Barcelona, but when the Spanish Civil War broke out her father put mother and daughter on a train to Paris. He stayed behind to salvage the furniture. Not just any furniture, but antiques, the only thing that, for her father, connected him to his past life. Brigitte goes on to talk about life as German Jewish refugees in Paris with enemy alien status, and the sadness concerning her grandmother who perished in Auschwitz because the family were unable to rescue her.

Martin Spitzer also agreed to share his life story, telling me just one aspect of his varied and complex life, that of his dramatic escape from Slovakia in 1942.

He was one of 20 people who formed a partisan group intent on active resistance against the Germans. But when the Slovak authorities discovered a set of papers that he had falsified, he was forced to escape. His brother was employed at a sawmill, exporting timber to Switzerland. They decided to load planks of wood on the train in such a way as to create a hiding place. Martin would try out this escape route; if it proved successful, others would follow and make their way to the West to join the army. He vividly recollects the harrowing experience of lying in a confined space, 2m square and about 80cm high.

One of the unknown perils of his journey was that he didn’t know how border inspections would be carried out. He describes how, at the border near Vienna, the customs officials poked around in his space with a stick, checking to see that there was nothing in the spaces. The poker came within centimetres of him.

By the time the train reached the Swiss border he was beyond caring what might happen, and lay on the damp floor of the carriage (it had been raining incessantly) too exhausted to muster the energy necessary to saw through the floor timbers and get out, as was the original plan. Instead he fell asleep, and a while later, sudden shunting and stopping awoke him; the train had arrived at its destination, the timber yard in Goldach, after a journey of nine days.

When workers started to unload the timber, he knocked on the side of the carriage and asked if they could open the latches to let him out. From here the story continues with his arrest, spending 30 days in a solitary cell, with frequent interrogations regarding his illegal entry into Switzerland. He was sent to Bern to a work camp for refugees where he spent a few days before being sent to Witzwil penitentiary. He remembers how desperately tired he was from the 11.5 hours work every day, the ever-present hunger and the constant abuse.

During his stay at Witzwil, a representative of the Czech government in London visited the Czech inmates and promised to intervene on their behalf to arrange their departure for England to join the army. And indeed, two days later he was on his way to Geneva, given a medical examination, pronounced fit and inducted into the Czechoslovak Army.

Martin Spitzer then fought as a soldier against the Germans, even losing his leg in Normandy, and his story continues with tales of eventful experiences in Spain, America, Czechoslovakia and Israel. Sadly his family was not to escape the atrocities of the Second World War, his brother and parents were deported to Auschwitz and died there.

If you access the “Virtual Museum” you can read these stories in detail, in the words of the authors.

I still believe that everyone has an interesting story to tell even if it is not as dramatic as the ones described above. Please contact me if you would like to be part of this process to document Jewish Adelaide.