Published in Post Polio News, the newsletter of the Post-Polio Support Group S.A. Inc., August 1995.
Part 1- Childhood in Germany
I was born in 1922, the youngest son of a German businessman. Thanks to oldfashioned, very sound business practices, the family business had survived the lost war (WW1) and its aftermath with much less damage than most others. We were well off. We had a domestic staff of three, including a governess to look after the three children.
When I was 18 months old, a nasty bout of whooping cough turned into Infantile Paralysis, now called Polio.
Of course I do not remember anything about the polio attack. From hearsay I have it that little Georg, who was a happy, lively baby, and was just graduating from an energetic crawl to walking, suddenly became weepy, slowed down and kept falling over. Within a very short time I was completely paralysed, my limbs and head hanging helpless, only in my left arm there seemed to be some movement.
We lived in Bamberg, a small town in the South of Germany. There was a good hospital, and the resident surgeon was aware of the current polio epidemic. However, my father, who was determined to make sure everything possible was done, sent me, accompanied by Mother and Fr?ein, our governess, to a specialist clinic in Berlin, that was thought to be up with the latest on the mysterious disease. They told me later that I kept on crying: “Mama, Froein, stay with me!” They did.
Whether that journey had anything to do with it, or not, I do not know, but over the following month, movement returned to my limbs, and electrical stimulation tests produced a rather encouraging prognosis. Exercise, the more strenuous, the better, was considered the key to recovery.
Father invested in a big wind-up Grammophone and some recorded military marches to make me move to the music. Other records followed, and if it did not do much for my mobility, it did prepare the ground for my life-long love of music.
The first five years of my elementary schooling took place at home, with qualified teachers visiting daily, the lessons being arranged to fit in with the stringent routine of long, exhausting walks, swimming (which I loved), and trying to do things with my legs while hanging, naked and helpless, by my neck.
All this was prescribed by strange doctor who had rather unconventional theories about the treatment of polio. I now think he may have been somewhat perverse. All walking aids were forbidden, two people (Mother and Froein) had me hanging on their hands for those daily, painful, tiring walks. No wonder I spent what free time I had left sitting in the playroom with my building blocks and, later, a Meccano set. I would gladly have adapted to a secluded, sedentary lifestyle. That I was not allowed to do; and as you will see, giving in might well have cost me my life.
However, from construction kits I graduated to electrical and radio experiments, which laid the foundation for the professional career I was to commence after many strange adventures.
Father was quite aware of a boy’s need to grow up amongst his peers. Children were invited to play in our large garden. Occasional visits to kindergarten, and later to primary school, gave me some degree of social perception.
When I was 11, it was time to go to high school. I was enrolled at the “Gymnasium” where my father had received his own humanist education. There were some nasty stairs, the walk to school was tiring. Froein pushed me part of the way in the reluctantly acquired wheelchair, and half-carried me up the stairs.
Until then my parents had resisted the idea of surgery. Survival rates in those days were rather low. But by now it had become clear that something decisive had to be done. In a long operation, a nasty muscle contraction in my hip was corrected. I spent 10 weeks at a clinic in Frankfurt.
Father wanted Mother to stay with me; but Mother complained about the hospital fare. (I felt she was frustrated by the boring hospital routine; Brother Martin thinks she wanted to look after him and sister Rosl.) Much to my delight, Froein arrived and took over. By that time she was already much closer to me than Mother.
My attachment to her had some important consequences for me.. Our family was Jewish, although not strictly religious; Froein was Lutheran. Due, I think, to a sense of dilemma, I became uneasy, whenever confronted with matters of religion. Ultimately, however, it helped me view different philosophies and traditions with a balanced approach.
The operation was a success. Soon I could walk considerable distances, supported by a simple caliper and a pair of sticks, and enjoy it!
I was still rather slow, I walked with that typical, wobbling Polio gait. I fell over, sometimes; I hurt myself, sometimes; but I was becoming independent. I shall never forget that feeling of exhilaration in exploring, by myself, or in the company of boys my own age, my home-town’s lovely parklands.
Once the out of hospital, I went back to school. Classes were formed along denominational lines; one group consisted of Roman Catholic boys only, the other (mine) had Protestants, residents of Catholic Boy’s homes, and a handful of Jews. Everybody knew, where everybody else fitted in. This was in the early 1930′s, and Hitler was tightening his grip on the German nation. The Gentile boys had to join the Hitler Youth, and became indoctrinated with National Socialist ideology. Wherever I went within the school, I had an unofficial “bodyguard” of two Jewish boys, who were joined, quite voluntarily, by a third, non-Jewish boy. The only incidents I recall, that might nowadays be called “abuse”, were the odd jibes, that I either ignored, or responded to with a little humour. A bully soon gives up in frustration, when he fails in his objective, which is to annoy. On the other hand, I remember incidents where Christian boys took certain risks to show their compassion and innate sense of justice.
Perhaps I felt largely untouched by the “hurlyburly of the schoolyard”, because of the happy, close family life I knew I could return to after school.
Froein stayed with us for many years, until she got married.
Part 2 – Escaping the Holocaust
My childhood so far had been surrounded by a sense of security and comfort, despite my polio, and despite the dark clouds on the political horizon.
On the 9th of November, 1938, I had done a test in Nature Studies, my favourite subject, and was looking forward to a straight “A”, when history came crashing into our family’s life, abruptly changing everything.
It was the day before the pogrom later known as “Kristallnacht”
About midnight, wild ring, ring, ring of the doorbell, hammering on the door. 3 or 4 storm troopers burst in and took Father out “for a walk”. Half an hour later, he came back, beaten and bruised. His first concern was for us, the children. “Don’t go to school tomorrow – it is not safe!”
To this day I do not know how I fared in that Nature Studies test!
Early the next morning, another contingent of uniformed men arrived and took Father into “protective” custody.
I remember getting out of bed, donning my track suit and picking up my walking sticks. I walked up to the troopers and pointed out to them that they could not legally detain Father. I was incredibly lucky: They completely ignored me.
This time Father was taken to the infamous Dachau concentration camp. After several weeks he was released, probably through the intervention of sympathisers high up in the Nazi hierarchy; Father was well known and well liked in the local community.
When he returned he had changed, in appearance, as well as in his outlook.
Up to the pogrom he had firmly believed, that “the regime” would not last, that reason would prevail in the end. He had kept the family business going, hoping my brother Martin and I would take it over one day.
He never spoke much about what he saw in Dachau, except to say “They are capable of anything. We must get out!”
From now on, everything was done with that sole purpose in mind. My brother was sent to England as an apprentice, my sister Rosl went to an agricultural training camp, from where she was to emigrate to Palestine (now Israel). I was sent to a Jewish training workshop in Munich, to pick up some rudimentary skills in metal work, but mainly to learn to look after myself. Meanwhile, Father began the almost superhuman struggle to find a way out of Germany for me, Mother and himself. It was 1939, and war was generally regarded as inevitable. Most countries had closed their borders to refugees, and a boy on paralysed legs was certainly not welcome anywhere. Relatives in America were trying to help, but the U.S. Consulate had a long waiting list and, even though their own President had polio, there was a big question-mark over my eligibility.
Not prepared to give in, Father tried to get papers to enter Haiti. We took lessons in French, just in case. Then there was a special way to obtain visas for Cuba. Father applied, but failed. Fortunately so, because others, who had succeeded, were to be turned back as their ship was about to land. Their visas were forgeries. On return, they arrived in France, which by then had been overrun by the German armies… There were no survivors.
World War II broke out, and we were still in Germany. There was just one last, desperate chance: The International Settlement in Shanghai, China, did not require visas, so long as you could show that you had a certain sum of money for your own upkeep. No money could be taken out of Germany, but our overseas relatives were prepared to provide the amount required to save our lives.
Our passports were issued only the day before the boat’s departure. I signed mine just minutes before the Italian consulate, which had to enter its transit visa, closed for a public holiday.
But then the sea voyage itself was very much in doubt- Italy was preparing to join Germany in the war, and most ports of call were in Allied hands.
I will never forget that nightly train ride over the European Alps. At the border there was one last encounter with the Gestapo (Secret State Police). They were prepared to let us go, so long as we showed that we were leaving all our wealth behind. After the crucial border crossing I laid down on the seat and slept for a while.
When I woke up, the sunny harbour of Genoa was in sight. We could discern a large ocean liner, our boat. Smoke was billowing from it’s chimneys. The voyage was still on!
Without realizing it, we had escaped from what later came to be known as the Holocaust.
Part 3 – Shanghai, 1940
By the skin of our teeth, Father, Mother and myself had escaped from Hitler’s Germany. We found ourselves in Genoa, en route to Shanghai.
The next morning we boarded the ship. Throughout the journey we were kept wondering if we would make it to Shanghai. Every day news came through about the war escalating. Europe overrun. Italy slowly making up its mind. Most of our ports of call were preparing for war. Except in Manila, we were never allowed on land. Finally, Shanghai. Within three days of our arrival, Italy had entered the war. Once more we had a lucky escape!
Shanghai in 1940 was a city of extreme social contrast. Various parts of the International Settlement were, at the time, administered by different foreign nations, each impressing a different character on its sector. On our arrival, we were greeted by a schooltime friend of Mother’s, who was willing to help us getting settled in these strange surroundings. I remember some of the advice he gave us. It was based on what he had been told by older foreign residents, and reflected, as I realized later, the attitudes of a rapidly vanishing European “Master race”:- Always offer the rickshaw coolie less than you are prepared to pay; haggle for a while, because he will be trying to cheat. But the days when foreigners could get whatever they wanted by simply mentioning the Consulate, were gone for ever, and I see it as an indication of the tolerance, and great sense of humour, of the Chinese people, that we were not treated with far greater hostility. There was incredible poverty and squalor in the streets. Shanghai, at the time, was host to millions of refugees from the Japanese occupation of the surrounding countryside.
Feeling, at first, more like a tourist than a fugitive, I enjoyed exploring the strange city, by tramway, rickshaw, and on foot.
While our money lasted, we lived in a small boarding house, where we made the first of our few Chinese acquaintances. Mr. Lee was staying at the boarding house with a young lady friend. He gave me this bit of Chinese philosophy: “You can have as many wives as you can afford, but don’t keep them under the same roof. It means trouble.” Mr. Lee’s sons, who ran a sporting goods store in town, were very helpful later, when I tried to earn some money building and repairing radios.
Radio played a very big part in Shanghai’s daily life. There were hundreds of stations, anybody could buy or build a transmitter and go on air. The broadcast band was hopelessly overcrowded and you might pick up two or three stations at once! The Chinese did not seem to mind, they loved the noise. Everywhere you went, you could hear the (to us) strange tunes of Chinese Opera, or popular songs. I found out where you could buy imported and locally produced radio parts: There was a small area in the heart of the city (but away from the main thoroughfares) where most of the dealers were concentrated. Surprisingly, it was also a kind of “Red Light” District. The radio shops were at street level, while other business went on upstairs…
The international situation worsened; prospects of an early departure for America dwindled. We rented a couple of upstairs rooms in a small (by European standards) terrace house, originally designed for a large Chinese Family. A Chinese Amah (woman servant) came in regularly to help Mother. She tripped along on “Lily Feet” (her feet had been bandaged and prevented from growing when she was a child, a custom from the Manchu period, that was fast disappearing).
Part 4 – The Japanese Occupation
The prospects for our family to leave Shanghai were dwindling.
Anxiously, we followed international developments on the radio and in the press. One day, a sigh of relief:- The Japanese had given a positive undertaking not to attack!
One or two nights later- artillery fire from the direction of the river. The occupation of Shanghai occurred simultaneously with the attack on Pearl Harbour and came as a complete surprise. The valiant crews of two British gunboats on the river fought until their craft were sunk, then swam ashore. The American garrison surrendered without a fight; rumour had it that they were all drunk . By morning it was all over, Japanese troops were patrolling the streets, proclamations told everyone to stay calm. Most of the myriad of radio transmitters were silenced, although the Germans and Russians managed to keep their official stations going and provide news services in English and German. Neither could be trusted to be unbiassed in their reporting! Short-wave radios were in demand, as it turned out that British and American reports were relatively objective. The Japanese ordered that shortwave coils had to be removed from all radios, providing a short-lived “bonanza” for my trade. I derived great satisfaction from building a small one-valve converter that could be connected to the antenna terminal of any radio to restore short-wave reception. It was mounted inside a Maxwell House coffee tin. Devising novel gadgetry is what I have always liked best. I was to get plenty of opportunity for it in later life.
Then came “The Proclamation”. A Designated Area (the word “ghetto” was strictly forbidden) was set aside for all Stateless Refugees (the Germans had long since declared our passports null and void) to move to within a short period. The area chosen was a part of Shanghai where gun battles had taken place during the first Japanese invasion in 1937 and rebuilt with dense rows of tiny terrace houses intended for poor Chinese families. (It was perhaps not a ghetto in the usual sense, in that many of the Chinese inhabitants remained there.) If you had a house or flat, you had to exchange it for a very much smaller and rather primitive place. On top of that, you paid substantial “key-money” for the privilege of complying with the Japanese orders. Father and Mother ended up in a “meter room”, a small chamber half-way up the stairs to the garret, where the electricity meters were installed. There was barely enough space for two beds. My own accommodation would sound even more bizarre: An elderly couple had managed to obtain a room that was ample for their modest requirements. With two cupboards and a make-shift curtain they partitioned off one corner with just enough space for my bed and an upturned crate for a “bedside table”. For some time I carried on my radio repairs on a table in another corner.
The Japanese were not providing for our upkeep in any way; after all, we were not enemy prisoners, but Stateless Refugees! To facilitate earning a living you could obtain a special pass that allowed you to leave the ghetto at certain times. I applied on the grounds that I had to shop for supplies for my radio work. The pass had to be renewed regularly. You had to fill in a form and present in person before Mr. Kwano Goya, a short bow-legged army officer, who spoke passable English and played the viola. He was feared by most of our people, because of the aggressive way he spoke to you during those interviews. He would take off his shoe to threaten you with it, or bellow such phrases as “Don’t darken my doors again!
However, I am convinced that this was just a mask, and that he was, at heart, a pretty reasonable fellow. (In fact it is now rumoured that he was an American “mole”.)
I would walk in and say, I was a Radio Engineer, he would correct me, telling me I was a Mechanic (He was right, of course), and stamp my new pass. I don’t know where I took the chutzpah from, but I repeated the performance every time (I think, monthly). One of the two people assisting Goya at those sessions was a young Jewish policeman, who later worked for the JOINT international refugee organisation. It was through his efforts, that I got onto the very first ship taking refugees to Australia after the war.
That radio repair business contributed only very marginally to our upkeep. I was inexperienced, never charged enough, and had an inordinate number of call-backs. I hated working at people’s homes, so father took on the job of picking up the sets and carrying them home in a knapsack. I had practically no equipment. I put my screw-driver across a wire and tried to judge the voltage from the size of the spark.
There were some quite high-powered experts in mathematics and engineering among the refugees. They provided lectures which were free and given in English, and consisted in purely theoretical studies – the only equipment available was a blackboard borrowed from some primary school. I had begun to realise that there was more to a technical career then a little experience and self-confidence. I joined, and so laid the groundwork for the engineering course I was to take later in Melbourne.
Everybody was trying to build up some sort of a business, only a few young people managed to hold down jobs with firms operating under neutral flags. While we had still a little money left, many people offered father partnerships in enterprises that stretched the imagination to the limit, and beyond. However, first priority was to do something about the rampant inflation. I remember buying a ladle-full of hot water (yes, in the Hot Water Shop!) for 2000 Shanghai Dollars. Father “invested” in a box of imported laundry soap, to sell cake by cake, as we needed the money.
No longer could we afford the help of the Amah. Like most Chinese housewifes, Mother used a Japanese clay “stove”, that looked more like a middle-sized flowerpot and burned briquettes.
Did you know that you can cook a lovely pot of rice by just bringing it to the boil, and then transferring it quickly into the nearest bed to complete the job?
Eventually, our reserves ran out, but by that time the international JOINT organisation had established a soup kitchen for refugees. Father went every day with a big cooking pot in his knapsack to bring home our dinner.
One lived only for the day, there seemed to be little point in planning for tomorrow. Cholera was endemic. There was an outbreak of amoebic dysentery. The Chinese were more or less immune, but many refugees died. I had a bad bout of what was diagnosed (because no amoebae were found) as “bacterial dysentery”, considered terminal. I was taken to hospital. Imagine a “hospital” catering for intestinal infections that had no sewerage! A team of coolies made dreadful noises at 5am, scrubbing our wooden buckets with bamboo brushes. But then I was given some pink tablets, (I understand the Japanese wanted to try out their first Sulpha preparations) and recovered miraculously. To this day, I am not sure whether I really had an infection at all, or just a bad case of nerves!
The last few months of the war were undoubtedly the most dramatic. For the first time, good news were coming over the short-waves. The allies were preparing for a giant onslaught on the Chinese mainland. Air raid alarms became daily routine. There were sirens, at night lights had to be out. But there were no shelters of any kind to go to. Shanghai is built floating on river mud, there are no cellars or subways. So, when the planes came over, you just went on with your business and hoped for the best. Fortunately, the Americans, at this stage, sent only squadrons of small planes, dropping loads of small bombs that might just flatten one or two of the flimsy Chinese houses. But there were some civilian casualties.
 It is now known that the American command had advance knowledge of the attack, having broken the Japanese secret code. But rather than letting the enemy become aware of this, they chose not to try to defend the city. Instead, they had secretly withdrawn their troops almost to the last man.
Next – Landfall in Australia – Epilogue
Part 5 – Landfall in Australia
As the war in the Pacific drew to a close, we, the stateless refugees of Shanghai, had been caught helpless between the warring nations.
Peace came to Shanghai just as abruptly as the war had reached it. There were rumours about a totally new kind of bomb having fallen on Hiroshima. Next thing, the Japanese surrendered and within a day or two the little Japanese solders guarding the streets were replaced by big American marines, who brought with them loads of surplus food rations that were mannah to starving refugees; we all had lost much weight during the occupation. The soldiers were free spenders, and suddenly there was plenty of work and business for everyone. Herr Hahn, a radio engineer from Vienna, who had a repair shop on the “area”, offered me a job, and while the pay fell well short of a living wage, it did a lot for my ego.
The next phase of my adventures came as suddenly as all the other events I have reported. I was working on an interesting repair job at Hahn’s, when Mother rang up on the telephone… Would I like to go to Australia next Tuesday?
Throughout the war we had been in the dark about the fate of my brother Martin, who had escaped from Hitler’s Germany to England. Now his letters came through- from Australia! He was one of the “Dunera Boys”, young Jews, who, allegedly suspected of being German spies, had been transported to Australia on board the Dunera, later dubbed “the last convict ship”. The Australian Government, after assuring itself of the true status of the fugitives, and being short of manpower, had soon recruited the young men into its army. This entitled Martin to take out landing permits for his immediate relatives.
Now an opportunity had arisen for 12 refugees to travel on a freighter bound for Newcastle. It was, in fact, the first migrant ship to arrive in Australia after the war. Through the goodwill of that JOINT official who remembered me from the time of the Goya reign, I was now given that phantastic chance. Father was recovering from an operation, and Mother was going to stay with him; but both were urging me to go ahead on my own. Packing my luggage was not much of a problem; I owned next to nothing. My one suitcase was much too large, and even stuffing it with a lot of junk, radio parts and what-not, did not save it from being crushed beyond repair in the ship’s hold!
We landed in Newcastle, and were taken by train to Sydney. I remember that evening in some airy place surrounded by lush vegetation, talking to some of my fellow passengers. The door opened, in walked a smart young soldier in uniform, slouch hat under his arm. Martin had come to Sydney to greet me.
Never will I forget, what a wonderful brother Martin was to me in the weeks that followed. Stationed near Melbourne, he had used some of his army pay to rent a room for himself in suburban St Kilda. When I turned up, he went back to his army tent, to let me have his place. From his pay, he provided for my upkeep until I could find work. I did not have a penny.
But when Father and Mother arrived just a month later, I had already found a job in a radio factory; there was no work shortage in 1946.
There were also some great opportunities for young people who wanted to “get on”. The Melbourne Technical College (Now known as Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) provided evening courses, for those who worked in the day-time, that led to full Engineering qualification.
Having learned that a little practical experience was no substitute for a proper technical education, and with Kwano Goya’s periodic reminder, that I was a mechanic, not an engineer, still rankling, I enrolled in a 7-year part-time course in Radio Engineering.
Those were long working days, with tram- and train travel from home to factory, to college, and home again, every working day. Sometimes I fell over, sometimes I hurt myself. Sometimes I did damage to my joints that was to give me, in later years, a lot of trouble. But by now I was determined to succeed. I never missed a lecture. Weekends and holidays were mostly taken up by studying the things I had been too tired to absorb in the night classes.
Discharged from the army, brother Martin had found work, and even Father, 68 years old and not in the best of health, took on a labourer’s job in a textile factory; he refused to be a burden to the family. Mother worked at home, helped by Father and Martin; I was excused from all chores, so that I could devote all my time to the challenging task I had set myself.
In due course, after 7 years I received my diploma, and so qualified for a professional position at the new Long Range Weapons Establishment in Salisbury (Now known as DSTO).
I got married, we had two healthy children growing up in our own home, a car, in short, I achieved the “Great Australian Dream”.
Looking back with gratitude on an eventful life, I acknowledge that, along with many other factors, polio has made me what I am, and no complaints!