It was never my intention to write a story about my father’s experiences as a Jewish student at a prestigious German university in the aftermath of the Holocaust. However, the concurrence of two significant events provided the momentum that set me on this unintended path. One event had universal significance and the other was significant for our family history: the 2020 global pandemic and my discovery of a remarkable book about the experiences of young Jewish survivors as they navigated university studies in the American Zone of Occupied Germany after World War II.
I have always known that my mother, Ella, and father, David, both born in Poland in the mid-1920s, suffered tremendously during the Holocaust. After the war, they studied at university in Munich, Germany, where they met as members of the all-important Jewish Students’ Union. Dad studied pharmacy and graduated. Mum completed part of her dentistry degree but did not graduate. They married and later immigrated to Melbourne, Australia, arriving in 1950. This is the founding framework of our small family: my parents, my brother Issy, born in 1951, and myself, born in 1958.
I felt familiar with the broad brushstrokes of my parents’ student days. I had heard the oft-repeated anecdotes, met some of their friends from that time, seen documents and photos, and had even visited Munich with Dad in 2009. I knew that through a variety of convoluted pathways, some young Jews, including my parents, had found their way to German universities in the late 1940s. Most studied medicine, dentistry, pharmacy or engineering.
Just a couple of short years before enrolling in university, most of these young people had been starving in German concentration camps, hidden in attics and cellars, or living with false identities fearing imminent discovery. Deep-seated terror had been at the centre of their lives. Precious few had a full complement of parents and siblings still alive and next to none had grandparents.
My parents had always emphasised the importance of those Munich university years in terms of the unfolding of the rest of their lives. I sensed an emotional undercurrent at play whenever Mum and Dad talked about that time. Perhaps those years were among the happiest of their lives. They were energetic, dynamic and purposeful. They were imbued with the optimism and vigour of fledgling independent young adults. And they shared this inimitable experience in the company of others like them.
Despite my awareness of Mum and Dad’s stories, there were always unaddressed questions about this little-known episode in the post-war Jewish experience. Questions that stretched beyond the family narrative.
In early 2020, during one of my sporadic searches on the internet for material on these Jewish students, I stumbled across a book, The New Life: Jewish Students in Postwar Germany by Jeremy Varon. A well-researched, academic and erudite masterpiece. This was the book I had long been waiting for. It had been published back in 2014—how had I missed it? No idea. Never mind. I was beyond excited. I ordered it and rang Dad all at the same time. I gushed out my enthusiasm at a million miles a minute and lost him from the start. “Slow down! What are you talking about? I can’t understand what you are saying to me,” he interrupted. I gathered myself—and my patience—and started again. Slowly. This time, Dad took it all in. My discovery and its gravitas. He was as excited as I was.
At last, I would find out all-important details underpinning this project that enabled Holocaust survivors to enter German universities. Initially, I think of these youngsters, including my parents, as ‘Student Survivors’. However, they, like all those who endured the Holocaust, are actually ‘professional’ survivors. There is nothing amateurish about surviving the Holocaust. In addition, they had to have survived first, in order to become students. I decided it was more appropriate to switch my terms of reference and describe them as ‘Survivor Students’. They merit their own unique category.
Growing up in Melbourne’s Jewish community in the 1960s and ‘70s, I was surrounded by Polish Holocaust survivors. My parents’ friends. The parents of my friends. It felt normal to me. What was not normal was that my parents had studied at university. It was a trajectory my family shared with nearly no-one. It was so out-of-left-field among Holocaust survivors that whenever I mentioned it, there would be stunned incredulity. It didn’t make sense. Here were two Polish Jews whose worlds had been decimated when they were children. One hadn’t completed primary school and the other completed just one year of secondary school. This paucity of education, together with their endurance of ghettos and concentration camps, formed their curriculum vitae. And yet they both became students at the venerated and grandiose-sounding Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.
It is hard to find references, even amongst Holocaust academics, to this niche post-liberation experience. The late Dr Zeev W. Mankowitz of Hebrew University, a much-loved scholar and highly respected specialist in the field of post-war Germany, barely acknowledged it. His seminal work, Life Between Memory and Hope: The Survivors of the Holocaust in Occupied Germany, disappointingly devotes merely one stand-alone sentence to the Survivor Students. It states that at the end of 1946, “581 students were studying at German universities, mainly in Munich and with a fair number in Frankfurt”. That’s it. One measly sentence in a thorough and highly detailed scholarly work.
Dr Mankowitz does mention Bavaria’s very important state commissioner for the victims of Nazi persecution, Dr Philipp Auerbach, but not in relation to his crucial role in supporting and advocating for the Survivor Students. The book does reference Simon Shochet, my parents’ friend, and fellow Munich student (aka Szymek Shochet). However, Dr Mankowitz mentions Szymek in relation to matters that have nothing to do with his university days or his active role in the Jewish Students’ Union.
I had the privilege of being taught by Dr Mankowitz on a number of occasions over many years. I learned much and have the fondest memories of him. However, I can’t help feeling a touch let down.
While I was making the exciting discovery of Jeremy Varon’s The New Life in the early months of 2020, the world was grappling with the growing threat of a new virus, Covid-19, which was spreading across the planet at an alarming rate. After much debate, the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a global pandemic, and in Australia, talk of restrictions on social gatherings and movement gained momentum. The virus was thought to be particularly devastating for the elderly and my brother and I began discussing how we would take care of Dad.
My 95-year-old father lives around the corner from me. When Mum and Dad moved into that street about fifteen years ago, my sons, Gali and Noey, counted the steps from their place to ours. Seventy-one. Mum is no longer alive. She passed away at the end of 2013. Dad has lived at home on his own ever since. My children no longer live in Australia. Gali in London. Noey is in Jerusalem. In fact, even I don’t totally live here. My husband, Steven, and I have a home in Jerusalem and during the last four years we have been spending substantial time in Israel. Living another life.
As coronavirus numbers continued to climb, it became apparent that our next Jerusalem sojourn would be delayed. The government began closing borders and a lockdown was announced. We were going nowhere. And then the book arrived and suddenly I knew how I would take care of Dad during this time.
And so began our daily afternoon reading ritual. At my place, on the couch in the lounge room. We would need to get comfortable. We were in it for the long haul.
Dad liked to sit up straight with a cushion behind his lower back and a footstool on which to stretch out his legs. Covered by a blanket. I liked to sprawl along one length of the couch with my pillow behind me. Covered by two blankets.
When I began reading aloud, I asked Dad to stop and interrupt me whenever he wanted me to repeat something. Or to add details from his own experience. Or comment in any way. After all, it was his imprint and overlay that I sought.
I had no plan to write about our reading endeavour. About Dad’s reactions to the book, our resultant conversations or my ruminations. My sole objective was to keep Dad company and engaged in what was becoming a narrowing world. No more and no less. However, when I told a couple of close friends how Dad and I were spending our afternoons, some suggested that I write about the experience. They felt it would be worthwhile to record Dad’s thoughts, reactions, opinions and the conversations that our reading project inspired. For my sake. For the sake of my kids. It would provide an important family legacy for Gali and Noey, my niece Ilana, my nephew Jeremy and the following generations. Perhaps not a linear memoir, but an insight into Dad’s life and experiences. Not a bad idea. I decided to go for it. I started to jot down Dad’s remarks during our reading and conversations. Then, each day after he left my place, I would sit with my laptop and the words just poured out. I found myself thoroughly enjoying the process. I envisaged photocopying twenty booklets and presenting them to family members and a few close friends. I felt focused and emboldened with this particular audience in mind.
After a couple of weeks of writing, my husband, Steven, asked to read some of my “manuscript”. I laughed at his terminology. As if. I read him some sections and he listened carefully. Then he said, “You have more than a family story here.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I think that maybe you should be writing for a broader audience. Other people, even those who don’t know us, might be interested. You don’t realise it yet, but you are writing a book.”
And so, here is that book.
Prologue was first presented at a Melbourne Jewish Book Week open mic event
Gift of Time will be published later this year by www.realfp.com.au