31,000.  That’s how many Holocaust survivors rebuilt their shattered lives in Australia in the years following the end of WW2. The majority of them settled in Melbourne and it became the home for one of the highest numbers per capita of Holocaust survivors in the world.

As survivors, they did well at surviving. They were the lucky ones because they got out. But enduring that experience, losing all that they did, for many of them, a part of them never really got out. They built new lives, all the while making sure the part of them that remained back in a labor camp, or the ghetto or the concentration camp was as small as possible. They focused on building new and successful lives. Australia gave its survivors a new home and a future, a great distance from the horrors left behind.

26 years ago, in February 1997, I conducted an interview with my grandmother, Riva Frenkel for the Steven Spielberg Foundation. 2 months ago we attended her consecration on what would have been her 105th birthday.

Born in 1918 in Pultusk, about 70kms from Warsaw, she described it as a beautiful city surrounded by parks and gardens. She lived in a Jewish neighbourhood, with a shul 10 mins walk away. Buba, as I called her, remembered preparing and sending out mishloach manot, parcels with fruit, cake and sweets on Purim, and receiving them too.  Seders would extend late into the night and as children they’d be almost asleep by the end. She described ice skating on a central frozen river and spending Saturday afternoons at Betar. For 2 months a year, they would holiday in nearby Pshetich where the weather was beautiful, food was plentiful; they played netball and she recalled them as the best years of her life.

When the war broke out in Sep 1939, all the Jews of the town were rounded up in a nearby park, ordered to throw their possessions into barrels, warned if they kept anything they would be shot. Over the next 3 days they were chased to the Russian border without food nor sleep.

Attempting to reunite with her husband who had managed to escape to Lithuania which was still independent, my grandmother was caught crossing the border and was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment. She was sent by train to a labor camp in Siberia. She described the 4 weeks on a freezing cattle train, 30 people in each wagon. When you woke up your hair was frozen to the timber on which you lay.

Conditions at the camp were terrible. They slept underground. Work would begin at 5am and they returned in the dark. I can only imagine the reserves of strength she had to muster, to awaken each day, work in subhuman conditions, not knowing when or if she would reunite with her family.

Inexplicably after 8 months, they were informed that the Polish citizens were to be released. The 11 Jewish girls she’d been imprisoned with found work in a spirit factory in Chalabinsk, one of three places they were offered to be released to and the one closest to Moscow. They worked outdoors in -40c temperatures, gathering wheat for the spirits. The 11 girls lived together in a room with no electricity and no kitchen to prepare their food. She recalled the ice on the walls. This was her life for the next 12 months.

Sporadically they received parcels from The Joint. In the parcels were newspapers and on the last page were advertisements of people searching for family. On a random day, she noticed an ad with the initials of her husband searching for her and his best friend. What were the odds of her noticing that ad? After frantic correspondence, her husband, my Zaida journeyed to her, arriving in Dec 1942, seeing each other for 1st time in 3 years. They travelled to Kazakhstan by train where they saw out the end of the war. There they also met up with other Jewish families who had escaped. One such family was the Kormans. Their daughter Chana  was a young child at the time, and came to live with them while her father was hospitalised with typhus and her mother was scavenging to find food. Chana became like a daughter to them and in Australia she would continue to visit them weekly until she passed away in 2018.

At the war’s end, my grandparents sought details about their families only to discover that everyone was gone. Buba’s parents she was informed had been taken to a forest and shot.

A part of my grandmother, a small part, remained trapped in her war experience. While she never returned to Poland, she found it difficult to trust, both government and people generally. But they made a life here, they had 2 children and then 4 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren. Family meant everything and was always her priority. Resilience for her meant accepting her new reality, even if it didn’t resemble the life she had before with the family she’d never see again.

Auschwitz survivor Edith Eger wrote in The Choice: Grief is often not about what happened. It’s about what didn’t happen. So much didn’t happen after the Holocaust. So many lives not lived and lives not born.

Four brothers in Russia signed up to the Red Army to fight against the Nazis. Three of the brothers lost their lives and we mourn their loss. The one who survived? His grandson is the current president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. It’s impossible to grapple with the lost impact of the millions who did not survive and their descendants.

(This is an edited version of the speech delivered at the JCCV Yom Hashoah event on 17 April 2023)

Article by Author/s
Liora Miller
Liora Miller is a CV writer and state election manager. She has a Masters and Bachelor of Law degrees and has practiced as a Costs Lawyer, Legal Adviser to the Attorney General and Judge's Associate to a Supreme Court Judge. She is the managing editor of Jewish Women of Words.


  1. Thank you Liora, I did not know that story…and that you are related to Volodymyr… Very moving and well expressed. So many lives not lived.

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