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This story is based on the life of a family who escaped the Nazis in Germany to 1938 and fled to Australia.

Flight By JG 

This story is based on the life of Max and Else and their daughter, Esther, who escaped the Nazis in 1938 by emigrating from Frankfurt am Main, Germany to Sydney, Australia. Some names and details have been altered to protect the privacy of living individuals.

Australia was not their first choice.

Once respected and popular in Jewish and Christian circles, Max and Else were at the mercy of both German and foreign governments that had already permitted considerable immigration by 1937. As conditions for Jews in Frankfurt worsened and friends and family members departed, Max first gave up his city-center office and then, some months later, sold his insurance agency for far less than it was worth. Else’s friends began to avoid her, even crossing the street when they caught sight of her, whether out of prejudice or fear. Max’s business associates encouraged him to go. One night he did not come home as usual. His family waited anxiously, aware of the risks from Nazi thugs and the Gestapo, until he returned safely but shaken the next morning, describing his arrest and release. Soon after, he got an anonymous phone call warning that he was being targeted. Yet even as antisemitic acts became more frequent, Max’s widowed mother wanted to stay in Germany.

Now stateless, they attempted to go to Sao Paolo to join Max’s brother Rudi, who had emigrated in April of 1937, and then to the United States where Max’s father had been a naturalized citizen and they had other family. Doors kept closing. Neither idea worked.

Else traveled all the way to Berlin to get visas from the Brazilian embassy with Rudi’s invitation and her evangelical baptism certificate in hand. She was both charming and professional. The consul told her that she and her daughter would be welcomed because they “liked pretty German girls” in Brazil. And no, a conversion and baptism for Max wouldn’t change his answer.  Perhaps the Brazilian government did not want a flood of Jewish refugees, or perhaps he was looking for something in return for his help. At any rate, Else returned empty-handed and shocked.

Threatened by the Gestapo with a concentration camp unless he left Germany within two weeks, Rudi had secured his visa just a few months before by saying he was Catholic. Else and Max were so sure of success that they had already purchased passage to Brazil and sent most of their household goods ahead to England. The passage money was forfeited, and the crates were returned to Frankfurt. Fortunately, they had funds to try again.

Finally, they were among the fortunate few Jewish migrants able to secure Australian visas before the outbreak of war. Why Australia? Max had relatives who had left for The Netherlands and Palestine.  China and South Africa were also common destinations for Frankfurt Jews. Probably Australia seemed desirable as an English-speaking country. Maybe it was because Max had a contemporary who left Frankfurt for Sydney just a few months ahead of them. Or maybe it was just the first country to say yes among several that they had tried.

And initially it remained hard. Though they were safe, there was no ‘red carpet’ in Australia.  In Germany, they were surrounded by family, affluent enough to afford domestic help, and respected at work and in society – and traumatized and anxious in their last years there. In Australia, despite Max and Else’s command of English, they were ‘nobodies’ with uncertain prospects, just a few more ‘new Australians’ informally derided as ‘reffos’. Max had trouble finding work, ultimately establishing an insurance agency and devoting himself to helping other Jewish immigrants. Else was categorized as an enemy alien when war broke out and had to report monthly to the police — despite having fled the Nazis herself. They followed the news anxiously, frightened for Max’s mother and other relatives still in Germany.

Esther’s concerns were those of a child. “Blending in.” School. Parents. She was an anxious child. Books and music, hobbies her parents encouraged, became a refuge. While a good student, she often kept a book hidden in her desk drawer, reading it surreptitiously when she was supposedly studying. After high school, she studied medicine, completing her training with the then-customary Bachelor of Medicine. Though her letters of reference describe her as capable, conscientious, and adept at engaging her young patients, she lacked confidence. Perhaps her anxiety was to be expected. She’d been in training to be anxious her whole life.
Twenty years after arriving in Sydney, she married Alex, another “new Australian,” and they left for the United States to continue their training. Living away from her parents for the first time, she began to find her way in a place where everyone seemed to be from somewhere else and no one cared what your parents did.
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