There is a great story in our family that I’ve heard bits and pieces of over the years, but I’d never gotten it in its entirety. So recently, on a visit with my parents, I had them both regale us with it.
The story takes place sometime in late 1961 – October or November. We were living in a little half house behind a Spotless dry-cleaners on the corner of Lygon Street and St Phillip Street in East Brunswick. It was a warmish Spring Saturday evening, my sister and I had already been in bed for a while, and my parents had changed into their pyjamas and were getting ready to turn in for the night. Suddenly, the telephone rang. My parents looked at each other worriedly. Who could that be?
Before continuing, we need some history…….
At the beginning of the second world war, my mother’s family, having fled their little village in Poland to escape the invading German army, was transported by the Soviet authorities to Yakutsk, a remote outpost in far Siberia. My mother was nine years old, and together with her older sisters, they met many people – mostly single men and women in their teens and twenties – with whom they became lifelong friends. One of these was 21-year-old Fayge Berger (whom everyone called Fela), a young woman who was sent there with her brother Moniek.
Fela was born in Olkusz, a small town in Southern Poland, 42 kilometres north-west of Krakow. Soon after, her family moved to the country to help her grandparents run a little farm but returned to Olkusz when she was a teenager because “there were no Jewish boys for her to meet on the farm”. I guess that life was really quite simple in those days – at least until the Wehrmacht invaded Poland and came after its Jewish population.
In Yakutsk, Fela and Moniek found themselves in the same Siberian work camp as my grandparents, who became surrogate parents to them and lots of other young people who had by now lost their own parents.
When the war ended, my mother’s family along with many of those assorted young people made their way back to Poland managing to avoid the elements, hunger, and marauding gangs of anti-Semitic thugs. They settled in Wroclaw, a large University city in Western Poland, intending to start making a new life after the brutality of the previous six years.
Meanwhile, back in 1914, the Goldmans, a family who lived in Wlodawa, a Polish town right near the Ukraine Belarus borders, fled to Russia when the First World War started. Their son Yosef, was born in 1917 in the eastern Ukraine city of Lozowa. The following year, when the Great War ended, the family returned to Wlodawa. He was generally known as Yoske, and then later, amongst Australians, this was of course anglicised to Joe.
Yoske, like many of his generation, was seemingly born into a life on the run. When he was 22, the Second World War started, and off to Russia they went again. This time Yoske was the man of the family, and he took his mother, his brother, two sisters, a brother-in-law, a niece, and a nephew with him to escape the Wehrmacht and the Nazis.
Having been born in Russia, he was in a manner of speaking, back home. Indeed, as a young man, he embraced Communism and idolised Stalin. So, with a great deal of enthusiasm and without much difficulty, he joined the Soviet Army, and before long became a sergeant, and served mainly in Central Asia – in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. On one fateful day, during a battle, Yoske was caught by a mortar explosion and buried alive. His battalion actually won that battle, and when they returned to bury the dead, they found him under a huge pile of bodies. As with most survivors of that vicious period, luck had played a large part – it was truly a matter of centimetres.
In 1945, after having experienced the realities of Stalinism, Yoske was starting to become disillusioned with the Soviet Union – the final disenchantment came around 20 years later. Hoping that his other siblings might have survived the Holocaust, he and his family also made their way to Wroclaw as refugees, where they were housed with the Jewish community. His mother heard about a beautiful, young, single dressmaker who lived nearby, so she sent her daughter Henia (Yoske’s sister) to her, under the pretext of having a bespoke dress made. But really, it was so she could check her out. The rest, as they say, is history. Fela and Yoske started dating, and despite their very disparate views on faith – he being strongly anti-religious and she being very observant – they were married in 1947, just in time for my mother, her boyfriend (who became my father), and her parents (my grandparents) to attend the wedding before they all left Poland for greener pastures.
The next time my mother saw them was when they arrived in Melbourne in June 1959. My parents had arrived separately around 9 years earlier, had met up again and married here, and by this time, my sister and I were already around, and we were living in East Brunswick.
The Goldmans – Yoske, Fela, and their children Bronia who was 11 and Michael who was 5 – also settled down in East Brunswick, in a little apartment above a shop on the corner of Lygon Street and Glenlyon Road. The four adults picked up their friendship from where it had left off back in Poland, and we became quite close with the kids.
So, back to that Spring evening in 1961. My mother answered the phone, her heart beating quickly – it was quite late for a phone call. On the other end was young Bronia Goldman, and while not quite hysterical, she was very concerned. Her parents had gone out to the movies and it was the first time that they’d gone out in the evening and left the kids alone. Bronia was 13 and she was also baby-sitting Michael for the first time.
“What’s the matter, Bronia?” Well, she had received a phone call from some man or teenager or young boy with a deep voice, and he had threatened her. He told her that he was going to kill her parents and her brother and said a whole lot of terrible things which had frightened the hell out of her.
Was this true? Was someone really out to get them? Who knows? It might’ve just been teenagers pranking. But it was scary enough for Bronia to understand that she better get herself and her little brother out of there.
Now remember, there were no mobile phones, we didn’t have a car, and Yoske and Fela were in a movie theatre, so they might as well have been on the dark side of the Moon – completely out of radio contact. So, she called my parents. My father put on his dressing gown, jumped on a tram, and rode the three stops down to Glenlyon Road. He picked them up – Bronia and Michael, in their pyjamas and dressing gowns – and brought them back to our place – again on a tram. Meanwhile, my mother stayed at home with me and my sister.
And as if this wasn’t funny enough – for some reason, he didn’t leave a note for Yoske and Fela!
And then, when he thought they’d be home from the movies, he called them, asked how they were, and then asked how the kids were. Yoske said that the kids were asleep in their beds. My father said, “are you sure?” And then he told them the whole story. And of course, Yoske then hopped on a tram, came to us to pick up the kids, and take them home ….. again, on the tram.
Yoske died on 11th March 1979 after a battle with lung cancer. He was quite an amazing man. My father often said that he was the most intelligent man he’d known, and when I asked him why, he said that although Yoske was very knowledgeable and extremely well-read, and although he kept himself very well-informed about the world – none of those was the key. What stood out for my father was that Yoske was an independent thinker who could have a discussion, stand his ground, and yet be willing to change his mind if he could be convinced. I’m quite good friends with his son Michael, and he’s the same.
Fela lived another 36 years, seeing four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, and died on 25th May 2015 at the ripe old age of 96. Bronia looks a lot like her and has a similar gentle disposition.
A most beautiful family!