How Reading Saved My Father’s Life

Growing up in Austria

I inherited a love of reading from both my parents. They read widely and encouraged me to explore all kinds of books and to value the importance of words.

Today my father turns ninety-eight. He has seen many changes in his long life time – the advent of the motor car, WWII, the invention of computers and so much more.

My father arriving in Australia aged 16

He still reads the Age newspaper regularly and as his mobility has declined, words have become even more important to him.

My father became an avid reader as a small child. He was an only child, a lonely child. His mother had a hectic social life and his father was busy building his business. Books were my father’s solace and companions. They were his friends, they provided characters for him to spend time with, and  allowed him to step into different worlds, to feel connected.

He also read non fiction voraciously – particularly newspapers. Europe was becoming increasingly unsettled in the early years of his childhood, and after Adolf Hitler became Germany’s Chancellor  in 1933 and introduced policies to isolate and persecute Jews, my father suspected that his family’s comfortable life in Vienna wasn’t going to last.

Although he hadn’t been raised in the Jewish faith, his parents were married in a synagogue, and my father knew that was enough to put his family at risk.

His father was too busy working to keep up with everything that was going on around them, and his mother didn’t take an interest in world affairs. So as a boy, my father took it upon himself to keep across the news and report back to his family.

My grandfather is the baby in this photo with a sister, Roza who perished at Auschwitz

At first, his parents dismissed his concerns as paranoia. They believed that he spent too much time reading.

In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were passed, decreeing that Jews could not be full German citizens. The more my father read, the more he realised how the rights of Jews were being eroded.   He told his parents that they needed to start thinking about an exit plan, that they should leave Austria because it was becoming unsafe.

At first his parents were too busy to pay attention. But my father read more and more about Jewish arrests and persecution, and his parents were forced to acknowledge that what he was reading in the papers had a good deal of truth in it. They began to plan for a possible future away from their homeland.

In the Autumn of 1938, 17 year-old Herschel Grynzspan became outraged at the treatment of his Polish Jew parents who had been exiled from Poland. His anger built and on 7 November 1938, he was so incensed that he shot German Diplomat, Ernst Vom Rath in Paris. Vom Rath died two days later from his wounds and the Nazi Party used this incident to incite further hatred of Jews.

The Nazis retaliated quickly and between the 9 and 10 November they smashed synagogues and shops and arrested thousands of Jewish men and sent them to concentration camps. This event became known as Kristallnacht, (Night of Broken Glass).

It seemed that my father’s parents had left their run too late. My grandfather was one of those arrested and sent to Dachau concentration camp.

They called him a preventative prisoner because he hadn’t committed any crime, but because he was a Jew they believed that it was only a matter of time before he did.

One of my grandfather’s letters from Dachau

My grandfather wrote to his wife and son from Dachau, heavily censored letters with hidden meaning where he urged them to hurry their plans to escape from Austria.

“Write to Huttert Limited London, Region Street, a Mrs Holzer to remind her that she should not forget something which is particularly important right now.”

“My friend has not let me down. I am happy no end that you are with Pauline. Hope to see you soon.”

My grandfather was one of the lucky ones, released from Dachau in early 1939 on the condition that he and his family would emigrate and leave behind EVERYTHING they owned. Plans to leave were accelerated.

With fake identities, they escaped by train, fleeing for their lives, nervous every time the train stopped, wondering if they would be searched, and their true identities discovered.

They arrived in Australia on 1 May 1939, a short time before WW11 began. 

If they hadn’t had the help of generous Austrians who risked their own lives to help, my father and his parents would most likely have perished along with other family members who were murdered at Auschwitz.

My father’s reading and awareness of the true seriousness of the situation they faced, allowed his family to plan and leave Austria in the nick of time.

I grew up hearing accounts of my father’s escape and what his life was like before he left his homeland. His story led to me writing Beyond Belief, inspired by the true story of Muslims at a Paris Mosque who saved Jewish children in WW2. 

It has also made me reflect on the importance of reading, and how it connects us, can alert us to danger, and keeps us informed of what’s happening in the world around us.

If my father hadn’t been such an avid reader, he might never have survived Hitler’s Nazis and made it to Australia where he has lived in peace for the last eighty-two years.

My father with two of his great grandchildren in April this year – photo courtesy of Priscilla Matters

2 thoughts on “How Reading Saved My Father’s Life

  1. Oh, Dee, what an amazing post to read. There are so many issues here in your father’s story – the imperative value of reading; courage; problem solving; family, and of course the trauma of leaving. Again, such a powerful piece of writing from your heart.

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