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Egon’s Diary: Coming of age in Camp de Gurs

Egon’s Diary: Coming of age in Camp de Gurs

Thursday, 25 October 2012

This blog is part 20 of the story of 24-year-old Jew Egon Schoenberger and his flight from the Nazi Holocaust of World War II to New Zealand. Egon’s story has been adapted by Museum writers Greg Meylan and Kirsten MacFarlane, using archive material submitted to Auckland Museum by Egon’s New Zealand family. There will be 24 posts in total.

Egon's diary entry for 5-6 September (translated).

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

(Diary entry 5-6 September continues) After a long wait at passport inspection and much discussion, they do not let us go ashore here either. We therefore have to content ourselves with watching the two-hundred native dock workers who are unloading approximately five-hundred tonnes of rice and corned beef. Some people are already getting morally (that is, in advance) seasick because the ship is becoming so light.

Johanna's letter from Camp de Gurs is chatty and upbeat.

Schoenberger, Egon. Papers 1892-1960s. Auckland War Memorial Museum Library. MS-2002-74.

The Schoenberger-Orgad family gathering at the Museum library a few days ago, filled yet another significant gap in the family history. It was the first time that Michèle, Sehai and Milan had seen the English translation of a letter from Johanna and Doris, written while they were interned in Camp de Gurs. Due to a scarcity of paper, Johanna wrote on one side and Doris used every available space on the other. Dated 12/3/1941, the letter is confirmation that they had been in the camp for more than a year, and had recently endured a harsh winter. Both mother and daughter begin with an affectionate salutation: ‘My Dears, Thank you very much.” But there is no reference to the recipients of their letter. A few paragraphs later, there is a mention of Rosa, Eugene’s sister. We are convinced that the letter is addressed to Egon’s uncle and aunt, Eugene and Edith.

Sehai reads aloud a passage from Johanna’s letter – her great grandmother’s description of Doris’ 21st birthday celebrations.

“We are doing consistently well, thank God; we spent the eventful day of my child’s coming of age quite pleasantly in the M Infirmary. Doris was presented – commensurate with the times – with all kinds of edibles and in the evening her colleagues prepared a good cold evening dinner, which was also attended by the chief physician and our block female physician. “

Doris' letter talks of champagne celebrations on her 21st birthday.

Schoenberger, Egon. Papers 1892-1960s. Auckland War Memorial Museum Library. MS-2002-74.

Doris, who worked as a nurse in the camp’s medical centre, was excited about her birthday celebrations.

“My colleagues, the block bosses, and also less significant people were warm to me, and a bottle of sparkling wine was even conjured up.”

It is impossible not to be moved by a mother and daughter’s courageous attempts to draw a veil over the reality of life in this miserable camp. Johanna and Doris would have lived in a small, windowless wood cabin, sometimes sharing it with up to 60 people. It’s likely they would have slept on the ground on sacks of straw. Camp food, when it was available, was substandard. There was no sanitation, running water, or plumbing. It rained frequently in this region, and the clay grounds of the camp quickly turned into a muddy slough. During the winter of 1940-41 alone, 800 prisoners died.

Doris Schoenberger in the mid to late 1930s.

Schoenberger family.

Could Johanna and Doris have felt any bitterness towards Eugene, for getting his wife Edith out of the camp? If Captain J Bacharach’s descriptions of the pair as spirited and courageous (“they were carved from the most previous wood”) are true, then it is likely there was no acrimony. I think they were acutely aware of their dire situation.

Johanna writes: “We must continue, in large part, to let the times – that is, the political situation – decide our fate.”

Yet Doris – this beautiful young woman celebrating her 21st birthday in such miserable surroundings – remains so optimistic about the future.

“I do not see salvation in the USA, because even there it is so insanely difficult that I find myself less and less unfortunate having to sit up here. The question is just how much time one will still lose because of this. I just make an effort to find something cheerful every day, and actually also have still maintained my sense of humour,”

Previous blog: Family reunited

Next blog: A last handshake and a kiss then they left

Throughout this series of 24 blog posts we’d love to hear from you. If you have any questions, would like to learn more about any aspects of Egon’s story or share your thoughts please use the comment box. We’ll do our very best to respond and answer your questions. And thank you to everyone who has commented so far.

  • Post by: Kirsten MacFarlane

    Kirsten MacFarlane is a part-time editor and writer for Auckland Museum. She also edits and writes feature articles for various publications.