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Egon's story: A twist in the (final) tale

Egon's story: A twist in the (final) tale

Thursday, 22 November 2012

This is the final blog in the story of Egon, a 24-year-old Jew who fled from the Nazi Holocaust of World War II to seek refuge in New Zealand. At the heart of the story is Egon’s diary; his entries at times mechanical and rather dreary, but also humourous and peppered with shrewd observations. Egon learns of the declaration of war en-route, and although he doesn’t write about his mother and sister, there is no doubt he would have been devastated. Egon would never see his family again.

Eugene and Egon.

Eugene and Egon.

Schoenberger family.

On arrival in New Zealand, Egon appears optimistic about his new life. “I think I shall like it, as they say here.” And he does. In the years that followed, there was much to rejoice about: a wife, two daughters, a house and a job he enjoyed.

For his remaining family, exposing Egon’s story to the world has had unexpected consequences. Strangers have supplied vital clues in the story, and family friends have made contact. John Burland, who blogs regularly from Mainz, was generous with his time, digging up some fascinating facts about the family and the champagne business. Recently, he uncovered yet another twist in the tale.

“If I’m not very mistaken, I met Rainer Eschenbruch sometime in the 1980s when he hosted a winetasting of his Rongopai Vineyards wines at one of the top restaurants in Mainz.

And this is where it gets very strange – the restaurant relocated to a hotel in the Kaiserstrasse sometime later (and finally disappeared when the hotel was bought by a chain).

Kaiserstrasse 7. The 1924-25 address of Egon’s aunt Bertha.”

For some of the Schoenbergers, the echoes from the past never truly abated. Eugene waged his own war against the post-war German authorities in the hope of compensation. The mayor of Mainz reportedly wanted to return the sparkling wine company to the family but Eugene and his wife Edith were reluctant to return to live in Germany. The company was later purchased by Seagram and Company. Eugene died in 1970, and Edith remarried four years later to a San Francisco physician. After her death in 1995, all her papers were gifted to The Bancroft Library in California.

For many years, Egon would send Red Cross parcels to a former girlfriend living in post-war Germany. The silver finally made it back to the family in New Zealand. After his death, his daughter Dr Michele Schoenberger-Orgad deposited documents from the family business with the Jewish Museum in Berlin. There are sure to be more family secrets that will never come to light.

The holocaust began in 1933, and it’s estimated that 11 million people were killed before the war ended in 1945. Six million of these were Jews, among them Doris and Johanna Schoenberger. In Western society, such treatment of citizens now appears unthinkable. And yet the Australian government has imprisoned thousands of asylum seekers in detention centres, which Amnesty International has described as being on par with a medium security prison. Still the refugees keep coming, risking their lives by making the treacherous sea journey in unsafe vessels. Nearly 70 years ago, Egon made a similar journey, but with a very different outcome.

Previous blog: The librarian 

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: Greg Meylan

    Greg Meylan is a Geneva-based freelance writer and editor. He spent six years as a part-time writer and editor for Auckland Museum’s Exhibition team, and was previously a journalist for The Irish Times and Sunday Star Times in New Zealand. His special interests are writing for web and mobile devices.