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Egon’s story: First encounter with Oriental world

Egon’s story: First encounter with Oriental world

Saturday, 22 September 2012

This blog is part 11 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 17 August 1939 (translated). Full entry continues in post below.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

Egon sights the brown sails of the Indian fishing boats and begins preparations for a day exploring the city of Colombo. It will be his first encounter with “the Oriential world” and at the end he is moved to write a long entry in his diary:

“At around 10 o’clock we see the first Indian fishing boats. They are very primitive outrigger boats with large brown sails. The ocean has completely settled down.

Shortly after 11 o’clock the ship stops in front of the entry to the harbour of Colombo. We are there an hour too early. After the usual formalities people can go ashore with a stamped passport, that is, the ship is lying in the roadstead and people are transferred with motorboats.

The first impression — which in any event continues to persist until departure — cannot or can only with difficulty be described to someone who only knows the Oriental world from books. For most people who, like me, are not making this journey for their pleasure, it is the same; they are overwhelmed and need days in order to digest everything. I gain a good overall impression because I take a car trip through the city and the nearby surroundings to Mount Lavinia.

At first the journey goes through the harbour quarter, then through indigenous quarters like Pettah.

The roads are very well maintained. But on both sides stand low houses with arcades in which vibrant life dominates. One sees here all sorts of races. Firstly the Singhalesians, large angular figures with long hair that covers the nape [of the neck], then other Indians from the north with the sign of their caste, Arabs, Negros, and a large contingent of Chinese. A large part of all these people sits around, some also lie somewhere in the shade of a pillar or a tree and sleep. On the trip we see the old church from the time of the Dutch (first owners of the island), then we are also led to a Hindu temple, which does not offer any worthy sights, however.

Then we drive into the European quarter. Wonderful parks – Cinnamon Gardens, Victoria Park – then the bungalows of the government officials. One-storey houses with large high rooms (air ventilation) with beautiful gardens and numerous servants. A car is indispensablen Colombo since the distances are large but the tram or bus connections are insufficient.

In Mount Lavinia, approximately 11 km away from Colombo, live the upper ten thousand in wonderful bungalows at prices that are equally beautiful [trans. note – i.e., expensive]. The rents are high, but the Europeans also earn well. In addition, standing here is a world famous hotel with a fabulous view. On the evening before returning to the ship, I still take a quick look at the European quarter with its department stores, the GPO, and the house of the governor. Then the return trip to Marnix.”

Previous blog: Finding work in New Zealand

Next blog: Arrival in Sabang, Indonesia

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.