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Egon’s story: The innocents of war

Egon’s story: The innocents of war

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

This blog is part six of the story of 24-year-old Jew Egon Schoenberger and his flight from the Nazi Holocaust of World War II to New Zealand. There will be 24 blogs in total. 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.  

Egon's diary entry 11 August 1939 (translated).

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

It’s 10.30am and temperatures have already soared to unbearable levels, as the Marnix wallows in the middle of the Red Sea. The captain has called for the ship to come to a standstill in preparation for a burial at sea. During the night, a nine-month-old baby has died and Egon and his fellow passengers have gathered on deck to pay their respects.

In a few weeks, England and France will be at war with Germany, and the slaughter of so many innocents will ensue. Among the mourners are tourists and others like Egon who are fleeing the impending Nazi scourge, but for now they are desperate to escape the 40-degree Celsius heat as the ship surges onward to the Gulf of Aden.

A letter from Egon's mother written in Camp de Gurs concentration camp in 1941. It begins, like all her letters: Meine Lieben (My Dear).

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

A week into his seven-week passage to New Zealand, Egon has heard no news of his family. For now, they seek refuge in Rheims, France, with the aid of Paul Eveque from the firm Champagne Taittinger. According to records held at the Center for Jewish History Archives, the family were only able to flee to France upon payment of the Jewish Contribution and Reichs Flight Tax of RM 700,000 (the equivalent of US$2.4m today). When Germany invades France in 1940, Johanna and Doris will be deported to Camp de Gurs concentration camp and communication will be through letters sent courtesy of the Red Cross.

Many families were divided by war, and children were especially vulnerable in the era of the Holocaust. The United States Holocaust Museum gives a harrowing account of the treatment of children under the Nazi regime.

In accordance with their brutal ideological views, the Nazis and their collaborators killed as many as 1.5 million children, including over a million Jewish children and tens of thousands of Romani (Gypsy) children, German children with physical and mental disabilities, and children from Poland and Soviet Union.

Two young brothers photgraphed a month before they were deported to the Majdanek camp. Kovno, Lithuania, February 1944.

US Holocaust Memorial Museum

If you were a teenager and fit for labour, your chances of survival were greater. Many children were simply exterminated on arrival at the killing centres or left to deteriorate through ill-treatment in the ghettos and camps. Some were subjected to atrocious medical experiments, and at Auschwitz concentration camp many feared the notorious physician Josef Mengele (The Angel of Death). Among the 2,819 prisoners liberated from Auschwitz, there were 180 children; 52 of them were under 8 years of age. The infants who survived were identified by numbers on their forearms.

Previous blog: Family life and Hitler's rise to power

Next blog: Worship is held on board

  • 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.