This blog is part 18 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.
It has taken 18 blogposts to reach the letters of Captain Bacharch, a man whose beautiful handwriting has been verbally translated by the Museum’s Swiss born project manager, Celine Achermann. None of us knew what these letters contained until Egon’s daughter Jeanne visited the Museum about a week after the blogposts began. With a working knowledge of German she recognised his letters told the story of Egon’s sister and mother, Doris and Johanna, in Camp de Gurs.
Last Friday afternoon Celine read to me the fifth letter in his correspondence, which turns out to be the first he wrote. It was sent to Eugen and Edith (the latter of whom had also been interned at the camp, before Eugen got her out).
It is only at the end of the letter that we learn that Captain J Bacharach was a Latvian doctor who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. When the republicans lost to Franco’s fascists he fled to France where he and many other refugees were housed in the specially built Camp de Gurs. When the Second World War broke out, the camp also became home to about 4000 German Jews whom the French authorities arrested as enemy aliens.
Doris, who had trained to be a nurse before the war, met Dr Bacharach working in the camp’s medical centre. Conditions were poor. There were regular outbreaks of typhoid fever and dysentery and 800 people died of contagious diseases during 1940 and 1941.
Captain Bacharach described Doris and Johanna and his letter: “The good relationship between mother and daughter was astounding to witness. The mother is smart, adaptable, young and fresh minded and very understanding of her daughter. Doris, despite her youth, is very mature, experienced, strong and a wise person, and very conscious of what is going on. “
He wrote they were never demoralised, were bold and courageous but also realistic about the future. They were “full of life amid the daily grey”.
“In these difficult life situations you notice the real value of a person, the wood out of which they are carved, and those two are definitely carved from the most precious wood…. Their hut always had a warm homely glow of humour and femininity. There was always something happening, little or big.”
He said they were glad to know that Egon was safe in New Zealand, and were not too worried about his well-being as they knew he was strong, like they were.
WAR IS DECLARED
As Egon sails towards Salamua on Sunday 3rd September 1939, the passengers hear the shocking news that war has broken out in Europe.
Previous blog: The search continues
Next blog: Family reunited
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.