Egon’s story: The New Zealand connection
This blog is part eight 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 blogs in total.
The near gale-force winds have whipped up the ocean and the Marnix is pitching and rolling. Egon braves the weather to take a stroll along the deck and is soaked by a rogue wave crashing over the ship’s railing. The unrelenting weather has forced sea-sick passengers back into their cabins and emptied the dining room. As the ship sails towards Colombo, Egon predicts the weather will remain inclement. The mood in Europe is gloomy too, as the threat of war escalates.
Egon’s daughter Dr Michele Schoenberger-Orgad says her father’s skills as a winemaker were evident, and he was proud to share stories of the family champagne business, but rarely spoke of the painful memories.
“It was like he was building a huge wall around that period,” says Michele. Those secrets were contained in a box sequestered away in his Waikato home. It contained a treasure trove of papers dating back to 1892 and as recent as 1960. There were passports, family photographs, business documents and extraordinary letters sent by his sister and mother from concentration camps – and the diary of his passage to New Zealand.
There were also the fragments of a privileged life – tickets for the 1934 matinee at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre and travel brochures to exotic locations. Most of the correspondence is in German, and the letters are handwritten in a cursive German script, distinguished by conjoined characters. For those living in the digital age this style of writing is completely illegible.
After Egon’s death in 1978, the box remained with Michele, until 2002 when she donated the material to Auckland Memorial Museum. Michele, who is a senior lecturer in the Department of Management and Communications at The University of Waikato, could understand some of the contents but the letters and diary remained a mystery. The material was sorted and collated by Rose Young, the museum’s history curator and then stored away. How the story came to public attention 10 years later has an element of serendipity. The Museum was staging an exhibition about the diary of Anne Frank and exhibition developer Janneen Love was looking for a New Zealand angle on the Holocaust story. She turned to Martin Collett, our manuscripts librarian, who retrieved the box containing Egon’s documents. With the help of German-speaking colleague, Celine Achermann, they worked through the documents.
“History was unfolding before our eyes. We knew then that we had to tell his story,” says Love.
While looking through the documents in the library with Egon’s daughter Michele, Love realised the majority of the documents written in the cursive German script would require translation. At the nearby table, Michelle Elvy overheard the conversation and offered the services of her husband Bernard Heise – who just happened to be a specialist in deciphering this complex handwriting. For the first time, Michele and her daughter Sehai Orgad could read Egon’s diary.
Previous blog: Worship is held on board
Next blog: Modern day Mainz gets involved
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.