Tapestry series no. 91

Date contributed: 6.1.2004

Contributed by Ofra Fried

My mother Hana lived through turbulent times and in countries racked by war, suffering and change, but all she ever wanted was a peaceful life. She was a reluctant refugee from Eastern Europe at the outbreak of World War II and a reluctant migrant to Australia in the 1950s; however now she considers herself fortunate and loves Australia with a passion born of that experience.

Hana was born in 1918, the second child of middle class Czech parents. The family, assimilated secular Jews, lived in the little Bohemian town of Litomerice on the River Elbe, where her father was a grain merchant. Across the river is the former Ghetto known as Theresienstadt where her family were held prior to being transported to their deaths during the Holocaust.

Her homeland is a much-contested region; still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time of her birth, Czechoslovakia was one of several new Central European countries created after WWI. That part of Czechoslovakia where her family lived, called the Sudetenland by neighbouring Germany, was the first to be invaded and annexed at the outbreak of WWII. The country subsequently underwent a Communist takeover in 1948, Soviet occupation in 1968, and was split into the Czech and Slovak Republics in 1993.

Hana left Litomerice for Prague at the age of eighteen, looking for the excitements of the big city as young people do. It was the mid-thirties and the clouds of rage that were to erupt in war were already gathering, but she was a beautiful young woman about town, enjoying theatre and the arts, and working as an artists’ model. She was reluctant to return home or to share too much about her new life with her parents. Over the next couple of years, however, things became increasingly difficult for Jews in Europe. Her family had their business and property confiscated and came to Prague in search of safety.

In Prague, Hana met my father Victor, who was just one of their crowd of young people, but perhaps more prescient than most. He wanted to leave Europe, and asked her to come with him. Victor was a poor man so her father provided the money for the journey that was to save their lives. Many people were trying to escape in any way they could. Hana’s sister Mimi was to go to England to work as a maid, but her papers came too late. Hana and Victor boarded an illegal Greek vessel bound for Palestine. After a difficult journey lasting four months, the refugees ran the British Army’s gauntlet and disembarked in Palestine. It was 1939 and the war was about to start. My parents never saw most of their relatives again.

Knowing that her father would have wanted them to regularise their relationship, Hana, aged 21, married Victor Chupa on Har ha-Camel, overlooking Haifa. They lived in Palestine, which became Israel in 1948, for twenty years. Life there was hard because of poverty and insecurity. Victor served in the Czech Division of the British Army during WWII, and subsequently in the Israeli Army during the civil wars that erupted around the creation of the state of Israel.

Hana and the other women tried to get on with creating a normal life. It was not, however, normal or safe enough to bring children into the world until the 1950s. My sister, Irit was born in 1950, when Hana was already 32 years old and had been married eleven years. My parents were at that time trying to run a cafe in Tel Aviv.

In 1958, when Irit was eight, I was five and Hana was forty, we immigrated to Australia. We followed my aunt and her family to Melbourne. They were our only remaining family, and had also been refugees to Israel (my father had brought his half-sister out from Hungary illegally as his ‘wife’ after the war). Victor made the decision because of the usual immigrant dream, the search for a better life for their children. Hana didn’t want to go; she had already lost her country, previous life and family once before. Despite the hardships, she had now learnt the new language and made her way in the emerging Israeli society. Neither of my parents were religious Jews, nor were they Zionists politically, however Israel had provided a refuge for them and my mother felt safe. Given what had befallen the country of my birth, I am now thankful for my father’s courageous decision.

We came to Australia with four tan plastic suitcases, forty Australian pounds, and very little English. We fulfilled the assimilationist aims of the time. From the time of our arrival, my parents never spoke to us again in our native tongue. Our mother took us to the local school the next day, and in shame and embarrassment I started to learn English. I now regret losing my language, but at the time my parents were trying to help us adjust quickly – they knew from bitter experience about making a new life.

My parents worked in menial jobs, sometimes several jobs, and because they were thrifty and times were good, they managed. I remember my father taking on a third job so that he could save to send my sister to University. At first, my mother worked as a cleaner, a job that gave her flexibility when we were young, and then she served in continental delicatessens and sweet shops. She was not ambitious for herself, loved people and worked hard. She worked in fact until my father’s illness forced her to retire, and then voluntarily for as long as she was able. The Hana of the art world of Prague was nowhere to be seen.

At one point, my father tried to start another cafe business – rather against my mother’s wishes as their previous efforts had failed – and for four bitter years it ruled their lives. By then, my father had a permanent government job as a mail sorter in the Post Office, where he was to work until retirement. This sort of job was much prized by immigrants for its security, but must have been something of a trial for my father, an intelligent although uneducated man. He wanted to be self-employed and to get ahead in life. But it was my mother who awoke at 4 am, prepared the evening’s meal, did the washing or ironing, and then went to open the cafe at seven. They had no car, and my father brought the vegetables from the Victoria Markets in a shopping jeep. Irit and I both worked in the cafe when needed, and my mother cried when she had no option but to take us out of school. She had a soft heart – too soft for business – and when she employed an older Australian woman to help out, she was unable to let her do the hard work such as mopping the floors. The cafe did not prosper, and with my mother, I breathed a sigh of relief when it was sold.

Shortly after he retired, my father became ill with what was subsequently diagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease, and Hana resigned from work and cared for him at home as long as she could. It was a strange, difficult time, with many unknowns and a lot of grief. There were few supports available for the family and carers of a person with dementia. Hana participated in a pioneering carer support group, run by social workers at the Montefiore Nursing Home. The grief was about the loss of a father and husband we had known, and when Victor died, there was a sense that he was released from his suffering.

After his death, Hana made yet another new life for herself. As always, she chose to look forwards, rather than regret what was lost. She became an artist.

Hana had always been a lover of beautiful things. She regretted not being artistic, and as a teenager I tried to encourage her to undertake an art class – then an unusual thing to do. It was not until she retired from work that she embarked on this project, but when she did so, it was in her characteristically pragmatic way. By the end of her first week of ‘retirement’, she had set up an entire program of art classes and voluntary work. Having gained some confidence and skills, she began to create large, colourful works of great intensity. She had her first exhibition when she was 73.

These days, Hana lives a life which resonates with her youth in Prague, that experience aborted so cruelly by the war. At 85, she lives independently, attends the theatre and art galleries, eats out in restaurants and travels to visit her friends, children and grandchildren and the world. She has been in China and Japan, and has revisited Czechoslovakia and Israel, both of which she found irrevocably changed. After a lifetime of serving others, she has ‘given up’ cooking, looking after other people’s needs, and making plans. She takes an active interest in politics and other people’s lives. A person who was never previously academic, she now attends the University of the Third Age.

Irit and I, and many of our friends, draw inspiration from Hana’s energy and openness to life. I wonder whether we would have been able to recreate our lives as she did? I believe this ability is the quintessential quality needed to sustain the immigrant experience; as such it is an essential ingredient of the tapestry of Australian life.