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‘How did those terrible war years shape the unexpectedly long lives you’ve had?’

Miriam Hechtman
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Published: 5 April 2018

Last updated: 4 March 2024

IN 2005, JOURNALIST Fiona Harari travelled to Hungary with her husband, two children and her Hungarian born mother in law, a child survivor of the Holocaust. One evening they found themselves eating cake in a Budapest café not far from the Danube.

As they stood near the window of this cafe, Harari’s mother-in-law looked at a sign in a window just a few metres away outside and said: “I think that’s the bank”. Harari asked, “What bank?” Her mother-in-law responded, “You know, ‘the bank’”.

“Anyone who’s grown up with Holocaust survivors in their family probably knows that for a lot of people the stories become white noise after a while,” says Harari. “You hear them but you don’t really pay attention. Although I hadn’t grown up with this story, I had been with my husband long enough to have heard it long enough and I’d never paid attention to that moment.”

That night in Budapest, however, Harari listened intently to the story of her mother in law’s survival. In 2016, her husband’s aunt died in Hungary aged 102, and Harari reflects on her relationship with this woman and the conversations she couldn’t have with her about the war, given they only met three times in 30 years.

On her passing, Harari thought “maybe there are some more questions we can ask [other survivors] before it’s too late”.

From this seed grew her new book, We Are Here, interviews with 18 of Australia’s oldest Holocaust survivors about their lives before, during and after the war. “I chose people born in 1926 or earlier because that way they would have been at least 18 (an adult} when the war ended.”

Harari was well aware of ‘Holocaust fatigue’ when she embarked on the book. “But I wanted to take these people’s experiences of surviving the war and ask them how they’d lived. How did those few terrible war years shape the unexpectedly long lives that you’ve had?”

Of the 18 interviewed, there are nine women and nine men. Harari also wanted a mix of people who had survived the war differently, some who had been in concentration camps, some who had been in labour camps and some who had been in hiding.

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All but one are Jewish. Although Harari tried to interview other groups who were persecuted, such as a Romany or German male homosexual, she couldn’t find anyone over 90. She also tried, unsuccessfully, to find someone who had turned away from Judaism post-war, to participate in the book. “It makes sense if you think about it. If you turn your back on something that has caused so much pain you’re not going to go back to it at 90.”

Harari says she didn’t encounter any reluctance from the survivors interviewed but she did learn very quickly that everyone attaches great ownership not just to their story, but to the words used in their story. “One man insisted that I change the word gun to pistol.”

One woman, whose story was particularly sad, insisted Harari read back her chapter to her aloud. “I could feel my voice breaking. It was so much harder to read it back then to write it. And at the very end, when I read it to her ,she looked at me and she finally smiled. and said, 'that’s right, that’s exactly what happened'. I realised afterwards that she was smiling because she’d got to pretty much the end of her life and she was pleased that someone had acknowledged her viewpoint of the life that she’d lived.”

Interviewing 18 survivors can take its toll on the subjects and Harari took measures to protect the participants. For example, one woman lost her child and husband in the Holocaust. “As an adult of 51, as a human being who has been on this earth for that long, and as a journalist, I knew I could not possibly ask her about that. But if she wanted to talk about it, she would talk about it and that’s what happened. I knew enough to not go beyond certain boundaries.” With some subjects, Harari would ring family members and suggest someone sit with the person the night after the interview.

There were many unexpectedly funny moments during some interviews, from drinking a $700 whisky and then driving in a Ferrari, to drinking pink champagne with a 102-year-old woman, to several discussions about sex. There were also some moving shared moments. Michael (“Moishe”) Matz, from Newcastle in NSW, had never told his story in detail. His daughter had remarked to Harari that it was as if his life only began in 1952, the year he arrived in Australia from Germany with his German non-Jewish wife and daughter.

As he retold his story to Harari, he didn’t make eye contact and was quite expressionless until he spoke about Yiddish culture - a subject matter he had not been able to share with anyone. “All of a sudden he looks me in the eye and he says, do you know any Yiddish songs and I say, yeah a few.

“He jumps up and suddenly he’s full of life and he puts on this CD and puts on a song Tumbalalaika. All of a sudden, he starts smiling and singing this song of his youth. I started crying. It was a beautiful moment because this was the person he’d been before the war and I didn’t expect to get a moment like that.”

What surprised Harari most about the survivors was how little in common they all had. “The only thing that unites all of them is that every one of them says that they are alive because of luck.”

Ultimately, Harari wanted this book to be about living. “They survived the war and then they lived afterwards. The fact that there are so many of them, given the trauma that they’ve gone through, is quite amazing.”

We Are Here is published by Scribe



About the author

Miriam Hechtman

Sydney-based Miriam Hechtman is an Australian writer, creative producer and poet. She is the founder and creative director of Poetica, a live poetry and music initiative and co-presenter and producer of WORDSMITH – the poetry podcast.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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