Interrupted Journeys: Young Refugees from Hitler's Reich, by Alan Gill

Interrupted Journeys: Young Refugees from Hitler's Reich, by Alan Gill

Michael Gilchrist

(Simon & Schuster, 2004, 306pp, $34.95. Available through AD Books)

The number of TV documentaries and well-researched books shedding additional light on every conceivable aspect of World War II has been seemingly endless. Fascination with the subject almost sixty years after the war's end shows no sign of slackening.

Alan Gill, a former longtime religious columnist with the Sydney Morning Herald and author of the well-received Orphans of the Empire, focuses in his latest book on the experiences of children, teenagers and young adults who somehow escaped the clutches of the Nazis in Europe.

Most, but not all, were Jewish, and it is those who finally settled in Australia after often hair-raising adventures and hardships that are the focus of Gill's meticulous research.

The author spent several years interviewing many former wartime refugees - now in their 60s and 70s - and recording their gripping stories as they sought to escape Hitler and find safety in a new land. Their "interrupted journeys" were often bedevilled by incredible ignorance, paranoia and insensitivity on the part of Australian officialdom.

Perhaps the most interesting episode for readers of this journal, and covered in some detail, is the story of the 20 members of the Vienna Mozart Boys' Choir. At the outbreak of war, they were scheduled to give their final performance in Perth following a highly successful Pacific tour of the USA, New Zealand and Australia.

The choirmaster Dr Georg Gruber remembered an off-the-cuff remark by Archbishop Mannix when the choir was in Melbourne: "Why don't you stay and sing with us?" Stranded in Perth, Dr Gruber telegrammed Dr Mannix and received the reply: "Come immediately." For most of the war, the boys became the official choir of St Patrick's Cathedral.

Archbishop Mannix and the Catholic Church (including its schools) are involved in a number of interesting episodes, with a few less than edifying. One refugee recalled attending a Christian Brothers College: "There was a brother called 'Waddy' Ryan. He would line you up and say: 'All right boys, just come along; you're all going to get six of the best'. All this and the class hadn't even started."

Such aberrations aside, it is pleasant to read a World War II book with so many happy endings.

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