Finding Grace in Australia
The International Refugee Organization (IRO) offered immigration to the USA, Canada, Britain, Australia and South America. They had access to my father’s excellent credentials. He had studied under the top professors in Germany. He was offered a high salary to teach at a South American University with the special privilege of lecturing in German. Instead, he chose to go to Australia where he was given the job of cutting heavy hardwoods for the army to pay back the costs for our passage - not what he had in mind when he settled for Australia. South America was politically too unstable and the waiting lists to North America were far too long so he didn’t have many options. We were desperate to start a new life away from war and the rubble that still surrounded us.
During the autumn of 1949 we were shipped from Stuttgart, by train, to Naples in open cattle cars, but were regularly given refreshments. We were taken to various staging camps in Italy until a ship became available. Italy was a totally new environment. I first developed my dislike of crabs and shellfish there, in Senegallia, on the Adriatic coast. On the beach numerous little crabs would come out of the sand and gather around my toes. In Capua, my parents bartered whatever clothes we still had for melons and cash. We used the money to buy ice-cream from the vendors who would turn up outside the barbed wire with donkeys. I had never seen the unusual and embarrassing behaviour of donkeys before. The melons we obtained, from the small town, were in exchange for a suitcase full of clothing.
The most disgusting thing about the Capua refugee camp was that the toilets were just holes in the ground surrounded by loosely fitted hessian cloths which flew high in the slightest breeze so that the vendors could see you squatting there. Apart from that, the tents and eating areas were comfortable. For young people, such as myself, the war and the post-war period was the adventure of a lifetime. God allowed us much fun, which I blissfully enjoyed, being carefree and unaware of the many unpleasant and difficult challenges my parents and older sister continually faced.
We were shipped in cattle trains, again, to the port in Naples where we boarded the Fairsea. There are only a few things I remember about the trip across the Indian Ocean. The American ship, with an Italian crew, was outfitted as a troop carrier at the time accommodating 500 in the main hull where my and I father slept. I loved cruising through the Suez Canal with palm trees popping straight out of the barren sand at eye level.
In Aden, vendors came in small boats to our ship at anchor and soon established flying foxes for money and goods to be passed up and down from the decks. Most people purchased very cheap and colourful leather goods. IRO had obviously given everybody some spending money. The typically Egyptian, red fez hats were popular and the migrants loved wearing them to show off. I managed to win the under 15 chess championship on the journey across for which I was awarded one American dollar. My father had taught me well by playing against me while showing little mercy. At first, he would play as ruthlessly as he could, but without his queen. As I gained skill he would do the same but with his queen on the board. I am confident that the Lord has done that with me for much of my life.
There was a kiosk on board, but, before I had opportunity to spend the dollar, my father convinced me that we should relieve my sister and mother with a bag of lemons. They were severely sea sick in their four-bed cabin.
I always looked forward to breakfast as only a few turned up for it and I could have as many of the wonderful, Italian bread rolls as I wanted. The ship was rolling terribly because they were behind schedule and had pumped out the ballast that normally steadies a ship. A downside for me was the constant spaghetti on the menu. The worst was that the crew apparently only had one record which they played loudly and constantly - the Donkey Serenade. I couldn't bear to listen to it for years after that. Talk on ship was that money grew on trees in Australia and that birds sang like babies crying. I only actually witnessed that once in the Australian bush. Lyre birds can mimic any sound they hear; chain saws, telephones ringing, human voices, hammer blows, clocks, etc.
In 2015 we visited the heritage site of the refugee camp in Bonegilla for interest sake. In the old kitchen I saw newspaper cuttings still on the walls from our era. It highlighted the incident when Italian migrants violently rebelled because they were only fed spaghetti prompting the Army stationed at Puckapunyal to send at least one tank to quell the riot. The army had problems once before when Germans escaped from the internment camps. My most memorable moments were waking in the mornings to hear the magpies warbling at dawn. You can hear magpies warbling on You-Tube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYEYc8Ge3nw How magnificent is that. Next to that were the many times we went out with our home-made slingshots and brought back about 24 rabbits each time. The camp cooks would prepare them for all of us.
An important priority was to be educated in the English language and Australian culture. They taught us a song we could sing well, but we could only mime the words while not actually understanding what we were singing. It's only by chance that I heard that song on the radio about 40 years later and understood the words we were mouthing - "Kookaburra sits on an old gum tree". Although Australia was a real blessing many years of hardship still followed for my parents.
Because of their busy lifestyle my parents had little time for me. I became a rather wild, unsociable and undisciplined boy climbing out the rear window whenever our Hungarian relatives came on visits. All I really cared about was my newsstand in the city which earned me so much money, 50% more than my father’s wages. When that came to a halt, by my father’s wishes, I spent my time bothering and embarrassing my sister especially when young men began to take an interest in her. She danced with a Hungarian troop of dancers, in traditional costume, performing the czardas, at the Hungarian church hall in Fitzroy. I was still high on a diet of wanting more adventure and I could see that teasing really upset her. Even when I was 14 and being only four years older, she could hold me down by sitting on me, slapping my face and puckering her lips with delight. While she was serious I was just enjoying the look on her face.
She made up for it once when she really started going out with suitors. I always ended up eating the boxes of chocolates her suitors gave her. She was protecting her teeth. In those days Australian dentists preferred to pull teeth rather than fill them. It was not uncommon for migrants to sit in the dentist's chair and wake up with all their teeth in a bag. Then they had to come back to be fitted with dentures. It was the topic of ironic jokes, at parties, with migrants showing off their dentures. Teeth seemed to decay more rapidly in Australia possibly because of the pure rainwater in taps. I also learnt that later from my Master’s degree supervisor, Dr Tom O'Donnell, in Melbourne, who invented the fluoride-containing tooth pastes.
As I mentioned, my parents had a very hard time over their first 20 years in Australia. My mother began to be constantly sick and demanded my father's attention constantly punching holes in the family budget. Australia did not recognize European qualifications nor medical degrees. So my father was given hard jobs as a kitchen hand, cutting wood and heavy sheet metal work. His skills were management and the chemical laboratory. One of our migrant acquaintances told us one day that he applied for a mechanical engineering lectureship at Melbourne University. They doubted his ability and said that they would give him a very hard test that he would have to pass. However, they added, we shall give you a text book to help you with your answers. The irony in the story is that when they sat him down for the exam they unknowingly gave him the text book he had written in Europe: yet this type of policy persisted for years. It is a recorded fact that for some migrants to enter Australia they had to pass a mandatory test in English. When they didn't want the migrant, the exam was given in Welsh; It might as well have been in Tibetan temple language.
Nevertheless, when my father's degree was finally accepted, he became the chief of the chemistry laboratory with the Country Road Board in Kew where experience was required in testing the chemical standards of oils, paints, bitumen and general road surface coatings.
Other migrants would have similar stories to tell. My sister suffered also. While my father insisted that I go to university, against my wishes, my sister had to join the work force threading fine pearls in a dimly lit room. Her eyesight badly deteriorated as a result. Then, when she became a typist with the Commonwealth Government Defence Force, she had to resign upon getting married. Women were greatly discriminated against in the 1950's. I was the rascal who continued to skip school to sell early editions of the newspapers in the city. Did I help the family? No, I didn't. For some reason the Lord and my father just let me run wild.
SPIRITUAL TROUBLES BREWING
In about 1955 I made friends, with a German boy, of my age who loved weapons and the military. I loved his deep voice and self-confidence. My parents invited him to board in the same room with me because his mother was fearful that he would be killed, one day, by his brutal father. We spent our time shooting an air rifle out of our bedroom window. Air rifles are silent. One day, my sister walked past my window while coming home from work. Had she come past two seconds earlier we would have shot her in the head at close range.
My parents invited trouble into their home due to the kind of boarders they took in. My father had a self-contained unit built on top of our garage to encourage me to study harder. Our parents really loved us. Concerning the boarders; one was a Czech hypnotist, another was a German woman who had a history of chasing people with a butcher’s knife and an Indonesian graduate student who had dabbled with the occult back home. My parents did not know any of this beforehand. They were all friendly enough, but today I can say with confidence that they brought a baggage of demonic spirits with them. We didn’t think about spiritual things then. The Hungarian church never preached anything on spirits. I never heard a Lutheran church warning the congregation either.
I became the hypnotist’s assistant on stage for his magic shows while my sister took a great interest in them as potential suitors. The engineering student, who helped to coach me in maths, was the son of a Lutheran Chaplain in the Indonesian Army, yet Indonesia is a land troubled by the spirit world. I never dared to stare into the hypnotist’s piercing eyes, but I enjoyed talking with him because he seemed to know everything about everything. He taught me some simple illusions like four candles appearing in my hand. I was the floating lady on stage. All our boarders were friendly and seemed harmless enough.
They were always treated as part of the family, free to use our kitchen and lounge room, in fact anything we had, as if they were at home. My mother was an extraordinarily generous person who often visited the sick in hospitals; at first to represent the German Lutheran Church in East Melbourne and later privately reading books to young men with permanent spinal injuries. She became a Nursing-Aide and was the favourite amongst many nurses with Australian veterans who had fought in Germany. She was a true friend of everybody regardless of race or religion. Through her kindness we would befriend people who afterwards turned out to be embezzlers and frauds, one who even passed himself of as a cancer specialist and performed surgery at the Alfred Hospital. They defrauded even my mother. As guarantor, she had to pay for an expensive mink coat they had absconded with from a department store in town. The police could not do a thing and they just shrugged their shoulders. We only had a few genuine friends.
Before I met my wife to be, Milena, I was too self-absorbed with soccer to take much notice of family affairs in the home. I played on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and was absent from home on many occasions for training. I have wonderful recollections from the days when we won both school and university championships, being picked to play for the Australian Universities team many times, for the the under 19 Victorian team, and for Tasmania, and, for a brief stint, with the Australia squad. They were the highlights in my sporting life - but I did not take the sport seriously, never intending to become professional although offers were there. We only played soccer for our enjoyment. The sport was not as advanced then as it is today.
The Lord, as well as the Inn Keeper of the Greenwood Park Hotel in Adelaide, were most gracious to me. Our team won the Australian University Championship and we celebrated early in our city hotel with mixed bottles of spirits before attending the presentation dinner at Greenwood Park. I was already tipsy on arrival and forgot entirely what happened. The next I knew I woke up in strange pyjamas in a soft bed. I didn't know where I was. A man came in and said that I had better get dressed for breakfast because the team was coming to pick me up. Closing up in the early hours of the morning he found me sleeping in the flower bed dead drunk. So he and a waiter dragged me two floors upstairs and put me to bed. When I got downstairs, bacon and eggs were waiting for me. I was still in a daze and couldn't believe what was happening. This man just oozed care. I can't remember whether I ever thanked him sufficiently. What grace!
The photos below tell another story of grace. The first photo was taken in 1955. Our team won the High School soccer championship for several years. The headmaster of University High School, Mr Chapman, was very proud that we came ahead of Melbourne High School. The second photo, taken in 1957, shows John Saltups holding our cup. Above him, on the right, next to our goal-keeper, is Stan Sahhar. Stan is a most remarkable person. About six years ago, I received a phone call asking 'are you Charlie who played soccer at University High School'? He invited me and John to a lunch. At lunch he said, 'Charlie, I want to look after your teeth'. Stan, a dentist who has one of the best views from the chair over the Yarra River and Casino complex at South Bank, has been doing just that, free of charge ever since. Not only that, but for the past year he fixed the teeth of my son's six membered family. Wouldn't you call that the grace of God? I would have never suspected that back in 1957. Stan is a Christian.
At about the same time our text book, at final year in school, was ‘Seven Years in Tibet’. My roommate and I began to desire the spiritual powers that Tibetan monks had so we started reading several of the dark' mystical books by Dennis Wheatley. Believing that we could contact the spirit world we had a long séance with the help of the Indonesian student who we found out was already in his late twenties. Nothing much happened apart from a couple of meaningless messages scrawled on paper which I dismissed. However, whatever spirits we must have summoned that afternoon began to bring havoc to our family. Spiritually things soon became unsettled in our house, as you will be read in the next segment on ADULTHOOD.
1. All this primed me to believe at Easter, in 1976, that there was indeed an unseen spirit world. I was convinced that there was something real about Uri Geller of spoon bending fame. While on television he somehow manipulated a broken down watch on my coffee table. I had put the watch there because he claimed on the TV show that something would happen to it. I was engrossed in the show and promptly forgot the watch. Suddenly there was a loud noise and, mystified, I looked around the room searching where it might be coming from. Then I realised that the sound was coming from the watch. The coffee table acted as a sound board. The hands of the watch were rotating rapidly and there was a loud whirring noise accompanying it. No way was it caused by Uri. I immediately checked the TV guide. The program had been pre-recorded in the UK a year earlier. I figured it was an unseen visitor in my room tricking me to believe that. That was one of the triggers I needed.
Another crucial trigger that caused me to believe in the spirit world followed soon afterwards. I was visiting friends at their home which turned out to be a haunted house. The events that night terrified me and raised the hairs on the back of my neck. During the day this couple would welcome their unseen visitor whenever the door opened unaided and they would sense the visitor stand beside them while they were doing the dishes. This was no joke! Both the husband and wife were dead serious. Satan’s plan to slowly get a grip on me backfired in the same way that arranging to have Jesus crucified backfired also. God is in control over anyone who seeks the truth even if it takes years to have the desired outcome. I was so terrified that night in their bedroom that I called out to Jesus for help. I was born again by an Acts Chapter 2 experience in the early hours of the morning.
2. After I became a Christian I visited my former room-mate’s mother, in Richmond, hoping to help her. He phoned that his mother was being troubled by a visible spirit. The spirit, having the appearance of a native American and wearing a feather headdress, would appear nightly at the foot of her bed. His mother began to trust the spirit’s successful advice for the days ahead and looked forward to his regular visits when, suddenly, he no longer turned up. Instead, items from the mantel piece and furniture would be found displaced into other rooms while doors were opening and closing unaided. She was becoming a nervous wreck. I wanted to call the church to have this dealt with, but she wouldn’t have it. I never found out what eventually happened to her.