Who would have thought the ‘seminal event’ in my Jewish life would take place over a plate of papaya salad and sticky rice on a stinky street in South East Asia?
I’d grown up on Sydney’s northern beaches and felt completely disconnected from my European heritage. I remember watching my first episode of Seinfeld and telling my best friend that I thought I might be Jewish … she laughed and told me that unless I went to the synagogue, I wasn’t Jewish. But years later, when I was working as a foreign correspondent in Bangkok, I was introduced to an Israeli by the name of Guy Sharett. I can honestly say that the minute he spoke I felt as if I’d met my long-lost brother. He was hilarious and honest and understood me better than many of my friends back home. I felt like I’d found one of my ‘tribe’.
We got talking about my past and I told him that I used to joke with my friends about being Jewish. I also told him about my family history and how my grandparents had fled from Europe in the late 30s to escape Hitler’s regime. He then said: “Ange, there is no question about your heritage. It’s plain and it’s simple. Your great grandmother was Jewish. Your grandmother was Jewish. Your mother is Jewish and therefore, my darling, you are Jewish”.
My grandmother, Jutta Hübsch, was the result of a love affair that my great grandmother had with a man named Franz in 1919 whilst married to a man who was 30 years her senior. You could say my great grandmother was a non-conformist … not just because of the men she chose to love, but also in terms of her career. Unlike other women her age who were happy to be housewives, she set up her own business – a kindergarten which she managed for many years. She also studied psychology – attending lectures by Sigmund Freud at Vienna University. It was this radical streak, along with her bloodline, that led to her becoming a target of the Nazis. In March 1938 Hitler annexed Austria and my great grandmother, who had been blacklisted by his regime, was forced to scrub pavements on her knees as anti-Semitic crowds taunted her and other Jewish women on the streets. Thankfully my grandmother Jutta managed to find a way to escape the chaos in Austria.
|My grandmother Jutta, late 1930s|
She had become a ballerina and was selected to tour throughout Europe with a dance company. She performed in France and Italy – dancing in ballets, operettas and vaudeville shows. Whilst she travelled around Europe, her mother and sister fled Austria and travelled to England where they were granted permission to work as housemaids. Jutta later joined them in the UK. After an intense letter writing campaign by my great grandmother (in which she pleaded for refugee status for herself and her daughters) the Church of England Council of Empire Settlement agreed to assist my grandmother Jutta to travel to Australia. She arrived in Sydney in February 1939 with a bicycle and £2.
In 1940 she attended a dance at the Maccabean Hall at Darlinghurst where she met and fell in love with a young German named Walter Mattersdorff. They married on the 7 February 1942 at the Neutral Bay Presbyterian Church.
|Jutta & Walter, Sydney in the early 1940s|
Jutta had high hopes of continuing her dancing career in Australia but after auditioning and being rejected by the Theatre Royal she decided to become a seamstress instead. A few years after moving to Australia she contracted Polio. The disease took its toll on her body and she never danced again.
I don’t think she ever forgave the world for giving her such a crippling illness. She often complained about being in pain. She became a glass-half-empty kind of woman … focusing on the negative side of life … and although I have memories of the darkness that surrounded her, I also have memories of the light that would shine from her soul when she spoke about things that made her truly happy - like classical music.
Whenever I would get into my grandparents car as a little girl, my eardrums would be blasted by ABC Classical FM. I used to hate that music. I didn’t understand it. But looking back now, I imagine my grandmother found comfort in the symphonies … that maybe the music allowed her to dance inside her mind, the way she used to dance across the stage.
She also loved to paint. She always said she wasn’t any good at it, but I used to seek out her folder full of paintings when I was a child, and delight over their colours and content. She often painted mountains and quaint hilltop villages. The images didn’t look anything like the dry gum trees in her front garden in Chatswood but I’m sure they were her way of transporting herself back to Austria … maybe to a peaceful time when she was a girl, playing beneath snow-capped peaks.
|Painting by Jutta|
But mostly, my grandmother loved to travel. She and my grandfather focused on working hard and saving their money until they had enough to treat themselves to a holiday. When they were young, with three small children, their adventures would lead them to the Blue Mountains or south of Sydney to Kiama. In their forties they managed to save enough to go on regular overseas cruises and trips and they continued to travel well into their 60s.
Their house was always full of strange trinkets and exotic fabric from distant lands. I used to love sitting next to my grandmother and asking her about her overseas adventures. There was such pride in her voice when she told me how she used to sew all her own clothes and save all her pennies - whilst her workmates wasted their pay cheques on flashy cars and fancy shoes. She'd say that living simply was a small price to pay for the opportunity to explore the world.
This weekend I’ll be participating at the Sydney Jewish Writers’ Festival. One of the sessions I’ll be taking part in is called ‘Stranger in a new land’. It has caused me to reflect on my Jewish heritage … and think about my grandmother who died eight years ago. I wouldn’t be taking part in the festival if it weren’t for Jutta and her brave journey to a far away land ... and her passion for travel which inspired me to leave my homeland for Thailand ... where I met an Israeli called Guy Sharett who declared one humid Bangkok day ... “Darling, you are Jewish!”
I will leave you with my interpretation of an old Yiddish song, set to images of my beloved grandparents.
More information about the Sydney Jewish Writers’ Festival here
More information about Guy Sharett's 'StreetWise Hebrew' tours here