Leo Adler - Memories of his son George

Leo Adler, my father, was born into a world where Jews in Europe were persecuted or at best tolerated. This ongoing anti-Semitism would see him flee Nazi Austria for Australia.

On the 31
st of Dec. 1906 his mother Bertha gave birth to him in the small village of Yablonitz in what was then Monrovia and part of the greater Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, Rudolf, registered the birth as being the 1st of January 1908 to postpone compulsory national service by a calendar year.

When Leo was still a toddler his parents with his new born brother Walter moved to Laa An Der Thayer on the Austrian side of the border with Czechoslovakia so that Rudolf could take up the post of overseer of a large farming complex.

My memories of Dad’s life in Laa are jumbled, out of sequence and not necessarily accurate as I was very young when he enthralled me with stories of his past. These stories all told in German captivated my young mind with vivid images of his early life. I will in turn tell you of some of them.
Rudolf, Dad’s father, was a Feldwebel, Sgt Major in the Austrian Army assigned to the Russian Front from 1914 to the end of the war. Father fondly told me of his Dad’s visits home during those tumultuous years. How proud he was of his Dad mounted on his horse with sabre at his side. How his father had remained non-combatant, refusing promotion so he didn’t have to kill. Instead he was in charge of a horse hospital behind the front lines. The pleasure he had as he out-witted a Prussian Officer who was obnoxious by giving him a mount that would throw him.

My father’s eyes would light up as he told this story. Rudolf selected a replacement mount for this Prussian which would buck as soon as the reins were held tight. True to Prussian Cavalry protocol the officer mounted, pulled the reins taught and subsequently landed on the ground. Not to be beaten the officer, regained his feet and composure to repeat the sequence. After numerous encounters with the ground the officer then complained to Rudolf that the horse was bad. Rudolf then summoned children who wandered the camp for scraps of food to mount the steed. They held the reins loosely and none were bucked off. The Prussian somewhat embarrassed remounted the horse only to encounter the ground a few seconds later. The story went that the Prussian didn’t give up till he was stretchered away to hospital.

Father also recalled Rudolf telling him of regularly sharing food and sitting around the table with Russian prisoners of war. He said he felt no animosity towards them nor did most of the Austrian troops he was with (I have an old photo of this he took of this).

My father also told of after the war ended Rudolf was in charge a detachment of troops on the border where they lived and of the regular exchanges of rifle and machine- gun fire from one side to the other. He recalled how he and his brother at around the age of ten would wriggle up beside the soldiers during these fire fights to collect the hot cartridge cases as they were ejected from their Mausers. He continues to tell how he and his brother got the hiding of their life when their mother found out about these dangerous adventures.

He went on to explain that as he progressed from child to teenager then to young man, there was a small group of friends who stayed together regardless of their religious affiliations. In particular there were two Catholic girls who made up the mixed group of Jews and non-Jews. They didn’t care about the anti-Semitic taunts of being Jew friendly that they were subjected to, they were all just mates. One of them who I met when she was ninety told me how it was custom that when the girls and boys stripped husks off corn any boy who found pink corn had to be kissed by the girls. She went on to say how my father dyed the corn pink and so attained the extra kisses.

Another story was how he and his mates carried a wind up gramophone through the streets of Laa in the wee small hours disturbing the quiet village to have shoes and abuse hurled at them only stopping when chased by the local police. How when his German Shepard, Luxal, stole three fat geese from mother’s larder he had used the last of his money to buy three scrawny replacements and how his mother could not understand how the geese could have shrunk but how he had got away with the rouse.

Dad went on to explain how he had fallen in love with Gretel, one of the two Catholic girls in their group and how happy the two of them were when together. Sadly by then the Nazi movement was gaining strength and that he and his brother were in regular fights with the Nazi youth. Most Jews just took the beatings but father proudly told how he and his brother took on their antagonists even though out numbered. He related how this probably saved his life when he was eventually jailed during the roundup of Jews in 1938.

In 1938 he and his brother were jailed in the Laa police lock up for the crime of being a Jew. They were forced to pick up dog droppings with their fingers and do other humiliating tasks between the beatings from their Nazi former school mates. Father was beaten with such ferocity by one group that he subsequently lost most of his hearing. He would probably have been beaten to death except for the intervention of some of the Nazis they had fought who said “go easy on them, they are not like normal Jews who are weak but they are more like us and fight back”.

The family Adler must have had a conference before this to draw up contingency plans to flee the Nazis as they had applied to immigrate to Australia. Unlike many other Jews who fled to Poland or France they decided to go long distance as did most of the extended family. Australia was picked for two reasons. Firstly it was one of the very few countries who accepted Jewish refugees and the other was that Rudolf spoke with many German soldiers who had fought the Australians on the Western Front. They had told him that they were the best troops that they had ever fought against and Rudolf said “that any country that could produce such a fine soldier must be good to live in” (quite a compliment from the enemy).

In 1938 Nazi Austria the plan to exterminate Jews had not yet come into effect and so, if Jews could pay two hundred pound each, which was a small fortune in those days, and were prepared to sign a declaration on how well they had been treated by the Nazi regime they could immigrate. This was still conditional that they forfeit all their land and valuables. Luck was on their side as an unknown Egyptian Jew paid the ransom. They were subsequently released and travelled by ship to Australia.

Dad told me of his anguish of leaving those he loved not knowing whether he would ever see them again. His brother and he decided that on arrival in Australia they would put every penny they earned into buying their parents freedom even though they longed to bring out the girls that they had wanted to marry. He explained with a tear in his eye that his parents faced death at the hands of the Nazis but their Catholic girlfriends did not.

They arrived in Australia penniless and set about raising the funds necessary to gain their parents freedom. Soon after they had landed, Australia was at war with Germany. Both brothers tried to enlist to fight Nazis but were turned back as Australia didn’t trust refugees not to be spies.

Dad soon had work in a factory working on war production. He proved innovative, having a modification he had invented adopted so that the hurricane lamp would be less prone to blowing out in windy conditions and developing a method to collect excess solder so it could be reused. As a result he was promoted to supervisor with the extra responsibility of ensuring the plant would be destroyed should the enemy invade. Failure to do so had an automatic jail sentence of six months. The funny part was that another law stated that all enemy aliens, as he was classified, had to head for the hills as soon as invasion was imminent. The penalty to comply was six months mandatory imprisonment. He was so pleased that the invasion never happened.

By 1940 the brothers had raised sufficient funds to buy their parents’ freedom and again luck was with the family. Rudolf and Bertha left Laa to be released across the border into still neutral Italy by no other Nazi than Adolf Eichmann. Even though the Nazis were gathering Jews and had started the extermination camps they liked the ransom money more than the lives of two old Jews. Rudolf and Bertha had just rounded the Cape of Good Hope when Italy joined the Axis. Bar for those few days their fate would have been sealed and their lives ended in Auschwitz.

The family was reunited in Adelaide with all members pooling their meagre resources. Slowly they gained sufficient funds to put a down payment on an old blue stone villa in Melbourne St. North Adelaide. They lived in a few rooms and sublet the rest gaining funds to help pay the mortgage.

After the war had ended they went into business with the local Synagogue’s Cantor’s son running a small electrical appliance repair business on Magill Rd Norwood. They had no previous experience in this field but proved resourceful and successful. Sadly their partner was in the till and rather than embarrass the old cantor with a police action the brothers suggested he leave the business forthwith without the need to repay what he had stolen. The family was again in business for themselves.

Soon the brothers started to expand their business, hiring a trained electrician to do small house wiring jobs. A new switch here a light fitting there. It was small scale work but I remember how proudly he spoke about this. As the soldiers returned from the war and were demobilized houses needed to be built and the brothers saw an opportunity to expand as electrical contractors. They contacted several large home builders and for a change being Jewish was not a hindrance but a help. One of the builders was a Christadelphian who were by faith Jew friendly. He gladly gave them the chance to submit quotes for wiring homes. They won the contract hired electricians and expanded their business.

Father now in his forties wanted to marry, to raise a family and to have a normal life in his adopted country. To that end he advertised in the Jewish paper in Melbourne. My mother also a refugee from Austria replied and in 1948 they married. It was a marriage of two lonely souls with little in common bar lives destroyed by war. Mother had come from a wealthy family with servants, was previously married into Austrian Catholic nobility and titled and farther came from a poor rural town where they had to toil hard for everything they had. She also had two children one who she told father about and the elder kept secreted till after the marriage. I was born in 1950.

In 1952 the family had sufficient pooled funds to gain a loan to buy an old boarding house on the Esplanade at Glenelg. My parents with my younger brother moved in transforming the boarding house to a bed and breakfast. Mother did most of the cooking, cleaning and supervising staff whilst father dealt with the electrical business. Being just down from Jetty Rd the business prospered as Glenelg at that time was a hive of activity with little space on the beach during summer.

Over the years both businesses prospered. By pooling family resources the Adler clan bought more properties, supported each other and grew the electrical business into the largest electrical contractors in South Australia. Electro-Help as the business was called wired a large percentage of new homes in Salisbury, Elisabeth, expanded into Canberra, Alice Springs and for a while in Melbourne. The brothers were an awesome team with great business acumen.

In 1956 my parents purchased a half acre property in Beaumont, a then near rural suburb at that time. Father loved the farm next door, the orchard at the back and the majestic eucalypts that were plentiful in our street. He loved nature but sadly his extreme deafness meant he never got to hear the myriad of birds that chorused every day.

Sadly in 1964 his brother died of a massive heart attack probably brought on by his three packets a day smoking habit. This left Dad devastated both at the loss of his dear brother but being so deaf he now had to take on the negotiating of contracts that his brother had previously done as well as continuing in his role of supervising the work force. He battled on for a few years before closing the business. I was too young to take over and he was by then too old and too hearing impaired. Instead of selling his business as he could have he called in his two foremen, one from Adelaide and the other Canberra and gave them the Adelaide and Canberra businesses respectively with all the tools, contracts etc. He told me that he viewed them like extended family. He had taken them on as apprentices, seen them graduate, marry and have children and he wanted to see them successful. He said it was good to give without expectation of return.

Father was always very generous. He gave to ex workers funds for operations and other needs knowing they would never repay the debt. He also gave to the United Israel Appeal when Israel was fighting for its survival as well as too many other charities. He always reminded me that had it not been for the unknown Jew in Egypt who had bought his freedom without even knowing him we would not be in the ‘Luck Country’.

Leo loved this country Australia with a passion. He loved the outdoors, its rugged nature and its liberty. He instilled in me a sense of justice, duty and to fight for the freedoms that we take for granted. He said stand up for the oppressed, don’t allow rights to be withdrawn and help those even if you don’t agree or like them. He pointed out how the Nazis had got away with what they did because the average citizen did nothing to stop them.

As I said dad loved and cherished Australia’s freedoms and would not accept oppression from any quarter. I was with him and his brother as they drove up the Anzac Highway around 1960 when they were pulled up by a motorcycle cop for supposedly not giving a stop hand signal at an intersection.

This was at a time when cars had just been fitted with brake lights and indicators and signals with the hand were not required with vehicles fitted with the new technology. Uncle, who was the driver, explained this to the officer who sarcastically asked “how do you know that the lights were working?” Uncle who had the vehicle serviced the previous day knew they were and explained this. The patrolman refused to accept this and said he would book them with the offence regardless.

The officer then mounted his motorcycle and left the kerb without a hand signal which was illegal. Uncle on father’s instigation sounded his horn and pulled the officer over. Father questioned the officer as to the law re leaving the kerb and noted that the motorcycle was not fitted with indicators. He took down the officer’s badge number and said they would report him for breaking the law. They then drove straight to Police Headquarters, insisted on seeing an Inspector and reported the incident. The brother’s charge was dropped and the patrol officer reprimanded. I asked Dad why he did what he did. He replied” Son in this country we have rights. In Nazi Austria we had to kowtow but in Australia we don’t and we won’t.”

My father gladly took a step back when I joined the family business to be my advisor. He had taught me well and our family prospered but that is more my story and not his.

Dad was not an overly religious Jew but was very proud of our heritage. He passed onto me that we came from the tribe of Benjamin, that we were directly related to Sigmund Freud’s partner, Alfred Adler and that we also had a black sheep in the family who had assassinated a Politian in the Austrian Government. More notably his father Victor Adler had started the first socialist newspaper in Vienna (It still exists today). He was proud of the fact that even though the family had lost everything three times in his life time they had prevailed.

He was proud of his grandfather Samuel who was best mates with the local Catholic Priest and how at sermon his friend would often say “If only you were as good as my Jewish friend Samuel.” He was also proud that his father, Rudolf, was a generous man who gave food and money to the poor of Laa regardless of their faith. When I visited Gretel in Laa just before she died, she confirmed this generosity to me.

Dad left me with a love of life and this country. He did, however, leave me with the thought that no Jew is ever truly secure in the world. History had proven this over the centuries. His own family had fought for Austria, he had lost an uncle on the Russian Front, his father was a decorated ex-serviceman and yet when anti-Semitism raised its head they were treated as filth. He said love this country but be prepared to flee if you have to. Be prepared to leave everything behind but your loved ones and be adaptable. Don’t be too proud to take any job or to live humbly. Try in life to gain as many skills as you can so if you need to flee or if economics circumstances change you can survive. I have taken his teachings on board and they have patterned much of my life.

Sadly in later life he suffered from dementia and in the European way of life my wife, Cilla, and I cared for him at our home till he died 11 Jan 87. His last years with us were extremely difficult and have clouded my memory of him. He has however left me a legacy of knowledge, moral fortitude, duty and a great love of Australia.