Wartime escape goes on show

FAMILY HISTORY: Michele Orgad is proud to see her father’s diary describing his escape on display at Auckland War Memorial Museum.
FAMILY HISTORY: Michele Orgad is proud to see her father’s diary describing his escape on display at Auckland War Memorial Museum.

"I think I shall like it here" writes Egon Schoenberger upon arriving in New Zealand in September 1939.

The 24-year-old German Jew fled on a ship bound for New Zealand as Europe was on the brink of World War II.

Four years later he learned his mother and sister, his only surviving family members, had died in Auschwitz.

He never spoke about these experiences with his daughter Michele Orgad. But he recorded the events of the almost six-week journey to New Zealand in his diary, which is on display at the Auckland War Memorial Museum alongside the international Anne Frank: A History For Today exhibition.

Revisiting her father's past has been an emotional journey for Dr Orgad.

"He was around my age when he died. He passed away in 1978 at the age of 63 and I turn 63 this year."

Dr Orgad was contacted by the museum several months ago requesting permission to develop an exhibition around the diary, other personal documents of her father's and family portraits.

Museum exhibition developer Janneen Love is thrilled the museum is able to share this story.

"Having the touring Anne Frank exhibition here with all the international attention it has received has given us a reason to have a closer look at our own stories."

The exhibition features Mr Schoenberger's diary and a touchscreen where people can read it digitally. The museum is also breaking the diary down into a series of 24 blog posts which people can follow online.

Dr Orgad thinks it is a lovely idea because it enables people from around the country to read it.

Because Mr Schoenberger wrote all but the last passage of the diary in German, it's also the first time his daughter has been able to read it.

He never spoke German in New Zealand unless he was speaking to other German refugees.

"It was sort of like he didn't want to embrace his language even though it was his mother tongue. It was like he built this huge wall around that period.

"When I saw the translation I found it incredibly moving," Dr Orgad says.

"He didn't say he was worried or preoccupied with things. It was very matter of fact but underneath it all you get a very strong sense of trepidation.

"It really just comments on what he was seeing. It was a clear day-by-day account of where they were."

Despite graduating with a doctorate in law from Bern University in Switzerland, Mr Schoenberger's New Zealand residence visa required him to work as an agricultural labourer and it wasn't until he was employed as a librarian in 1960 that he could make use of his academic training.

But his daughter says he was never anything but grateful to New Zealand. He was very active in the cultural life of Hamilton as a member of Playbox Repertory Company and the Chamber Music Society.

The exhibition shows there were Jewish people who made it to New Zealand and who made a contribution to the country, Dr Orgad says.

"I think my father would be very pleased to know that history is not being forgotten. It is being relived and retold."

Ms Love urges people to follow the blog.

"This is our very own Holocaust story and we really wanted people to take the journey with us. We've chosen not to present it as a straight narrative from the time he leaves to his arrival in Auckland.

"If you follow the blog, by the time the Anne Frank exhibition is over, you'll have a rich knowledge of Egon's story."

To read the blog go to aucklandmuseum.com or follow Auckland museum on Twitter or Facebook.

Eastern Courier