October 5, 2018
As the publishing arm of the Sydney Jewish Museum, Community Stories is frequently responsible for giving life to stories which might otherwise have gone unread and unheard. It is the mission of the Community Stories department to ensure that the Museum is the repository for the stories of Sydney’s Jewish community.
In 2007, Community Stories was approached by Vera O’Brien, a New Zealand national who was in Sydney briefly visiting her daughter. Vera, a survivor of a Kinderstransport, was living a life as a Catholic in New Zealand, far away her childhood memories of the Holocaust. However, she had written her memoir and was searching for the best avenue through which to have it published.
Vera was born in Austria, into a family of “well-educated and cultured” Jews. Her father was a chemist. Her childhood was a happy one, her room contained “dolls, teddies books and miles of plasticine”. However, after escaping Austria with her parents to Czechoslovakia, she was put on a train filled with other children in July 1939, which was bound for England.
Vera was sent away to England her parents in order to save her life. She said, “We younger children had no idea that we might never see them again”. Vera was fostered by the Hull family in Sheffield. She describes her incredible confusion and fear, and eventual physical and verbal abuse by her foster mother. Vera described in her memoir that this conflict was commonly shared by other Kindertransport survivors; whilst they were given adequate food and clothing by foster families, they were starved of love and physical affection.
By the end of WWII, Vera realised that she was the only survivor of her family. This knowledge, together with the fraught circumstances in her foster home, led her to join the army. There she met her husband, John O’Brien. She embarked on a life with him as an army wife. They had six children and eventually moved to New Zealand. Vera’s husband was Catholic, and Vera converted Catholicism.
In 1987, Vera went back to Europe to try to trace her roots, but she was unable to find the answers to her infinite questions. In 1989, Vera heard of a Kindertransport reunion in England, but without the funds to attend she approached the New Zealand Herald to cover her life story. Her story was published on the front page of the paper. After seeing the article, a woman called Vera to introduce herself as another passenger on the same Kindertransport, also living in New Zealand. Following their encounter, Vera travelled to England together with this woman to attend the reunion, where they met their saviour, Nicholas Winton.
The horrific events of the Holocaust led Vera very far from the happy childhood she had in Vienna before the war. Vera was adamant that her story be told and preserved by a suitable Jewish institution. The Community Stories department provided Vera with editorial assistance and arranged for the design and publication of her book right through to her last days. Tragically, Vera passed away shortly before the book’s publication. But she did so knowing that her voice would be kept alive well into the future by the Sydney Jewish Museum.
Community Stories is one of the many ways the Sydney Jewish Museum keeps the voices of Holocaust survivors alive well into the future. For our current Capital Appeal we are hosting fundraising events throughout October, where we invite those who have been moved or inspired by the Museum’s work to invest in the future of our educational programs, exhibitions, collection and preservation projects. Book your place at one of our upcoming events here.
Author: Jacqui Wasilewsky, Community Stories Project Manager
Image Left: Vera, 1939; Right: Vera in Vienna in 1987 outside the shop owned by her father, bought by Willi Gerstenberger in 1938.