March 29, 2018
Survivor Portraits – Egon Sonnenschein
This month we introduce Egon Sonnenschein. Egon was born in 1930 in Ptuj, Yugoslavia.
Egon came of age as a fugitive. The softly spoken individual was a child of 10 when Germany attacked Yugoslavia in April 1941 and his life on the run began.
The family fled to his grandparents in Croatia, a puppet Nazi state run by the brutal Ustashi, whose cruelty was on par with the most abominable regimes of the past. Victims of the Ustashi’s sadistic rule were impaled, burned alive, and tied together and then drowned. The brutality and murders Egon witnessed remain ingrained in his memory to this day.
The Sonnenscheins survived thanks to the generosity of the town Mayor, a former student of Egon’s grandfather, who saved over 300 Jews and Serbs from death.
Desperate to leave Croatia for Italian-occupied Slovenia, the family purchased false identity papers from a Slovenian man who offered to take their household goods to his country, issuing a false contact address to aid their border crossing.
The family arrived, weary and fearful. Despite paying a large sum for help, they had no permits to enter the country and were imprisoned for five weeks. Upon his release, Egon’s father went to collect their household goods and exchanged Italian liras with the “helpful Slovenian man”. During the exchange, Egon’s father noticed his own beautiful carpet laid out on the floor, realising that the plan had been to have the Sonnenscheins killed, and steal their belongings.
In 1943, the family moved again. Crossing Lake Como and struggling up mountains, they finally made it to Switzerland, where they discovered friendship and people willing to help. Egon was entrusted to the care of a foster family. To this day, he remains in touch with the children and grandchildren of the family who, he reflects, “treated me better than their own children.”
After the war the Sonnenscheins left communist Yugoslavia, living in Israel for seven years, and after that in South Africa for 26 years. In 1983 Egon, his wife Miriam and their four children immigrated to Australia.
In this photo, Egon exhibits a postcard intended for his aunt Regina Grunfeld. Dated 11 April 1943, it is stamped ‘Otputovao Parti’ (Departed – Return to Sender). Some items belonging to Egon are currently on display in the Sydney Jewish Museum.
To read more from our Survivor Portraits blog series, click here.
To explore the personal stories and anecdotes of Holocaust survivors, click here for our first online exhibition.
To read Egon’s memoir, Sunshine, Memory and the Healing of Time, you can purchase a copy here.
Photograph by Katherine Griffiths.