THE SYNAGOGUE WAS still there: an inconspicuous brick building in a poor part of Shanghai where tower blocks had not yet risen, on the far side of Suzhou Creek. The narrow houses were two storeys at most, with the ground floors given over to grocers and to brothels disguised as hairdressing salons. They were built wall to wall, and the doors and windows opened onto narrow pavements. Not a tree in sight. The only thing special about the neighbourhood was its ongoing resistance to modernity.
The Ohel Moishe synagogue was built by Jews who fled Russia in 1917, after the Bolsheviks seized power. As soon as they could afford it, they moved out to more expensive neighbourhoods, leaving the Ohel Moishe to its fate. In the late 1930s Jews who had been driven out of Europe by the Nazis arrived to renovate and revitalise the building, making it the focal point of their lives.
More than half a century had passed since that era as well. Now the synagogue served as a museum, with the elderly Mr Wang giving tours through re-renovated rooms. Photos hung on the walls. The holy atmosphere of prayer and song had evaporated; the dry parquet sighed under our feet. 'At one stage there were more than fifteen thousand Jews who were living in this neighbourhood, Hongkew,' Mr Wang announced in very proper English.
He had seen the ships carrying refugees moor at the nearby dock. The photos showed open trucks ferrying people to reception centres where soup kitchens and rows of bunk beds awaited them. The same box-shaped Chinese houses lined the streets, but dark, attractive Europeans were strolling the pavements – slim-looking men in well-cut jackets and elegant women in calf-length coats and dresses, with flamboyant hats on their heads. 'They were hard workers,' Mr Wang commented approvingly.
He had lived near the synagogue, surrounded by Jewish neighbours who taught him English and made him their interpreter. Later, when a Jewish family left in a hurry, he bought their house and furniture. Mr Wang pointed to two chairs in a corner: the leather seats were worn and the curved wooden arms had been repaired more than once. They were all that was left of the old furnishings and he had donated them to the museum. Mr Wang was grateful to the Jews for the prosperity they had brought him. 'If there had never been any Jews in Shanghai this job as a guide would not exist,' was his practical conclusion.
We stopped in front of a wedding photo. Although she wasn't wearing a white dress, the bride was holding a large bunch of white flowers in her arms. A light veil hid her face. 'That wedding took place in this synagogue,' Mr Wang determined from the background, because he hadn't been present at the event. In those days he never visited the synagogue itself, he explained apologetically. 'I did know him by sight, though,' he said, pointing to the groom. 'He was a doctor.'
I could tell that the doctor was quite a bit older than the veiled bride, as he was the same age as her parents, who were standing next to her. Her father was wearing a bowler and looking expectantly at her mother, a magnificent woman with dark crescent-shaped eyebrows and made-up lips. She, in turn, was looking tensely and anxiously at the rabbi who was marrying the couple. According to the caption, the photo had been taken in 1940. In Europe the Holocaust was underway while here, in this strange world, these people were trying to build a new existence.
ON MY FIRST visit to Shanghai, now almost twenty-five years ago, I had stayed on the edge of Hongkew, in what had once been an apartment complex for Europeans. The residents were long gone and the high-ceilinged rooms were packed with metal beds that backpackers could rent for a couple of yuan a night. The slightest noise echoed through the corridors; the thresholds had been worn hollow. I wandered through the streets of the neighbourhood that had once been home to Jews from Germany, Poland and Austria. On an old map I saw that there had once been a Little Vienna Café, but I was unable to pinpoint its location. I walked past the closed and neglected Ohel Moishe without recognising it as a synagogue. It was hard to believe that Hongkew had once had thousands of Jewish inhabitants. Everyone I passed on the street was Chinese, dressed in the blue or green Mao suits of the time – except on a couple of scorching summer evenings, when men and women strolled the banks of the sulphurous Suzhou Creek in light-coloured pyjamas.
I kept searching for traces of the Jews of Shanghai and eventually obtained the name of a Viennese woman who spent the war years there: Edith Linden. She had settled in Sydney half a century ago, and I had recently telephoned her. Her voice was frail and hard to understand. Reluctantly, she agreed to meet me.
After arriving in Sydney I called her from the airport but she didn't answer. I settled into a friend's flat and called again. Again, Edith Linden did not answer. When the phone kept ringing the next day as well, I decided to visit the city's Jewish museum. 'Edith Linden?' the staff member said. 'She died last week.' My heart sunk: I had left it too long. 'But there are other Jews in Sydney who knew Shanghai well,' she went on. 'Bettina Streimer's on duty this afternoon, as a volunteer. She was there – I'll introduce you.'
Across from the Holocaust exhibition a small woman sat on a bench with an expansive purple shawl wrapped around her shoulders, waiting to answer questions about the gruesome photos on the walls. 'Oh, have you been to the Ohel Moishe synagogue?' Bettina responded happily. 'Then you must have seen the wedding photograph.'
'The one where the bride's wearing a veil?'
She smiled. 'Yes, that one. That's me. In a dark dress: I had nothing else to wear.' For a moment she was lost in her memories. 'Ah,' she sighed. 'When I married Dr Streimer I was just sixteen. He was much older. Thirty-seven.'
In the photo Bettina's face had been hidden behind the veil, but behind her gold-framed glasses I now saw her mother's lively eyes. I sat down next to her and asked how she had met her husband.
'I will tell you about Dr Streimer,' Bettina said softly, 'but first I want you to understand just how German my family was, how the events took us totally by surprise.'
She described the country of her childhood: Beselich, a village near Frankfurt, and the farm she grew up on. 'The Heimstätte was owned by the family, but my father administered the estate for his brothers and sisters. He had fought in the German army in World War I and had been awarded the Iron Cross for bravery.' She glanced at me to make sure I realised what a high decoration that was. 'Every Sunday afternoon he and his old comrades in arms would get together at a bar in our village. They would sit in front of the fire, like brothers, at the Stammtisch.' Bettina pronounced the German names and words perfectly, making it easy for me to imagine her as a Mädel with immaculate plaits, off to buy cakes at the local Konditorei.
'Beselich was a Catholic place of pilgrimage,' she continued. 'At Easter a lot of people would come to our village on foot, lighting candles in chapels along the way. There was a large convent near our house. When I was little I went to school there. My mother used to fill baskets with food for needy families, and I would take them to the nuns and they would distribute them.'
She seemed to be combing her memory for more convincing details. 'Both our cook and maid were Catholic,'she said. 'They were part of the family and taught me all about the Holy Virgin.'
I imagined a German farm kitchen with people chatting around a table. One of Bettina's uncles had come to stay. The cook had baked fresh bread and a goose was roasting in the oven. A delicious Kuchen was steaming on the sideboard. Bettina's father, the man with the Iron Cross, the man who sat around theStammtisch every week with his fellow veterans, was called Strauss. It was hard to imagine a more German family.
It never occurred to Bettina's father that Hitler's rise to power, in 1933, would mean the end of their peaceful life. She was ten at the time. 'An older cousin was the only one to foresee the disaster at that stage. He began planning his emigration to America, but that was something my father refused to consider. "The Germans won't go along with Hitler: in a few months he will resign and everything will go back to normal" – that was his prediction.'
But Hitler retained power. There were only ten Jewish families in the area and a few soon moved to South Africa. Eventually, only the Strausses and one other family were left. At school Bettina was having a hard time of it. She was excluded from all sports. She was no longer allowed to speak in class. Her best friend, daughter of the local head of the armed branch of the Nazi Party, wanted nothing more to do with her. Unable to bear it, Bettina went to stay with an aunt in Frankfurt, where she could complete her education at the Jewish school, the Philanthropin. In Frankfurt she became friends with the daughter of the American consul, who provided her with quota numbers to apply for US visas. When Bettina showed the documents to her father, he tore them up. 'We're not going anywhere,' he insisted. 'This is our country. Where they speak our language.' There was no recrimination in Bettina's voice, even though her father's actions could have had catastrophic consequences, because soon not a single country was admitting Jews. 'My father was like that,'she said, raising her hands in the air. 'Germany meant that much to him.'
The day before Kristallnacht, the mayor of the village called her father. 'Go to the synagogue,' he advised him. 'Save what you can – the synagogue is going to be destroyed.' Her father collected an ancient Torah, the Five Books of Moses, and hid them in the mayor's cellar. The next morning, in Frankfurt, where Bettina was still staying with her relatives, she accompanied her uncle to his clothes shop, in the centre of town. All of the windows had been smashed; everything was a mess. That night hundreds of synagogues had been burnt down and Jewish businesses destroyed. It was the beginning of the end.
Bettina's father had also been arrested by the SS. 'They'll let him go soon,' everyone tried to reassure her. Bettina went to the Frankfurt train station to wait for him. There she met the despairing relatives of others who were missing. They told her that there was one last chance of escape: Shanghai still accepted Jews.
Bettina and an aunt rushed to the Frankfurt offices of Lloyd Triestino, a shipping company that sailed to Asian ports from Italy. Hundreds of desperate people were already gathered in front of the doors. Bettina and her aunt joined them. They waited there for days. Friends brought food to the queue so they wouldn't lose their place. Eventually a representative of the shipping company appeared on the steps to implore the crowd, 'Please, stop waiting. We don't have any berths left to sell. All our ships are full. I'm sorry, but we can't help you.'
Bettina smiled sadly. 'And then a miracle happened. A cigarette lighter exploded in that man's pocket and his clothes caught fire immediately. My aunt was close by. Without stopping to think, she took off her coat and used it to smother the flames. She saved his life.' The representative of the company was immensely grateful. He gave Bettina's aunt a piece of paper with an address, a date and a time written on it. When she went there she was able to book passages to Shanghai for the entire family.
Again Bettina spent whole days waiting at the train station. A train stopped. A door opened and an old man got off, dressed in tatters. It was her father, who a few weeks earlier had looked young, handsome and athletic. Five weeks in Buchenwald had made him unrecognisable. He could still count himself lucky; the Nazis had released him because of his Iron Cross. Not one of his fellow prisoners would survive the war. Despite all he had been through, he was far from happy about the trip to Shanghai. 'It's plague-ridden,' he said. 'People there die like flies.'
But there was no alternative. In the end the Strauss family was able, with the help of their friend the mayor, to withdraw enough money from the bank to pay for the voyage. Everything they owned had been confiscated. With heavy hearts, and just ten marks each, they boarded the Munich train. 'We had almost no baggage, but my father was lugging a package wrapped in cloth with him. He refused to tell anyone what it was.'
The next train took them to the Brenner Pass, a dangerous place where smugglers and bandits operated. At the border Bettina heard people being beaten; there were shots and screams, but she and her parents were left alone. They reached Genoa unharmed, but had to wait several days, because their ship was late. Some Italians took pity on them, feeding them and providing them with a place to sleep.
When the Conte Bianco Mano moored, some fifteen hundred passengers went aboard, all of them Jewish refugees. 'It was a horrific voyage,' Bettina recalled. 'There was a terrible stench on board and not enough to eat.' The highlight was Aden, where the passengers were allowed briefly on land. 'Simon Arzt, the owner of the city's largest shop, gave us all an orange and something to drink.'
In Shanghai they were greeted by representatives of an American aid organisation, who gave them water and a banana before directing them into the back of the trucks.
The first impression of Hongkew was not encouraging. 'The neighbourhood had been heavily bombed by the Japanese and we drove past ruins that the refugees would gradually restore over the years.' Bettina was too old to be allowed to live with her parents in the 'family home' and was allocated a place in the 'women's home'. As one of the youngest there, she slept on top of one of the triple bunks. She was fifteen and alone in Shanghai.
BETTINA AND I looked up. A woman in her late eighties, another volunteer, trudged past the Holocaust exhibition. 'We are talking about Shanghai,' Bettina said.
'I thought as much,' the woman answered. She had apparently survived the horrors of World War II somewhere else.
'We've run out of time,' Bettina said, tapping her watch.
The other woman nodded. 'I'm going home.'
'We can talk some more downstairs,' Bettina suggested to me, 'over a cup of tea.'
We moved to the museum cellar, where we sat down at a table. Leaning against the wall was an immense photo mounted on a board. A life-sized waiter with a black bowtie was leaning on a wooden bar in an old-fashioned café. Behind him, bottles of spirits gleamed on glass shelves. He was waiting for customers to come in and sit down on the Thonet bentwood chairs that were arranged around the tables. Bettina glanced at the scene. 'That is the Little Vienna Café, on Chusan Road. We got that photo enlarged for an exhibition. They obviously don't know what to do with it anymore. The daughter of the owner, Dita Beran, was a friend of mine.'
This was the café whose location I had tried to find: an Austrian-Jewish establishment in Shanghai. I tried to imagine what it had been like. Men in hats came in and started a card game at a table in the corner. Rickshaws pulled by Chinese coolies glided past outside. An Indian policeman in a Sikh turban peered in through the open door.
'Oh yes, Dita Beran,' said Bettina, who was deep in thought. 'We went to the Kadoorie school together.'
I had read a little about the Kadoorie family. They were one of several Jewish families from Baghdad that had followed the British to Shanghai and settled there after the Opium Wars. By the time Bettina arrived in the city, they had built up a business empire. The Kadoories had generously made funds available for the reception of the European Jews. 'There were so many students at the Kadoorie school that we were only able to go half-days. Dita and I were in the morning group. We started early in the morning and finished around noon. In the afternoons I worked at the hospital.'
Like everyone else, Bettina had to find a way to make a living. Former butchers started meat stalls on the street, doctors received patients, teachers instructed. Small factories sprung up around the Jewish homes. Former residents of Vienna or Berlin who could make shoes, candles or soap taught their skills to Chinese friends. The European Jews then ventured into the British and French parts of the city to sell the products to rich locals.
Hongkew had always been a very poor neighbourhood. 'No running water or toilets, only unhygienic latrines.'Bettina shook her head. 'No wonder we all got dysentery in the summertime. Then there was an outbreak of cholera, then typhus, then smallpox.' Her father was right. Shanghai was unhealthy. 'You didn't dare to drink the slightest mouthful of unboiled water; you were not allowed to eat anything raw.'
But the thousands of Chinese residents of Hongkew were well disposed towards the Jews that had settled among them. 'The Chinese liked doing business with us,' Bettina explained. 'They didn't hate us the way the Germans had. They didn't see any difference between us and the British. Anti-Semitism was not a problem. It didn't even occur to the Chinese.'
I looked over my shoulder at the Little Vienna waiter with his black bowtie. In the meantime the café had filled. There were heated discussions in German about the course of the war. Outside a Chinese wonton vendor was praising his wares. It was a misty day. Foghorns sounded on the Huangpu River.
'I'd love to be able to walk into the Little Vienna right now,' I told Bettina.
She cast a cool glance at the immobile waiter. 'That bit of paper stuck to it is an old menu,' she said. 'You can see what you used to be able to order in the Little Vienna. Wiener schnitzel, of course, soup with dumplings, goulash...oh yes' – Bettina interrupted her summary – 'if you had the money you could get all those things, but not many people could afford it.' She had never even had a drink there. Her biggest extravagance was an occasional bread roll from the Jewish baker on Ward Road. 'Fresh-baked. The most delicious thing I've had in my life.'
Bettina got good results at the Kadoorie school and, after finishing high school, was admitted for training as a lab assistant at the Red Cross hospital, located in the fashionable French part of town. She got her practical experience at night, as all equipment was used twenty-four hours a day to process the thousands of patients. 'I met my husband in that hospital.' She smiled. Dr Streimer was a graduate of the prestigious medical faculty of Vienna. In answer to my question asking what was so charming about him, Bettina sighed: 'Everything.' For the first time, she was lost for words. 'His attitude to life. He had two great passions: medicine and music. He passed them on to me. I learned a lot from him. I admired him.'
'Was it love at first sight?'
'Definitely. I was a young girl; he was a handsome, mature doctor. What do you think?'
After the wedding, Bettina moved to her husband's flat on Jessfield Road, in the British part of the city. The newlyweds lived a more or less normal life and Bettina diligently pursued her studies. Dr Streimer had been in Shanghai for a few years and also worked in a private clinic that was attended by the British employees of British companies. Bettina was not so keen on the British in Shanghai. 'They had big textile and cigarette factories where the Chinese worked under terrible conditions. Their monthly salary was no more than a bag of rice.'
Her husband's other patients included Russian Jews. 'People with money who had been living in Shanghai for a long time.' From Bettina's perspective the Russians, like the British, were completely lacking in solidarity. 'They only looked after themselves and didn't do a thing for the Jewish refugees from Europe. No, we got a lot more help from the Baghdadi Jews.'
From the corridor we heard the clinking of keys. 'Oh dear,' said Bettina. 'Everyone's already left – if we're not careful we'll be locked in.' We hurried to the exit after I'd cast one last glance at the interior of the Little Vienna.
WHEN I GOT off the ferry in Double Bay, yachts were bobbing on the wintry water and the sky was bright blue. At the sailing club lunch was being served at tables next to the jetty. White wine sparkled in crystal glasses. Further along, exuberant children in blue and white school uniforms were playing on the grass. I was a little early for an appointment with Bettina. I looked at shop windows full of Italian haute couture and the menus of French restaurants, and drank an espresso in a delicatessen where hams hung from the ceiling and cheese was displayed behind glass. It was as if I had sailed into a European harbour on the barren Australian continent. While nibbling a biscotto, I reconstructed Bettina's last years in Shanghai.
In 1943, two years after occupying the entire city, the Japanese began tightening the screws on the inhabitants. British and French residents were interned in camps and Jews were no longer allowed to live outside of Hongkew, which was to become a Jewish ghetto. Bettina and Dr Streimer had to leave their flat on Jessfield Road. Housing in Hongkew was primitive and hard to get. They counted themselves lucky to find a dark room without a toilet or running water.
The Japanese treated the Jewish inhabitants of Hongkew as prisoners; they weren't allowed to leave the neighbourhood without an official pass. On the bridge over Suzhou Creek their papers were inspected by a much-hated Japanese man called Goya who made everyone bow to him. At the slightest provocation he burst into fury and lashed out. Bettina had told me that there was one man, a Mr Kaiser, who suffered terrible blows every time he crossed the bridge. 'There is only one Kaiser,' Goya would say, 'the Japanese emperor.'
In 1945, after the atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese occupation came to an end. Sixty thousand American soldiers entered the city in a single night. Anticipating a likely communist takeover, an American general gave Dr Streimer the task of transferring almost three hundred children and seriously ill patients to safety. As a result, Bettina and her husband were part of the first group of refugees to leave Shanghai.
I paid for my coffee and walked away from the bay and the enormous houses that surrounded it. Bettina's street was dominated by gnarled plane trees with flaky bark. I opened a white wrought-iron gate and rang the doorbell of the small house. Bettina, who appeared in the doorway, looked less fit than she had when I met her in the museum. 'I have an infection in my leg,' she told me, limping ahead to a living room where I immediately imagined myself in a Viennese teahouse. Cream furniture was arranged on a pink carpet. A collection of antique porcelain cups in a glass case caught my eye. Meissen, I guessed, from Germany. 'No, no,' Bettina reacted irritably when I asked her if they were a family heirloom. 'We left with absolutely nothing, remember?' Her mother had put the collection together after the war.
A delicious smell was wafting through from the kitchen. 'I made some Fettkuchen,' Bettina said, putting a dish with butterfly-like pastries down on the table, 'from an old German recipe.'
'You were on your way to Australia,' I said, reminding her where her story had finished. Bettina poured the coffee.
'A few of the patients that had been entrusted to my husband's care were in a very bad state. Especially Mr Bergmann, who had a serious heart condition. In Hong Kong we were going to transfer to an Australian ship, but it turned out to have been requisitioned by the navy.' First they had to camp in the harbour. The British authorities in Hong Kong refused to issue transit visas to the Streimers and their patients. They were stuck on the wrong side of customs.
'Then another member of the Kadoorie family came to our aid. This one was a cousin of the Kadoorie who had founded the Jewish school in Shanghai. Another multimillionaire. He talked the Brits into admitting us and cleared a whole floor of the Peninsula Hotel, the most beautiful hotel in Hong Kong, which he owned.' Bettina smiled. 'We were given the use of two ballrooms to set camp beds up in. The men slept in one and the women in the other.'
Dr Streimer visited every shipping company in Hong Kong in search of a ship to take them to Australia. 'But a lot of big ships had been sunk during the war. There were mines everywhere and you could only sail in daylight. Small coasters were still operating, but they could only take two or three people in one go.' They had no choice but to see off a few patients at a time, so that the group gradually grew smaller. Bettina and Dr Streimer had to stay with the deathly ill Mr Bergmann. No ship's captains were prepared to take him on board and the British authorities absolutely refused to allow him to stay. They had been at the Peninsula for more than a year when Dr Streimer met the captain of the Taiping. He was willing to risk it, on the condition that Dr Streimer accepted all responsibility for his patient.
'On the way we got caught in a typhoon. For eight days, we were tossed to and fro on the waves. Everybody was as sick as a dog.' But Mr Bergmann survived the voyage. The Taiping reached the coast of Australia safely; sailing into Sydney harbour, Bettina cried her eyes out. 'I had said goodbye to my parents and aunts. They had gone to America. They couldn't get permission to come to Australia, and my husband and his parents couldn't get a visa for the US. I was an only child; my family meant the world to me. Now I felt all alone in a completely foreign country.'
Dr Streimer, who was so successful in Shanghai, was at a complete loss in Sydney. His Viennese qualifications were not accepted. To gain accreditation he had to do an additional three-year course at the University of Sydney. The fees were enormous. What's more, they needed to support Dr Streimer's eighty-year-old parents. Bettina worked day and night nursing to make ends meet. 'They were terrible years,' she said, shaking her head, before adding, 'But there were others who were much worse off.'
One of them was Dr Sonnabend, a concentration camp survivor who had studied with her husband. He lived in an attic with his child and wife, who spent all day doing piecework on a rattling sewing machine. 'There was no quiet corner for him to sit; the man could not study at all.' A large proportion of the group of Jewish doctors dropped out in the very first year. 'Talented, highly educated people like Dr Sonnabend had to go and work in a factory, while inland Australia was suffering a tremendous shortage of doctors.' Even after passing with honours, Dr Streimer couldn't work, because only ten foreign doctors were given a work permit each year. 'They put all the names in a hat and pulled out ten,' Bettina recalled. Dr Streimer wasn't one of the lucky ones.
'We had to sit through another twelve months of looking after my husband's parents. I was overloaded with worries. When I heard the bad news I was pregnant. I lost my baby soon after.' A year later the papers were finally in order. The Streimers bought a house in Bondi, where most of the people from Shanghai had settled, and opened a practice. Bettina did the biopsies and blood tests, having qualified as a medical lab assistant in the meantime. 'We borrowed every penny. We didn't have a dollar of our own and the interest at the time was ten per cent. We had to work day and night to pay it back.'
After a year a son was born. 'He played in our back yard with the kids of the other people we knew from Shanghai. The grandmothers looked after them – our generation had no time for any of that; we had to work.' Bettina's friends made model garments on a second-hand sewing machine. Their husbands took them to shops for orders. Some of the couples started a deli or milk bar. Life was constant work.
Still, Bettina's most beautiful memories date from that period. 'We all lived together in Bondi and we visited each other every day. We ate cakes, drank tea, played cards. We relied on each other's company. None of us had any money. Our kids loved soccer. After a while we had a Viennese soccer club with a clubhouse. Sunday was soccer day. The Hakoah club came to Bondi. We used to go there to dance and let our hair down. Everyone knew each other. At Christmas we went to the Blue Mountains, renting three or four holiday homes next to each other. There was always someone with a truck we could fit the whole group and all our gear in.'
Bettina fell silent; a dispirited expression had crossed her face. 'The group of Jews from Shanghai is disappearing,' she said sadly. 'They are almost all dead now. The last time I went to the Hakoah Club was five years ago and I didn't know anyone anymore. Nowadays most of the members are Russian Jews; they speak Russian together. Maybe they went through things I can't understand behind the Iron Curtain, I don't know, but I never had much contact with them. That last time in the Hakoah Club I saw Peppi Weiss, one of the club's Viennese founders, playing a pokie. He'd been a patient of my husband's in Shanghai already and often came to the surgery in Bondi. I knew he had asthma and had recently lost his wife. He didn't look comfortable at all standing there at that poker machine. I walked up to a boy who was working there and said, "Get Mr Weiss a chair! Do you know who that is?" I felt terrible about everything that had been lost.'
Bettina looked out at her garden. 'Ah,' she said hastily, anxious to put her gloomy words in perspective. 'Dead trees always get a new shoot. Fortunately. The world goes on.'
Her son Jeffrey had become a psychiatrist and taught at the University of Sydney. Like his parents, he was on the go day and night, combining studies, work and family. His daughters were the first generation of Streimers who were able to take things easier. 'A medical career is just too hard,' Bettina concluded. 'One of my granddaughters did law, the other art history. The youngest plays beautiful violin.' Dr Streimer's love of music had come to fruition, two generations later.
IN MANY WAYS Bettina managed to create order in her cruelly disrupted life. When her mother and aunts grew old in America, she brought them to Sydney. Here, in her care, they spent their last years. 'My father died in San Francisco; I wasn't able to do anything for him, but he still had my mother and his sisters.' She didn't need to reproach herself on his account. She had revisited all of the German and Chinese houses she had lived in, so that she could see them as more than just places she had fled. Her son accompanied her to Shanghai. She visited the Ohel Moishe synagogue, but their flat on Jessfield Road had been cleared for a roundabout. 'And Hongkew still hasn't got a sewerage system.'
In Frankfurt, Bettina met her former classmates at a Philanthropin reunion. Women had come from all over the world. Not one of them still lived in Germany. 'We reminisced and sang Heimat songs. The mayor of Frankfurt came to meet us. He agreed with us that after the war Frankfurt became a business town; it lost its culture.' That grieved Bettina, but she added optimistically, 'I really fell in love with Vienna, my husband's home town. They still have the theatres and concert venues we used to have in Frankfurt.'
Bettina had even visited the farm where she was born. It was in other hands. Shortly before leaving, and under great pressure, her father had sold the house and land for a paltry sum. The contract had proved binding. 'That doesn't matter,' she said, brushing the injustice aside. She had visited the neighbours and got to know the new generation. She had managed to track down the address of the great granddaughter of the cook who had served the Strauss family so faithfully. The Catholic nuns were no longer there; the convent had been turned into an old folks' home; things change, Bettina accepted that.
Of the ten Jewish families that had lived in the area, only two brothers had returned. She had spoken to them. She had made arrangements with a German official for the renovation of the Jewish cemetery and could now leave the dead behind with an easy heart. And the same man had also undertaken to restore the synagogue, which had been destroyed on Kristallnacht. The synagogue her father had rescued the Five Books of Moses from, at the last moment.
'The Torah,' Bettina said quietly. 'I haven't told you about the Torah yet.' The books had been inside the mysterious package her father had taken to Shanghai, but only there had he revealed what he was carrying. When Bettina's mother came to Sydney, the Torah was in her suitcase. Bettina found a home for them in the Great Synagogue of Sydney. 'And then,' she continued in a hoarse voice, 'a fire broke out there five or so years ago. The books went up in flames. Only ashes were left.' Bettina looked at me blankly.
'Arson?' I asked.
She raised her hands. 'A short circuit, apparently.'
I could tell from her face that she didn't believe it. 'Terrible.'
Bettina nodded. 'It can't be helped.'
I IMAGINED BETTINA'S life as a big, complicated piece of embroidery with all of the threads finished off neatly, and yet with an enormous hole in the middle: the loss of the Torah. She went into the kitchen to make some fresh coffee, and I stood up to look at the paintings on the walls. I hadn't been able to see them properly from the dining table but the golden frames had raised expectations of something romantic. Flowers, a castle on the Rhine, paintings in keeping with a pink and cream Viennese teahouse. I was wrong. They were small human figures in vast Australian landscapes where the only shade was provided by sparse gum trees.
'I love the Australian light too much,' Bettina said, standing with the coffeepot in her hand. I had just asked her whether she missed Europe and would prefer to live in Vienna. 'Europe's too dark.' No, she was an Australian now, even if that wasn't something she tended to dwell on. 'I am too busy for things like that.' She had only just been able to squeeze my visit in between two other appointments. When she wasn't on duty at the museum, she visited schools to tell children about the Holocaust. The next day she was flying to Melbourne to attend a meeting of the anti-cancer foundation she was involved in.
Over eighty, and with a bad leg – wasn't it time, I wondered, that she started taking things a little easier?
Bettina looked at me reproachfully. 'People must make themselves useful,' she said. 'Otherwise there's no point living.'
Bettina Streimer died on August 2010.