Until yesterday, I had not stepped into a bank for over two years, such is the growing irrelevance of a physical bank. It was a most pleasant experience though. The bank teller at my local branch mistakenly assumed I was some other rich client and waived the $30 charge which she had earlier advised me was the fee for that transaction. “Oh, how lovely it must be to be a rich man,” I thought to myself. After that, I couldn’t get the catchy tune from Fiddler On The Roof off my head.
If I were a rich man,
Yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum.
All day long I’d biddy biddy bum.
If I were a wealthy man.
I wouldn’t have to work hard.
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.
If I were a biddy biddy rich,
Would it spoil some vast eternal plan?
If I were a wealthy man.
The last two lines of that earworm made me think of Tevye, the poor Jewish milkman in the story who despite all his attempts to clutch onto his religious and cultural traditions, he ended a lonely brokenhearted father, as one by one, his beautiful daughters fled to America following the eviction of Jews from the Pale of Settlement of imperial Russia. Indeed, a fiddler on the roof portrays the precarious nature of living life on a slippery slope or on the edges. Keeping one’s faith or traditions under threat of persecution can be downright dangerous to one’s well-being.
During my adult life, I have read news articles about the Holocaust and watched gut-wrenching movies about the atrocities committed against the Jewish communities in Europe – movies such as Schindler’s List and The Pianist, but it never dawned on me that one day I would write about anti-Semitic violence, the struggles, suffering and mass displacements of millions of people let alone the horrors of the Holocaust. Unless it was a yes from Les, I would not have this opportunity and privilege to write about his family’s story. His father, George Elias, was born in Sarbogard, Hungary on 20th March 1922. George’s parents owned a grocery store which provided them with a comfortable life. They weren’t ultra religious and did not force George to attend the cheder. His dad’s steely eyes revealed a strong, confident and determined spirit. He would have been very proud of his elaborately manicured handlebar moustache, a symbol of high fashion and stature that described him as a confident and self-made man. The stylish businessman was often seen with a bow tie and an immaculately tailored three-piece suit. George’s mother had the look of a contented wife and mother. She was a tall handsome woman, and when she smiled, she portrayed a kindness and love that was soothing. Les’ smile and dancing eyes are an exact replica of hers.
Les’ mother, Mary, was born in Guttamasi, Hungary on 4th October 1926. George and Mary did not meet till after the war. Mary’s parents, unlike George’s, were Orthodox Jews who brought her up to strictly follow the Torah. They owned a pub and the well-to-do family enjoyed a very stylish lifestyle. Her father wore a Homburg hat, a tailored overcoat and kept a well-trimmed beard. He practised the daven daily, reciting old Jewish prayers in a singing style whilst swaying back and forth like a rocking horse. He would intone their ancient prayers as he lovingly touched the mezuzah which was affixed to the right hand side of the front door post. Apart from Mary, her entire family would later perish in the Holocaust. Mary was a sweet young teenage girl, a sheine maidl, whom no one’s eyes had yet devoured. She wore a shawl over her beautiful black hair and always went outside in a thick coat that covered her young body. But, her deep-set playful eyes which were accentuated with long curly eyelashes and her sweet innocent smiles already hinted of a striking beauty hidden inside the garments. In the beginning of the war, Hungary was fighting Russia, as part of the Axis Alliance. Mary’s family felt safe even though there were already atrocious stories of pogroms being forced out of Russia, and the German Wehrmacht’s brutal assaults on Polish Jews and Czech Jews were no longer a secret. But, in 1944, all the false notions of security and protection under the Nazi umbrella disintegrated when Hitler learned about the secret peace deals Hungary had signed with the US and the UK. Mass deportations of Hungarian Jews to Poland began soon after. George’s and Mary’s families were not spared. Originally, they wrongly believed that the Germans were their only enemies, but later on, they realised many fellow countrymen were openly and violently anti-Semitic.
There were many rumours of Jewish refugees who met with foul play on their rushed flight to safe destinations. Along the lonely stretches of country roads, it was difficult enough to avoid the Germans during the day but when night arrived, a different problem arose. Where would a safe place be to rest their aching and blistered feet? It was often bad luck rather than good luck to be invited by a farmer to use his barn for the night. Lured into his property, defenceless refugees were killed in their sleep for their few possessions. George’s and Mary’s families did not leave town. Their businesses were at first forced to display the Star of David on their premises. Not long after, the frightening sounds of big trucks arrived at their front doors before the sunbeams had even warmed them. Evil-eyed helmeted soldiers with their menacing Sturmgewehr assault rifles wore badges of black zigzagged designs on crimson red background sewn onto their smart uniforms. Their new well-polished steel-studded boots stomped heavily and loudly on the cobblestones, the harshness of the sounds so threatening a great composer would find challenging to produce. They rounded up anyone in the streets wearing a white armband emblazoned with a blue Star of David and forced them into the waiting trucks. They let their rifles do the talking. Those who resisted were shot where they stood. Screaming women held at gunpoint had their vaginas probed for gold and precious stones before being yanked away from their homes, leaving a trail of billowing black smoke and shattered glass. They were bewildered to be forced out not only of their own homes but also from their own country. By mid-afternoon, the town appeared more a ghost town – the few who remained had haunted looks, broken limbs and bloodied faces. The painful groans and soft yelps for help had replaced the twitter of happy birds. A lone girl was skipping on a side lane, seemingly oblivious to what had happened. Could it be that one can become desensitised to so much violence in a day? Les’ grandparents were amongst the hundreds of thousands deported in cattle carriages to the Auschwitz gas chambers. George was sent to a working camp where able-bodied men could do the work required of them and avoided harsh punishment. His last Yom Kippur night with his family felt like an eternity ago. He wept loudly when told his fiancé had perished in Auschwitz. Since that fateful day, he steadfastly refused to utter a single word about that part of his life.
Mary who was around eighteen years old mentioned long spells of sickness from hunger and extreme living conditions in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Many women were subjected to sexual assaults by the Germans and those who disobeyed or were uncooperative were set upon by fierce Doberman Pinschers. Those lucky to survive were released from the camps after the war ended. Les’ father learned of their families’ demise only after years of futile prayers and false hopes. Their heartbreak was beyond consoling as one by one, they learned of the truth from eyewitnesses or hearsay which gained credence over time. George was told his father and mother both perished in the camp around 1944. His father’s seventeen-year-old brother Leslie was helped home by some passers-by after having collapsed on a nearby street. His gaunt hollow face was almost unrecognisable with sunken lifeless eyes and the once fit and fast runner instead owned a stooped skeletal body held intact only by his skin. Leslie unfortunately passed away after a small meal that evening, his wrecked stomach could not accept the little food he took. Les’ voice trembled before breaking into a mangled string of indecipherable words. At that point, silence took over our conversation. It was better that I let compassion over-rule the scrutiny of knowledge. The only other survivors from George’s side were his twin sisters who had befriended the teenage Mary in their camp. Mary was as lifeless as a coffin when she got out. She refused to tell anyone what happened to her parents in there, apart from saying they were separated in the camp in 1944. As most of the Jewish people in the concentration camps had lost their family members, as soon as they found an opportunity to find a new partner, they got married and started their new families. The first mitzvah in the Torah, ‘to be fruitful and multiply’ had taken a whole new meaning.
Les was born in Szekesfehervar on 6th May 1951. His mother’s full hips had promised fertility and she did not disappoint George. Les’ sister was born two years earlier and his brother two years after him. When the mischievous Les was three years old, he somehow got into his mother’s make-up box, and painted lipstick all over himself. When he was four, his father’s bicycle fell on him as he was examining the gears. Les was more than a handful but his loving parents never spanked him. Not even when he got his sister’s long curly hair tangled up on the wheels of his toy car. His favourite hiding place was in the small stuffy shtiebel where his mother often prayed. When he was five, the sky fell on their whole world. Post-war Hungary had been swallowed up by the Russians and belonged to the Soviet Eastern bloc. In October 1956, the Hungarians revolted against the Soviets but it was clear to George that the Hungarian Revolution would not last long or end well for them. On the day they fled their home and country, George was morose and quiet. He had already decided they would flee their home that night but he could not share his decision with anyone. No one else in the family had time to digest what was happening when they were all asked to pack their belongings into three small well-worn suitcases early in the night. There was no room for their menorah, a gold candlestick, a family heirloom.They were all in tears and panicking. They travelled for about eight hours on a rickety truck from Budapest to near the Hungarian border. From the drop-off point, they walked quietly in pitch darkness, the freezing cold biting into the bones. Although it was only late Autumn, the conditions out there in the fields and forest were freezing. Before dawn, it started to snow quite heavily and made the journey even tougher. In the silent night, trudging in the snow, Les could hear the occasional uncontrolled whimper from his siblings. The tension in the air could cut a piece of paper as they got nearer the border. Les’ parents did not know what to expect. They prayed for a favourable blessing from heaven that would determine their fate. Will they be arrested? Shot? Or can they buy their way to freedom? At the border, George was held up for many nerve-wrecking minutes, as the Hungarian soldiers demanded more gold from him, on account that there were five in his family. Mary had cut her hair short and dressed as manly as she could to avoid the hungry eyes of the soldiers. But, once they crossed the border into Austria, the journey to Vienna by car was an uneventful two days. Finally, unfurled before their eyes, they enjoyed the colourful scenery of the countryside only Autumn could deliver.
Vienna was the capital of the world before the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed in 1918. It should have been an exhilarating city to visit in the mid 1950’s, where life was lived with style, elegance and charm. Johann Strauss Jr left a huge footprint on the city with his waltzes, polkas and operettas just over half a century earlier. But, the city was swamped with over 170,000 refugees, among them more than 18,000 Jews. Very quickly, lodgings had to be found for them – hotels, private residences and camps sprung up, supported by food shelters and medical centres. The Elias family was admitted into a shelter for Jewish refugees where they were fed and clothed and provided with some space to sleep. But, as the centre got more and more crowded, the family had to split up. Les and his father moved to stay with another Jewish family whilst the others were put up at a different house for the next six months. George was by then penniless, having paid the border guards every cash and gold he had. The refugees were offered only temporary respite there – they were all expected to be relocated to other countries. The Jewish Centre helped them migrate to Santiago, Chile where George had a sister there. The boat trip took around two weeks. It should have felt like a holiday cruise but none of them was in a celebratory mood, not when their breadwinner was penniless and jobless and did not know what to expect in a new country.
“My father was an electrician in Hungary but in Santiago, he found a better paying job as a salesman. We all had to learn to speak Spanish to get by. My mother ran a small take-away business in our residential apartment, serving Hungarian meals to help supplement the family income,” Les said. They still struggled, so George sublet a room in their apartment to bring extra cash in. After school and on weekends, George made Les door-knock around the city blocks, selling eggs to help pay their bills but more importantly, for his son to learn about life. Secretly, Les wanted to save up enough money to buy himself a harmonica. Many years later, he did manage to own one and played it like a maestro. Their stay in Chile didn’t last seven years. It was as if George had a crystal ball that foretold him Chile’s economy would worsen drastically in years to come. He made a snap decision to leave Chile in 1963. A relative in Melbourne helped secure visas for them. Exactly ten years later, with inflation rising over 600% under Salvador Allende’s presidency, the Chilean government was toppled by a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. Allende committed suicide, his death being the first of countless thousands tortured, murdered or simply vanished under junta rule.
“When we arrived in Melbourne, all five of us settled in my uncle’s unit at Brighton Rd, Elwood where we resided for 6 months. After that, my father was able to rent a unit in Nelson Street, Balaclava. We lived there for the next seven years. At the age of twelve, I enrolled into Grade Six at Elwood Central School where I also attended special English classes. I went to Brighton Tech the following year and after Year 11, I enrolled in an apprenticeship in the printing industry in Brighton for four years,” Les summarised his school life in Australia.
He soon got bored doing newspaper advertisements in Jewish News. Chasing a better income, he tried his luck by working on the weekends in the markets as well as holding down a full-time job. He soon realised he was earning much more money at the weekend trash and treasure markets selling jeans. A year later, he quit his job at the advertising office, and invested his whole energy in the markets tripling his income, selling menswear and womenswear at the Victoria Market. The voluble young Les discovered he had all the prerequisites to be a very fine businessman – he was charming, witty, trustworthy, knowledgeable and quick-thinking. One Sunday afternoon in 1986, he was approached by a man to sell car seat covers. Les discovered that there was only one store in the markets that sold seat covers, so he went back to Mr. Davidovitz who owned the factory that made the seat covers. Les negotiated a capital-free deal on a sale or return basis.
The dollars started to roll in, boosted by an ever-increasing range of sizes, fabrics and sheepskins. Les invested in a ‘massive’ truck and converted it into a mobile store room for his stock. His sales got to a stage where the factory needed to top up his stock levels midweek as he was frequently sold out before the weekend. Word soon got out that Les was the biggest car seat covers seller in Melbourne. Other manufacturers started to knock on his door. Mr. Davidovitz invited Les for coffee and offered him a share of his business to entice him to stay loyal to his brand. By then, Les was already a proud owner of a double-storey forty-square house in Caulfield with a massive swimming pool and was able to squeeze the offeror for a better deal. In 1991, Ilana Accessories changed hands and became a partnership of three owners. Les and the third partner bought out the original owner many years later and today, Ilana Accessories has grown exponentially into the indisputable industry leader of car seat covers internationally. Casting my mind back to the lyrics of the Fiddler On The Roof, I now realise the vast eternal plan all along was for George’s progeny to be wealthy and safe. Their journey although treacherous, heartbreaking and tortuous has also brought them joy, love and wealth. George passed away in Melbourne on 21st August 2008. Mary followed him four and a bit years later. In their final years, they looked at their family which had grown to thirty members and were thankful of the blessings they received from heaven. The days of distrust and suspicions were another lifetime ago, where neighbours and acquaintances could become informers and betrayers. It was a time when a friend could extort another for every cent they had before turning them over to those who hunted for the Jews as a sport. “I am so glad they got to enjoy a long and happy life here in Melbourne,” Les said with a voice filled with love and gratitude.
Would it spoil some vast eternal plan?
If I were a wealthy man.