Roaring Nineties is a series of stories from our elders collected throughout 2018. This collection of stories features the memories of yesteryear; accounts of war, racism, technological triumph, assimilation, and social change. These storytellers have lived long lives, and plan to live many more. Experience makes us wise and we should take time to listen.

Vern Gooch is a survivor of the Holocaust. He and his immediate family were lucky enough to flee Germany and seek refuge in Australia. Vern shares his memories of growing up in Australia.

Vern in Germany, courtesy of Raema Gooch.
Vern in Germany, courtesy of Raema Gooch.

My name is Vernon Leslie Gooch, but I was born Werner Ludwig Gottschalk. I am 86 years old and I was born in Weißenfels in Germany. I came to Australia in 1938. As a six-year-old. Why? because we are Jewish, that might be enough for an explanation, my father had already been thrown in jail for telling a joke about Hitler and Goebbels. So, he thought it was about time to get out if he could.

My father told a joke that got him thrown in jail in 1936 already, in the long run he said it was the best joke he ever told because it got him out of the country.

It doesn’t translate into English and it wasn’t dirty or rude or anything. My father was in his family’s department store; he was in charge of the whole first floor which was ladies wear and fashion stuff generally. He told this rather tame joke to one of his customers. She went home and told her husband because she thought it was very funny. Her husband went to a lodge party meeting that night and told it to all his mates. Within 24 hours my father was in jail. So, as I say the best joke he ever told.

My father had an uncle who came to Australia in 1888 on a sailing ship and he made the permit for us to come. There was my mother, my father. myself and my paternal grandmother because she was the sister of the uncle that was here, that’s how he was an uncle. That’s the reason why we came to Australia.

My mother actually converted from being a Lutheran to Judaism, officially, to marry my father, and left all her family behind—sister and cousins and nephews. They were Catholics or Lutherans, so they all survived the war. But on my father’s side, as I said, they had quite a large department store, the family. A lot of them got as far as Holland, but then the war caught up to them and they all perished in the concentration camps.

They got a pretty good hint that things were happening because this store was already Aryanised, as they call it, in 1936 when it was taken over, or taken away from the family. Some other family took it over and changed the name on it—then it was run by the Nazis.

We asked Verne whether his family was compensated for the department store.

Nope. It wasn’t a small place either. I mean they employed 150 people. So it was quite a large store.

Vern’s family was living contently in Germany until things changed rather dramatically.

We had a permit to leave Germany—actually they said, “If you don’t get out in six months, you aren’t going. But you can’t take any money with you.” But there was nothing to stop us taking—what these days you would call a shipping container—it was a huge pine box the size of a small container. So the family bought a complete dining room, bedroom suites, washing machines, bought 24 pairs of shoes for me in different sizes because they didn’t know what they were coming to, and other things that they could sell for instance. My uncle in Germany, my mother’s sister’s husband, was an optician and had an optical shop and he had done all his training at Calcise which was the famous lens and camera people. So we bought 3 Leica cameras with us, to sell if necessary. We were allowed, well there were four of us and in Australian currency we were allowed to take the equivalent of £25 each. So we arrived here with £100 and a big box full of all sorts of stuff. We arrived here on the 17th of July 1938.

We asked Vern how his family coped with the move to Australia.

I think so, but they didn’t know what to do. I mean they had admittedly gone for about 3 months for English classes before they left. So they spoke a bit of English. I couldn’t speak a word of English which got me into trouble the first day of school.

Well the first day I went to school, I was in trouble. I couldn’t speak English. It got to morning—I went to school at Forrest Park’s Primary School which is in Lord Street, which is now a technical college—and it came to play time and I was dying to go to the toilet. But I didn’t know how to ask to go to the toilet. So I am standing in the playground on my own and a little girl noticed, must have taken pity on me because she worked out what it was. She just took my hand and took me to the toilet. Which was magnificent. The only thing was I was halfway through my business and the deputy principle said, “You filthy little boy what are you doing in the girls toilets!” End of story.

Vern’s Passport, courtesy of Raema Gooch.
Vern’s passport, courtesy of Raema Gooch.

My mother got a job pretty much straight away with a firm called Goode, Durrant and Murray. They were on William Street in Perth, because she was—and had a big certificate she hang up—a master milliner. She had done all the right training and even she and her sister had had a millinery shop, so she got a job as a milliner. My father had enough forethought, he bought a couple of agencies within, that he would sell. One of them was from a Sydney firm of dress fabric importers because that was all he handled all his life—silk, satin and all that. But my mother was too good—she knew too much—the woman in charge of the workroom in Goode, Durrant and Murray—the English expression, I think would be ‘white-anted’ her to the bosses. In the meantime my parents made friends with a Jewish guy with quite a big crockery factory and he said, “Why don’t you open up your own shop?” My father said, “look I’ve got one hundred pounds, an old mother and a kid.” He said, “Oh, I’ll get you credit, there’s no problem with it, we’ll get supplies”. So, exactly a year to the day they opened their own little millinery workroom, my mother and a girl, sitting stitching.

We asked Vern to talk about his experiences of being a Jewish boy in Western Australia and whether he experienced anti-Semitism.

I only went to school there for a couple of years and then my parents thought the Japanese had come into the war and they might be coming to Perth—because they were already bombing Darwin. So they thought it was better to get me out of town in case the bombers come. So I was evacuated to the country. As a good little Jewish boy I went to Saint Ildephonsus College. Do you know were Saint Ildephonsus College is? New Norcia. Where they sent all the bad Catholic kids and I did strike a bit of anti-Semitism there that I remember, from one of the brothers. As a ritual—this is the age of nine by now—as a ritual every Friday night he got his big black leather belt out. He beat the shit out of me—and I’ll pardon the word shit—but it was shit. Saying “I’ll teach you to be the right religion.” Wack, wack, wack. It made an impression. But again, at that school I was one of only four Jewish kids there.

I had another incident, no two incidents there. On the first day of my school there and on my last day. Well on the first day I arrived there in March, the week before my birthday. But school had already been going on for a month, so I was taken in to the headmaster’s study. He was a very nice fellow, brother Ethelred. He took me into his study and sat me down and welcomed me to the school, said all the right things. He said, “Now I need some details from you. What’s your name?” and I said, “Gottschalk.”

He asked, “And what are your Christian names?” and I—this little nine-year-old—I jumped up on this big padded chair and said, ‘I haven’t got any Christian names, I’m Jewish.”

So that was my introduction there. But by then I could speak English, to the extent that I even won a spelling bee standing in front of the class. But again my urinary tract came to play. I was standing there on a Saturday morning and I was dying and I wasn’t going to give in as they were dropping off on this spelling bee. So I eventually spelt the last word to win it and let go and I wet my pants in front of the whole class.

One of the monks at the monastery, he was into Jewish history and what have you. He had a lot of Hebrew texts and I had gone to the Hebrew school—Sunday school—and I could read Hebrew, but I didn’t have the faintest idea what it meant. He got me over to the monastery and asked me to read these texts to him because he could speak the language but he couldn’t read it. So I got good food every now and again, but the great privilege out of that was in that chapel there they had a world famous organ and in exchange for doing all this reading for him he let me play the organ. Because I was taking piano lessons at the time.

Vern explained that he Anglicised his name when he was married. Before then, foreigners were unable to change their name during the war. We asked him whether he was the subject of any suspicion because he was German.

How much room’s is on this tape? We were enemy aliens, but one way or another my father finished up being the highest ranking enemy alien in the Australian army. It all started back in 1938 when my parents—we were living in this Hut Street place—they worked six days a week and on Sunday it was time to do the washing and all this sort of stuff,

My father was sitting there in a pair of shorts and a singlet and this big black car pulled up out the door and these two guys in suits, hats, big heavy boots got out. “Kurt Gottschalk?” “Yes?” “Come with us.” It was the police. This is 1938. They dragged him off to Beaufort Street, to the Police Station. He was taken into a room there and there was some people and the guy in charge said to him, “We’ve been talking to the Rabbi about you. You apparently are quite an intelligent man and you speak English. We’ve got a lot of German miners working in Kalgoorlie. We think something is going to happen in Germany very shortly, these miners they are all writing letters home all the time and we want to know what’s in the letters. Would you be an interpreter for us? We will pay you sixpence a page.” All my father could think was sixpence a page was a packet of ten cigarettes. He said “Yes, I’ll do that!” So he got a bunch of letters and translated them, you know. It was all, “Darling I miss you so much and I wish…”, bleh. Anyway, so that went on and a year later, war was declared. Third of September 1939. It was a Sunday and it was Father’s Day, and again my parents had been doing the washing. They were sitting out the front again having a cup of coffee and the black car pulled up outside their house and two policemen got out. They just grabbed him, with his singlet, and chucked him in the back. There were already about six German, Jews, Czechoslovakians—you know suspect type people. And they took them up to Fremantle Prison. They got pretty badly treated when they first got there, they stripped all the clothes off hem, they hosed them down, and then stood them up against the wall and told them, “Now don’t turn around until you are told.” And there are these six or eight guys there—and as my father told them later—he said that he could hear voices in the background, it was quite a large long room, but they were told not to turn around. Eventually they said to turn around and there was this sort of a card table at the end of this long hall. There was a guy sitting there, and he looked up and said, “Gottschalk, what the fuck are you doing up there! I sent for you three hours ago, I need an interpreter!”

Vern’s father would continue to work for ASIO and serve Australia as a land sergeant. His mother, continued working on the family business. Both were strong contributors to the Jewish community in Perth. During this time, Vern finished his schooling and then continued to university.

I went to UWA [University of Western Australia] to study optometry, which was a course run at UWA in Crawley. But it was operated by the Optometric Registration Board and it was a four-year course where you finished up with a Bachelor of Science Degree. It was part-time because you had to do the first two years 800 hours a year, and the last two, 1000 hours a year—a sort of apprenticeship. The first two years was actually learning, grinding the lenses, and fitting them into the spectacles. In those days, it was very fashionable—rimless glasses—you used diamonds to drill little holes in them. So, I spent those two years working for the Australian Optical Company—which as luck would have it, was directly across the road from my parents’ millinery workroom; the first floor of Murray Street, next to Bowman’s. They could look out their window and see into our laboratory where the guys are grinding lenses by hand. Then, I spent my final two years with Ben Sandton—the Sandton brothers had two optical places. But then I couldn’t get a job because the national health scheme was starting in England and all the opticians from over there with their ten years training—they were coming over to Australia because they wanted to get away from the nationalised scheme—and of course their British qualifications were recognised here. So I went to work in the motor business for International Harvesters and Trucks and they sent me off to a country town just north of New Norcia were I went to school, you heard of Morawa? I got sent to their agent up there and, to cut the long story short, to get ahead I married the boss’s daughter. To add insult to injury having gone to Catholic school and Methodist school, she was a Church of England Sunday School teacher.

We asked Vern how his marriage lead to the changing of his name and whether his new wife converted to Judaism.

No—I mean I was a liberal Jew. But that’s when I changed the name. We talked about this before we got married. We said, “Yes we are going to have kids and what have you, now the war is over and you can do it.” So, we did a five shilling do-it-yourself fill-in-the-forms and they just got stamped by some clerk behind the counter and that’s how I became Vern Leslie Gooch.

Vern has had a good life in Perth. But that didn’t stop him from returning to visit his home town.

Several times—but the first two times I went back and it was East Germany—Russians and Communist. Then the last time was 2015, when it was all western and it was all clean and nice.

For instance, the business changed hands again or got a different name. But the interesting thing about the main street—where the department store is on the corner of—is now a pedestrian mall. But when my father was there, the main street was called Jew Street. So when the Nazis came in and Anglicised the German businesses, the street was  renamed Adolf Hitler Street. Then the Russians came in and it was Joseph Stalin Street. And now it has changed back to Jew Street. So what goes around comes around, doesn’t it?

Copyright © 2018 Vern Gooch

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

This story was collected in 2018. Images courtesy of Raema Gooch.

© 2019 Centre for Stories / Site by Super Minimal