55My name is Peter Pulver.  I was born in Berlin in August, 1936.  My parents fled Berlin two weeks after Krystalnacht.[1]  When I was two and a bit, we went by train to Trieste from where they caught a ship to Shanghai.   Shanghai was an open port you could just arrive.   They had found accommodation in a two or three-storey house in what was then the international settlement because also, a couple of my fathers’ aunties were living in the same building.

My father set up a business with one or two partners in ladies’ dresses and my mother, together with my father’s sister, set up a small children’s wear shop in what was then the French settlement.   My mother, who had been a private secretary in Germany could speak fluent English and French.  My aunty was a tradesperson and they were making their own stuff there.   All was well and I started going to school at the Shanghai Jewish School.

When the Japs came, there was a dramatic change.   My father’s business was closed down.   We had to move; a Chinese General liked the place we were living in and we promptly got kicked out.   The rest of the family moved to the ghetto area, and we lived behind the shop which was pretty small.  It was a workroom during the day and we slept there at night.   As I mentioned before my father’s business got closed down, but once the ghetto was set up like that, the funds that came from the Iraqi Jews who helped and money that came from the Joint Distribution Board in America dried up and there was the problem of all those refugees that were penniless and my father was the Honorary Secretary of the Kitchen Fund which raised money by all sorts of means to try to help these people and that was my father’s work all the through the war while mother and aunty supported us.

44After the war, my parents and my aunty made contact with people they knew and one was an old boyfriend of my aunty’s.  He had a brother here in Australia and he arranged permits for us to come to Australia.   We left on a ship called the General Gordon which was a converted troop carrier to Hong Kong where we were supposed to stay for a week until the Duntroon came to pick us all up and bring us to Australia.   You might laugh at this, but we were put up at The Peninsula Hotel.  Don’t laugh, don’t laugh.    We were put up in the ballroom on stretchers with a big rope down the middle and sheets and women on this side and men on that side.   It was supposed to be for a week and then there was a political problem here in Australia and people were saying: “How can they use this ship to bring refos (refugees) here when we still got our troops stuck in the Middle East”.  So it got cancelled.   We were there for six months.

They started shipping people out in smaller lots and providing you were prepared to hand a few dollars under the table to certain people but my father was a highly-principled person he wouldn’t do that so we were among the last to leave.     We were there for six months.

How did you survive during that time? 

Well they fed us; mutton everyday with the consequence that I wouldn’t even kiss my kids goodnight if they’d had a lamb chops because the very smell of it….

Noemi(Peter): “He’s never eaten lamb since”.

We came to Australia.  And…. accommodation was hard.   Do you know the restaurant in St Kilda road called ‘The Williows’?   Well, the front room was our bedroom for a few months until my parents eventually found a half-house in Moonee Ponds.     We lived there until I was seventeen and then we moved to St Kilda.

11Was that to be closer to the Jewish community? 

There was no Jewish community anywhere near where we lived.  Ironically, we’re very friendly with someone now who lived around the corner.  His father was actually our doctor but because of the age difference, we didn’t even know each other back then.

I went to Essendon Grammar School.   My Jewish education was on Sundays.  I caught the train from Moonee Ponds station to Windsor from there I walked down to Temple Beth Israel and had my religious instructions.  I had my Bar Mitzvah there and soon as it was over, I said: “I’m not going anymore; I’ve had enough of this”.

How did your parents react to that? 

I think they just accepted it.  My parents were not overly religious.  They went to synagogue on the important days.   They went to synagogue just to acknowledge the death of their parents etcetera but apart from that they didn’t go very much.   My mother was a convert but my mother didn’t convert to marry, she converted much earlier because her father was Jewish and her mother wasn’t.  So she wasn’t classified as Jewish.  She converted, but not to marry and they were never really terribly religious.   Like so many Jews, including in Israel.

How do you define it? It’s a community.  People have a different idea of what a Jewish identity is.    

Noemi:  It’s more cultural than religious.

Peter: Yes, I know for a fact that at one time in business my wife was calling on a sports store, a ball shop in Dandenong and finally the conversation came around that she was Jewish and this woman said: “ Ohhhhh, you belong to that weird sect”.   And I said to Bette afterwards, if that woman in this part of the world here and she drove around Glen Eira road on a Saturday and she saw these crazy religos with their fur hats and wearing big black coats, yeah well you say you’re Jewish, f that’s all she’d ever saw, well….they don’t

understand that we have this huge level of culture and what we’re involved with in the community.

33Are there particular photos from that time that are meaningful to you? 

Noemi: The first time we went back, we were invited.

Peter:  There was an entrepreneur, a Chinese guy a top artist who had had Jewish neighbours when he was younger was going to make a film.    He got in touch with Professor Pan.    Now when Professor Pan came here, he said with you (Noemi) and so when this guy got in touch with the Professor, well that’s how we got invited to China.

Anyway, this whole mob of us went.   Some from Australia, some from Israel, some from Germany, some from America.    The film was….it could have been a damn sight better.    We decided then, well hell, we’re here, we’ll do a whole tour.   Well, I’ve been back since we took our children and our spouses our grandchildren to go and have a look.   I found where my grandparents lived because they were in the ghetto.   We found the shop which by that stage was a Hugo Boss shop, with much difficulty, we managed to convince them to let us inside so I could stand there and say: “hey, I used to sleep right here!”

We also found the school where I went to which was then a military something or other.   I went and couldn’t get past the guard, we tried everything.    Eventually, my wife with gestures managed to show them and finally the penny dropped and they let us in.    So we could walk around and stand in the room.

What was the school? 

Noemi: It was the Shanghai Jewish School, that was different.  Mine was called the Kadoorie school.

It was all in English so when I arrived in Australia I had a beautiful American accent!

So, being in this area that you called “The Ghetto”, it was a Jewish community.   So, what about day-to-day interactions with Chinese people, was that part of your life? 

Peter:  Well I can remember many interactions.    The seamstresses that my aunty and my mother employed, I can remember being invited to a wedding.  What a lovely wedding!    Well, I learned very early how to use chopsticks.   The food was typical Chinese, you took your chopsticks and you dug in, everywhere and you got to think of China in that era with tuberculosis and people spitting in the streets and you were in no in a hurry to pop your chopsticks in after everyone else’s had been there.

Noemi:   There used to be dead children on the streets in the mornings.

Peter:   You learnt to be very, very quick to eat before anyone else started.    Yes, there was some interaction there and I dare say my father may have had interaction while he was still in business.    But certainly my mother and my aunty, they catered for a European clientele.   Well, those that weren’t interned when the Japs came.

Noemi: Anyone with a British passport was interned.  So a lot of the Iraqis, they all had British passports.

Whereas those you came from Germany?

Noemi: We were stateless, we had no papers.

[1] Kristallnacht – or Crystal night, otherwise known as the night of broken glass was the term given to the night of 9-10 November 1938 when across Germany, German Nazi soldiers smashed the windows of shop windows belonging to Jewish merchants, and Jewish houses and apartments were destroyed and synogogues were set on fire.