IE journalist Sue Osborne witnessed Egon Sonnenschein, Holocaust survivor, tell his story during a school excursion in late 2019.
Egon was born in 1930 in Ptuj, Yugoslavia. He was 10 when Germany attacked Yugoslavia in April 1941 and his life on the run began.
The family fled to his grandparents’ home in Croatia, a puppet Nazi state run by the brutal Ustashi, whose cruelty rivalled that of the most abominable regimes. Egon recalled looking out the window to see men, women and children tied together being marched to the river at bayonet point. Once at the river, some were beaten to death with hammers. The dead were tied to the living, and both were pushed into the river. Those tied to the dead drowned. Egon later walked by the river and saw the disfigured bodies. He said he didn’t stop shaking until well after the war had ended.
In another instance, Egon heard of villagers locked into a church that was then doused in petrol and set alight. He said Jews were not allowed to work or have money or any means of transport, not even bicycles. “We were sitting ducks,” he said. Signs around the town said “No Jews, Roma or dogs allowed to sit on park benches”.
The Sonnenscheins survived thanks to the generosity of the town mayor, a former student of Egon’s grandfather, who saved more than 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 Slovenia, 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 this exchange, Egon’s father noticed his own beautiful carpet was laid out on the floor, and realised 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”.
The Sonnenscheins later made their way to Israel – where they lived for seven years – before settling in South Africa for 26 years. In 1983, Egon, his wife Miriam and their four children came to Australia.
Egon told the students he had learnt to “never give up”, to appreciate family and education, to look for good things and put bad things behind you, that helping people is a privilege, to treat everybody as you want to be treated, and that the glass is always half full.