Sokol, Galicja, Poland (now Ukraine)
Naples, Italy in December 1950
Melbourne in February 1951
With uncle in Moorabbin, Melbourne
My mother used to rent out rooms in our house to new Jewish migrants.
Clinic at Sydney University and practices in Chatswood (Sydney’s lower north shore) and China.
My family, named Altstock, come from a little place called Zlochov near Lvov, which used to be in south-west Poland. Before the [Second World] war my father was the doctor in Zlochov. He had graduated from Bologna, Italy, as Jews were not permitted to study medicine in Poland. My parents had been childhood sweethearts and got married young. When the war came my father was virtually kidnapped by Polish partisans. He told them that his wife was a nurse so they could stay together. He rapidly taught her the basics. It was unusual for the partisans to take a Jew into their movement, but they had wounded men.
We were fortunate to survive the war which was spent living in the woods with the partisans. My mother told me that life with the partisans was extremely difficult and there were times when she had to eat grass to be able to produce some milk in order to feed me. Other times she would go to farms, patch up anyone that was sick and get some basic food. She was a very shaken lady as I got to know later, but a wonderful person right up to the end of her 86 years.
After the war my family left Poland for Germany. Jews could not migrate directly from Poland to another country, they had to first go to Germany. We began in Ulm (Germany), which was one of the centres for refugees and Displaced Persons. Finally we went to Munich and had to live there for three years before the migration was organised.
We left Germany in 1950 with the big wave of migration into Australia; we left for Melbourne, where my mother’s brother had settled. I was six years old. On the way to Naples to get our boat we visited Pompeii. I remember my mother kept telling me not to look at the ruins because there were fossilized humans. But I did, anyway. By that time I had a sister. She was very young, only two years old, and was always quite seasick. I remember running around the boat with other kids. On the way we stopped in Colombo (Sri Lanka) where the boat replenished supplies. We walked around and I remember hanging onto the tail of a cow.
My uncle met us at Melbourne and took us to his home. [Later] I remember very distinctly how my mother used to rent out rooms in our house. Mr & Mrs Korn and their daughter Ann stayed in one room and shared the kitchen. It was like a little shtetl1 living in a community of migrants.
Virtually one week after arriving I was sent off to a local school in Moorabbin (Melbourne). I couldn’t speak a single word of English. I recall this period as a very difficult time. One incident I will never forget was when I couldn’t communicate with the teacher that I needed to go to the toilet. As a result I soiled my pants and was sent home. I was so embarrassed. Another way in which I felt different was that I didn’t have a middle name. One day, after watching and being impressed with Camelot on the television, I chose the name Lancelot. I became Sigmund Lance Ebert. After about a year or so, I remember my school years as a good experience. I completed my schooling at Melbourne High.
I worked at Sydney University in a clinic developing programs for kids with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) for three or four years, then opened my own practice in Chatswood. I assessed and worked with hundreds of children. And then I was appointed an International Director through Macquarie University to help establish reading programs in China.
For many years, I delivered lectures in various parts of China to teachers and English professors. Two years ago, at the age of 60, I retired from that and decided to open up my own centre for teaching English at Hangzhou. Now we have the pleasure of travelling to the Shanghai region fairly regularly, about four times a year.
I was this little migrant kid who turned up at age seven without a word of English. Interestingly, since then I have a Masters in Special Education and have written books on the English language for kids with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and various other programs. And now I tell this story to my Chinese students in China, who are trying to learn English.
I returned back to the place of my birth for the first time, just two years ago. I retraced my roots and our steps, covering most of the journey. Sokal is a little village, about 20kms into the mountains above Zlochov, which is in the region called Galicja. Our village, which was in Poland, is now in the Ukraine, which made it all very difficult. I went in for 48 hours and walked along the cobblestone streets in the village where my mother was born. Both her and my father’s original family homes were destroyed because the Ukrainians demolished all houses that belonged to Jews. They didn’t want the Jews to claim them back after the war. My wise old uncle of 92 who lives in Melbourne said before we left, “don’t knock on any doors, don’t tell them you’re Jewish, have a look and get out of the place”. We took his advice. They have maintained their fear of the Jews returning and claiming property.
We did a 500km return trip to get to the villages. It was a 12 hour journey from Lvov to the villages where my mother used to do her shopping in Tarnapol and surrounding areas and then back to Lvov. That was where they lived and spent most of their life. I chose not to return to Munich; I have an aversion of going into Germany. I clearly remember our apartment in Munich, especially the Shabbat (Sabbath) evenings and Pesach (Passover) in particular because there were so many of us together for the occasion.
This hand painted matzah2 cover for Pesach was in my visual memory since being a little boy. My mother bought it in Munich in 1948 at the same time as buying this Bohemian crystal which has always been used in our family for the Kiddush 3 wine.
I’ve been married for 37 years and have two wonderful children and a granddaughter. Ben is 32 and a registered psychologist who works in business management doing counselling and placements. My daughter, Natalie, who changed her name to Nogah when she went to live in Israel to get married, is a nutritionist and now has a small organic farm about a half an hour out of Byron Bay. And so it’s been an interesting journey out of the forests of Zlochov in Galicja, Poland to the rainforests where my daughter lives in the Byron Bay region. It’s been a wonderful journey and Australia is a wonderful country. We’ve been very thankful.
2. Matzah is the unleavened bread eaten on Pesach (Passover). It is flat and crisp; made without yeast. Matzah covers have three separate pouches, one for each Matzah used at the seder, the Passover meal.
3. Kiddush is the blessing that is said on a Friday night, greeting the Sabbath.