Brotterode, Thüringer Forest, Germany (formerly East Germany)
Frankfurt, West Germany on 28 June 1969
Sydney on 28 June 1969
Fairy Meadow for 9 months
Own home in Dapto, Illawarra
Tiler for local builder Mr Molando at Fera shoe shop, Fairy Meadow, Wollongong
Tile distributor in Wollongong; Warrigal Homes; self-employed tiler
I was born in 1943 in a small town in the Thüringer Forest called Brotterode. In those days it was Germany but we became East Germany. The Russians took everything away to Russia. East Germany was very, very poor. Well, we didn’t have hardly anything to eat. Food was bloody terrible.
My mum died, 1945, of TB (tuberculosis). And my father came back from the [Second World] war. He married another woman so we moved to Eisenach, not far where the Russians occupied. I entered school, 1949 until 1957. I had a brother, a sister and a stepbrother. Because of my stepmother we didn’t have really good childhood, they were bloody cruel. That’s why I left home when I was 14 years of age. After the war the Communists confiscated everything and made [it] government owned. The monks had to escape to the west. [Their] monastery [became] a farm to train apprentices in agriculture. So that’s what I done for two years. We had to work like bloody slaves, when you compare with nowadays. When I finished in 1959 I milk[ed] cows in the farm again. Where else would I find a job?
They wanted me, virtually everybody, to join the Communist youth organisation. I always hated them, even as a kid. And I still hate them just as much as I did 40 years ago.
We lived very close to the border and you see Western cars coming through. Nobody had nothing in the East. The Westerners they must have known, you know. We waved at the West cars and they opened their windows and throw lollies to us and we rush like a swarm of flies. It was a dream for us.
In those days a lot of people escaped to the West because they didn’t have [strict] border security [until] they built the wall of Berlin in ‘61. They were allowed to come in as visitors and had motor scooters, the clothes, chocolates and chewing gum. We didn’t have anything. So I adored the West, and the quality of the West. The East produce was just rubbish. You could not compare with the West. If you’re a Westerner you could not imagine what we suffered in the East by not having what Westerners had. I would have paid, for example, any amount of money just to get a pair of normal jeans. We couldn’t get those sort of things.
Then in February 1961 I had enough. I didn’t have any shower facilities where I worked, nothing. So that’s why I volunteered to join the East German border guards. You could not change your job. You had to go to the government authorities and ask. They would have asked me, “Where do you work now? Sorry. You have to stay there,” because nobody wanted to work [at the farm]. You could not [say], “Okay. Then I’m not going to work.” After seven days they would have put me in the labour camp.
After I joined the guards I had to do eight weeks training in the city of Erfurt, big army barracks. After that we were distributed along the border. I came back to Eisenach. Our instructions were to protect the easterners from the West. It was for the first time, [I] didn’t have to work [hard]. It’s like a bludging life, running around with a Kalashnikov rifle. It was an easy life. Then came the 13th of August. That was when the wall was built in Berlin. It happened to be on a Sunday morning. From then on East Germany was an ocean of army, police, fire volunteer, fighting troops. Russian troop carriers came to the border.
One morning, the alarm went off. I thought, “that’s the end”. We moved towards the border, wait[ed] for a couple of hours and then pulled back again. What a relief. You had the feeling World War Three is starting any minute, and we were on the front line. That’s how it felt. And I was 17½ then. Can you imagine that?
My sister got six months’ jail for trying to escape so she was an enemy of the state. And because I listened to Western radio, I was the black sheep in the division.
One day my little niece, eight years of age, said to us, “Willy Brandt is a very bad man”. Willy Brandt was Lord Mayor of West Berlin and later on became Chancellor of West Germany. If I said, “Oh, that’s not right, he’s a good man,” the girl would have said to the teacher, “No, my uncle said Willie Brandt is alright, he’s a good man”. The East German spies would have picked me up in half an hour. I looked in [her] reading exercise book [and] it has how American soldiers march in West Germany and all sort of propaganda. Just create hatred in the little ones against the West. Not just normal stories. I couldn’t believe it.
You could not trust the other person. I said to this lance corporal, “Oh, one day, I’ll sell my motorbike and piss off”. Just a conversation. We always talked and listened to the Western radio, no problem whatsoever. He dobbed me in so I got court martialled 22 months for ‘trying to escape’.
We had to work in the salt mine which is 1,014 metres down. I worked there three months. Very dangerous, full of ethane and methane gas. One day, one of my prisoner colleagues, in front of us, a big rock fell down. If I would have been ten seconds faster, I wouldn’t be sitting here now. The prison was absolutely miserable. You didn’t have toilet facilities. The food was bloody terrible.
After being released early from prison, I decided to escape [from East Germany] one Saturday night. A friend drove me to the five kilometre security zone and from then on I was on foot towards the border. This was very difficult as it was still daylight at 10pm so it’s possible to be caught by the guards which constantly patrol this area. I reached the newly installed wire fence when it became dark and crossed both fences exactly seven minutes past two on Sunday morning. The freedom was unique. To be away from the East. From being followed, spied on all the time. It was a relief, you know. It was unbelievable.
I walked into West Germany where I reported myself to a miller at 4am, he was making flour. He took me [to the] Red Cross station and the ladies there made me something to eat and the bathroom ready so I could refresh. Somebody else reported me to West German customs. And body search. I said, “What are you doing that for? I just escaped, you know”. “For our own security because sometimes so-called escapees pull the revolver out and force somebody back to the East.” When you heard those sort of things, it’s frightening.
I came to Giessen, a big refugee camp, then Geisingen near the Black Forest. Here I found my first West German job and later on met my future wife at Tuttlingen, a nearby town.
I [did] a little bit of shop handling so I could earn a bit of money [to] buy a pair of jeans, Western outfits. I only had what I was wearing, I didn’t have anything else. At that shop, that fellow had an electrical installation business and he needed somebody. I thought electrician is better than a labourer. But then one day, I nearly died. I got 380 volts through my body, knocked me from the ladder down. Most people would have died. But the doctor who examined me for army purposes said I’ve got a strong heart.
One of my colleagues said, “Why don’t you [become] a tiler, they earn good money”. I started my apprenticeship in the next town [at] a building company. That was 1st of April 1963. I had to complete for 2½ years and I got my trade certificate in 1965. I became a ceramic tiler and loved the job. After one year I was already capable of [working] for private customers. When I entered the second year apprenticeship, I made my driver’s licence, bought myself a second-hand car. As an electrician, I would have never had the chance.
[These tools] all come from West Germany. This is a typical southern German tiler’s trowel. The shape of the blade is like a heart. I have never seen anybody with a trowel like this [anywhere] else. This is a hammer to knock little holes into the tile or into the wall for plumbing. And then the parrot mouth pliers, where you open up the hole further [to] have the proper size. This is a pair of normal pincers or pliers for cutting bits and pieces of tiles. This is a nylon string line with a plumb. That’s where you put your plumb on the walls, left and right, and then you put another string line right across and you [place] your tilework against the string line [for] a straight line.
Nowadays if you tile a wall, the wall’s already cement-rendered or already ‘plumb’ [and] you spread your glue. You still have to check the walls for unevenness but some of [those] items [are now] outdated. But I had to use them when I came to Australia as I didn’t have any other tools.
Siggi and I got married and had our first child, Jürgen, in 1967. There was hardly any work and winter was very severe. As a tiler in the building trade in Germany, it is very hard because of the long winter season. You can’t lay tiles while it’s frosty. On a building site, two chaps talked about Australia. One used to work for BHP and talked about how good it was. He gave me the address of the Australian Consulate in Stuttgart and we got an interview.
[It was to] create a better life for ourselves. I thought Australia is a warm country. You could work, if I wanted to, say 365 days a year. While in Germany, if you’re lucky you can work maybe 150 days. So that’s already a difference in income.
[Migrating] was a big hurdle. [Siggi] had three brothers, was the only girl and the youngest. Her parents were absolutely against their daughter goes to Australia, “Oh, so far away, we’ll never see each other again”. I was a former Easterner, it was always a little bit of prejudice in Germany against the East. Like, you were not really a German. Specially when you came to southern Germany, you’re not a real local. That’s how they treated you. So therefore I was the black sheep in my in-law’s family.
We left on the 28th of June in 1969 when we flew from Frankfurt. It cost us only 265 deutschmarks at the time, which would have been $60 for my wife and my son to fly out here. [We were] assisted migrants. If we returned within two years to Germany, you would have had to pay the money back.
We went to Stuttgart, by train from Stuttgart to Frankfurt, then from Frankfurt we flown to Athens. Athens, at the time, was when the military took over and the airport was full of soldiers with machine guns. It was frightening. I thought there was a war somewhere. After we went to Karachi or Bangkok? Or was it Singapore? Then Sydney.
We didn’t have any influence whatsoever [in our Australian destination]. In Sydney we had to get out of the plane, sit down in a transit lounge and suddenly a bus came. Where we went we didn’t know. We remember we came down Mount Ousley Road and then to Fairy Meadow hostel. At the time I didn’t know it was a hostel with all them Nissen huts. To me it looked like we came to a nursery for growing flowers and little gardens, only stopping here for a moment. Suddenly, “Come on, get out,” and each one got a stack of blankets, then, “D29, this is your room”. This was one of them Nissen huts. Siggi, my wife, was crying when she seen that. They were primitive. And the food in the hostel!
In the summer time [the huts] were stinking hot and in the winter time freezing cold. It was terrible. My wife used to say, “You could live anywhere. You’re like a gypsy”. But she wasn’t. Jürgen was about 2½. He adapted very quickly [but] it was hard, yeah. Especially because the hostel had a communal shower, communal toilets outside. Every time Siggi opened her drawer to go through the baby clothes, the bloody mice jumped out. Oh, it was terrible. The hostel was a place you should remain only for a short period and move. We could have moved into a flat if I would have known the system. In Germany you have to bring the kitchen cupboards and everything. That’s not the same as over here.
After a while, [Siggi] adapted. Everybody adapts. We made some friends in the hostel and they looked after us. They helped us find a block of land in Dapto and those sort of things. And we were invited sometimes to go up to their homes. Also my wife was pregnant. And her parents didn’t even know. She was already in the fourth month when we left. Mick got born in November in the Wollongong Hospital. He’s a “Melbourne Cup boy” but I didn’t know what’s a Melbourne Cup, but I was told you’re lucky. So she had her hands full with Jürgen and then with Mick.
We got a builder to build us a house. The builder said, “Okay he starts in September, you’ll be easy in by Christmas”. [So] why would we move [to] a flat? But Christmas went past, Easter went past and we were still in the hostel. The hostel manager rang the bank manager and the bank manager rang the builder, “Come on, hurry up. Those people want to get out of the hostel”. So a fortnight after Easter in 1970, we moved into the newly-built house.
I was one of the fortunate ones, I had $3,500 when we came out here. After eight days I [worked] as a tiler. My first job was in Fairy Meadow – Fera shoeshop. That was [for] a local builder, Mr Molando. The tiles are still there after 40 years. I think it could be still a shoeshop on the corner. McDonalds used to be next door, which burned down a few years ago. The next job was in Balgownie Road, the TAB. I think the shop has gone, they are townhouses nowadays. Then I used to work for a tile distributors in Wollongong. Two brothers owned that shop from Sydney. And they were absolutely top chaps, you know.
Before I left Germany, I attended an English course. It helped me to get into the English here a lot quicker. But when the Aussie carpenter talked, you know, “f***in’ hell” and “f***in’ this”, I couldn’t understand a word. What did I say? “Yes, yes, yes.” That’s how it was. But after a little while I got into it a lot quicker. I had to deal with my customers so I had to learn English, otherwise you’ll be unsuccessful in business.
In the first six weeks I didn’t have a car. I done a job down in Beatson Street in Wollongong, ten flats. They were all with sand and cement and all my items [would have] come very handy. Somebody borrowed me a cutter until my own luggage arrived. We sent everything away in Germany end of May and the items started to arrive in November. In November! Can you imagine this? And I was here without tools.
I found [the Illawarra] very promising and here you earned good money. Everything was cheap, you know, when I compare at that time. There was another couple we met on the plane. He earned $33 a week in the steelworks. I earned maybe $200 a week. Here I really got the benefit of my workmanship which I didn’t get over there. I had my own tiling business as a subcontractor, subbie.
We had money for a house, deposit for the land and paid off my house within three years. In Germany I would have lived all my life in a flat with that little income I had over there, I can assure you.
We lived in Dapto up to 1990. In 1984 we bought another land in Dapto and moved into that new place I had built. We lived there until 2002; so we lived in Dapto for 32 years. I wanted to live in Wollongong because I bought a property years ago, developed it, and live in a penthouse and have a nice life, going to the beach every day and, you know, everything is within minutes’ walking distance.
I had to give up my job since Siggi got diagnosed with Alzheimers in 2003. I’ve been the carer. When you look after somebody with Alzheimers it’s a 24 hour job, you know. It was very frustrating, especially towards the last few years. Very hard.
The assistance I got from the Wollongong Council, the health department, Alzheimer Council, day care centres, the hospital was absolutely incredible. I adore the Australian system. I just couldn’t sign the papers for a nursing home. But then I had to while I had my hernia operation. It was not possible anymore to keep Siggi at home. So she entered on the 5th of April 2006 to the nursing home. She passed away 5th of April 2008. She was only 59 years of age.
Of course you’ve got your ups and downs, but I couldn’t imagine myself living anywhere else. This is the best place I could have ever been. I would never think of swapping with anywhere else. Especially here in Wollongong, it’s just wonderful. The only thing I regret, why did I live for 32 years in Dapto?
Andrea Fernandes, NSW Migration Heritage Centre
21 November 2008
With assistance from the Illawarra Migration Heritage Project