Unlike many descendants of Dunera and Queen Mary passengers, Joannah Huntley came to her family’s internee history comparatively late. Her great grandparents, Gerti and Paul Schlesinger, were deported from Singapore on the Queen Mary, but geographical distance, divorce and the premature death of their daughter Eve Schlesinger, Joannah's grandmother, meant that Joannah's father, Colin, grew up somewhat detached from this part of his family and its history.
In the last two years Joannah has delved increasingly into this chapter of their lives. A family friend from Melbourne, who her parents met by chance when he was lodging with them in Yorkshire in 2008, laid the groundwork for this investigation, and in 2018 Joannah picked up where their friend left off.
Joannah explains that, in spite of her father's life-long interest in history, he had not explored his own family's story. Colin did know that his mother's family were Viennese Jews who had emigrated to Singapore before the outbreak of the Second World War; that his grandparents, Gerti and Paul Schlesinger, had been naturalised in Australia, where they would remain for the rest of their lives; that his mother, Eve, 16 at the time, had married his father, Alfred Henry Huntley, a British Royal Navy Reserve Officer closer in age to her parents than to her; and that when this marriage dissolved, Colin moved with his father from Singapore back to Britain, while his mother remarried and moved to Kenya, where she died tragically in 1954.
But there was far more to this story. One of the biggest pieces of the puzzle fell into place when Joannah's sister, Karen, contacted someone through an advertisement for a holiday rental – a man who shared the name of the maternal half-brother Colin had long known he had, but with whom he had never been in contact. Many years earlier, at his grandmother Gerti's insistence, Colin had sent a wedding invitation to his half-brother, Julian. He never heard back, and assumed this meant his half-brother had no interest in making a connection. Colin did not pursue the relationship.
But it turned out the invitation never arrived: indeed Julian, Eve's child from her second marriage, was unaware he had a half-brother until 2000. When his father died and Julian began sorting through family heirlooms, he happened upon the baby book Eve had curated meticulously for the first few years of Colin's life. At that time, shocked by the discovery, Julian didn't feel ready to make contact, but when Joannah’s sister reached out, he responded.
The brothers finally met in 2018, and Joannah describes it as a 'very therapeutic and comforting experience' for both men. They realised how their lives had paralleled each other's in many ways. Both men had grown up without a mother: Eve had died when Julian was four and Colin was twelve and, though unusual for the time, they had been raised mainly by their fathers. Eventually Julian and his father had returned to Britain, and both he and Colin grew up there and were educated at boarding schools. While Joannah acknowledges that her father received a very good education, and the challenges her grandfather must have faced raising such a young child alone, her impression is that her father's childhood was 'quite unhappy and disrupted…he grew up with little female influence in his life and of course losing his mother at just twelve must have been quite traumatic and brought an end to any hope of possibly reuniting'. It was not until he met Julian in 2018 that Colin discovered his mother had desperately, if unsuccessfully, fought to maintain custody following the divorce.
Julian shared with Colin a number of photos, letters, and the baby book. One page in particular stood out and provided a key to discovering more about the family’s history. It was a record of Colin's third birthday at '12 Vale Street, Melbourne' – Vale Street, St Kilda, according to Joannah. The page details the gifts young Colin received, including a toy train and plane, some ABC letter bricks, and Freddo frogs, a popular frog-shaped chocolate bar. Importantly, the page listed all those present, namely members of the Seefeld and Liebrecht families.
In 2020, Joannah got in touch with some of these people and discovered 'that many of the party guests were still living' and had memories of her grandmother and great grandparents. She learned that the Seefeld and Liebrecht family histories paralleled her own. They too had roots in Europe, had emigrated to Singapore and were deported to Australia, where they were interned at Tatura.
For Joannah, these memories were not received 'family history' so much as stories she intentionally sought out. She has spent many hours poring over various archives and historical documents to gain a deeper understanding of her family's past and was lucky to find several sources with useful and often detailed information.
In Vienna, Paul had worked as a stockbroker and Gerti had been the director of a private gymnastics school. They were both avid bridge players, competing with their teams across Europe – their bridge trophies were among the belongings they brought with them to Singapore. The family lived at 58 Porzellangasse, which had been in the family since 1900: 'Gerti's parents lived there, Gerti was born there and Eve lived her whole life in Vienna there too.'
Joannah took this photo (above) in front of the family's former home when she visited Vienna in 2019. She holds a picture of Eve, Gerti and Paul, taken in Perth in 1948, eight years after the family was first separated. Eve's marriage to Alfred Huntley meant that she was not deported with her parents to Australia, but instead remained in Singapore, where she worked for St John's Ambulance. Joannah writes that the marriage between Eve and her much older husband 'always struck me as odd… until I understood the greater historical and political context of the times. The marriage was undoubtedly a means to safeguard Eve by her securing a new identity, British nationality and subsequent freedom from internment in 1940'.
Paul and Gerti, after being deported to Australia aboard the Queen Mary, were interned in Camp 3, Tatura. There, Paul became active in camp politics. He was described by the commanding officer of the camp as 'strong-willed and domineering' and his general conduct as 'unsatisfactory, has been on a hunger strike, has much influence in the camp which has been used on occasions against the camp Authorities'. This was at odds with the very positive references from employees which can be found in records at the National Archives of Australia, and likely indicated that the authorities had a dislike for strong-willed individuals. Their comments do not seem a true reflection of Paul's character.
Paul was released from internment early in June 1942, and like many others joined the 8th Employment Company, Australian Army, serving until February 1943, when he was discharged for being medically unfit. After he was discharged he found work as an accountant for a company in South Melbourne. Gerti found employment as a cashier at a South Melbourne company.
It is unclear how soon Paul and Gerti were able to re-establish contact with Eve, though there must have been an extended period of time during which they knew little of their daughter's whereabouts. Among the documents Joannah has found was an application completed by her great-grandparents in February 1942 requesting release from internment in Tatura. Three things stand out, writes Joannah: 'under the "children" section, Eve's name is mentioned and Gerti writes "probably evacuated to India"… under the section "other relatives", there is mention of Gerti's father and Gerti writes "probably went to Poland"… Under "reason for departure" Gerti states "to escape Nazi persecution"'.
Eve, as it turned out, did not go to India on the fall of Singapore, but rather to Ceylon, where Colin was born in March 1942. Eve and Alfred Huntley then travelled to Cape Town, arriving when Colin was five weeks old. 'Eve was well travelled and presumably quite uprooted as a result,' writes Joannah. Her father Colin 'celebrated his first birthday in South Africa, his second birthday in London and his third in Melbourne'.
Eve remarried in June 1948 and 'led quite the socialite lifestyle in her new marriage'. Joannah has put together information from articles written about events Eve and her husband attended or hosted. Some even described in detail Eve's clothing, which enabled Joannah to date more accurately the photos in Eve's private albums. The years that followed are harder to trace, though Joannah was able to establish a rough timeline based on the arrival and departure dates in Eve's passport. She knows that Eve and her second husband lived in Singapore, travelled to Europe in autumn 1950, and later relocated to Nairobi, where her husband had a job with Shell. 'There are sadly no photos of this period,' writes Joannah. Eve died in Nairobi on 23 December 1954.
'My sister's and my naïve and highly misguided understanding of Eve at that time was simply that she'd married and had a child at a ridiculously young age… I deeply regret this because I feel I so badly misjudged the Schlesingers’ true plight' writes Joannah. 'I would have loved to have known my grandmother and for her to tell her own story in her own words, as she and her parents experienced it… Additionally I would have loved to have known what Eve's dreams were for her life as a teenager growing up in Vienna before her world, and that of her contemporaries, was turned upside down. I have often thought of that.'
Joannah's father, Colin Huntley, died in March 2020. 'He was always very interested in all my discoveries,' writes Joannah, 'but was often perplexed that he had been so utterly oblivious to the real picture'. Colin spent some time with Gerti and Paul as a young child and visited Gerti for an extended period during his university years in the early 1960s. They did not see each other again thereafter, though they communicated often by letter. When Joannah shared what she had learned with her father many years later, 'he often shook his head in disbelief, saying Gerti had never ever mentioned any of it to him'.
Though the wedding invitation Colin sent to his brother went unanswered, until her death Gerti continued to encourage him to connect with Julian. Gerti knew that Eve had always hoped the brothers would meet: 'I think her insistence was testament to her own suffering, that the brothers, representing all that remained of Eve, were kept apart and a desire to fulfill her daughter's life wish'. Though the connection came very late in Colin's life, and Gerti was no longer alive when the two brothers did finally meet in 2018, Joannah is certain 'she would have been thrilled'.
All photographs © Joannah Huntley.
Author: Kate Garrett