It only takes an hour to read the life story of Holocaust survivor George Winston but the impression it leaves will last much longer.
The 78-year-old Katoomba resident is the first client of personal historian Megan Wynne-Jones who conducted a series of interviews with Mr Winston to produce a published account of his life. The booklet is filled with old photographs and gripping first-hand accounts of his stoic negotiation through two wars, his experiences arriving in Sydney as a 16-year-old refugee, his mid-life win in a battle against depression and his dedication ever since to helping others in need.
“Megan approached me a few months ago and I had no hesitation because I’ve got nothing to hide,” he said.
“I was one of those badly damaged people from the Holocaust, I did a lot of therapy in my 40s and 50s which forced me to be open and now it is a privilege to be free of all that and be a normal human being again.
“It’s been a very healing and meaningful process [doing a memoir], it’s been important for me and I hope people find my story interesting.”
Mr Winston was born in the Polish city of Lwow (now in the Ukraine) in 1934 as ‘Jerzy Weinberg’ and had a happy childhood in an affluent suburb until his world fell apart when the Nazis occupied eastern Poland in 1941.
By his mid-teens Mr Winston had lived in five countries and could speak five languages, yet he attended school only sporadically.
“I wasn’t circumcised or given an Old Testament name because my mother didn’t want me being readily identifiable as a Jew,” he recalls in the booklet.
“After only a week [under German occupation] all Jews were ordered to move to an area in the Jewish Quarter, there were over 100,000 people living there, there were 17 of us in one room . . . and Lwow ghetto was one of the first to have Jews transported to death camps.”
A combination of luck, quick thinking by his mother and the decision to hide out in non-Jewish households saw the family escape harm that year.
“German soldiers arrived at the house with a list of resident children, demanding to take me away, but mum had seen them coming and had me taken away via a back door,” he said.
Mr Winston’s father Eugene fled to the relative safety of Romania and when conditions became even more dangerous in Lwow, his mother decided to pay a people smuggler to shift herself and her son to join him, using a new identity: Sokolowski.
Mr Winston’s grandmother was unable to flee and the family later heard she had perished in a concentration camp after staying with a non-Jewish friend whose daughter denounced her to the German authorities to get a reward.
Mr Winston remembers people smugglers carrying him across an icy river to the Romanian border on a particularly freezing night “when the German guards would have been in their hut drinking coffee rather than out in the cold”.
After months of Bucharest being bombed by the Allies, the Soviets gained control of Romania and Mr Winston’s family were lucky to obtain an exit visa from the new government and an entry visa to the British Mandate of Palestine in January 1945.
Arriving in Haifa after a long and eventful rail journey, Mr Winston’s family regained their surname and freedom but could only earn just enough money to cover rent and food.
Three years later when the State of Israel was declared, they survived yet another war — the first Arab-Israeli war.
“I got shot at by a sniper once from a neighbouring village who was on the roof presumably with a good telescopic sight — I was 14 I think and I heard a bullet whistle and without any training I hit the sand like a soldier.”
Mr Winston recalls his mother saying they had endured enough wars and it was time to move again, this time to a “quiet” country.
After a stint with friends in Paris, the family’s refugee visa application to Australia was accepted and with the financial support of a refugee organisation they were able to travel by ship to Sydney, arriving in November 1950.
The second half of the booklet deals with Mr Winston’s early years as a refugee in Sydney and his switch from a career as an engineer to establishing his own not-for-profit company Technical Aid to the Disabled in the 1970s, which still helps thousands of Australians each year.
His efforts earned him an Order of Australia honour in 1985 and these days in his retirement he is an active volunteer.
“Helping others or helping the community is enormously satisfying,” he said, but “what you say isn’t very important, it’s what you do”.
Mr Winston said he finds Australia’s current policies on asylum seekers “very distressing — they lack understanding and compassion”.
Proceeds from sales Mr Winston’s story will go to the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group — an organisation Mr Winston has served in the role of secretary since he moved to Katoomba in 2001.
Copies of George’s Story will soon be available in local bookshops or they can be ordered from Megan Wynne-Jones on 4782-6870 or by visiting www.honouryourlife.com.au. Price: $10 plus $1.50 for packing and postage.
Shane Desiatnik, BM Gazette, 3 April 2013
[The booklet can also be bought from George firstname.lastname@example.org or 7482 7866]