The Holocaust survivor who led a humble life as a BHP rigger in Newcastle

A Newcastle life: Michael Matz, left, when he worked at BHP in Newcastle as a rigger.
A Newcastle life: Michael Matz, left, when he worked at BHP in Newcastle as a rigger.

Michael Matz obscured his past so well and for so long that for many years it seemed his life had begun in Newcastle, Australia, in 1952. In fact he had been born 30 years earlier on the other side of the world to a large Jewish family and an old culture whose legacy would linger through his long life.

But the war years so devastated his past that the best way to counter their aftermath, he figured, was with silence. He spent 30 years working at BHP’s steelworks in Newcastle, with few opportunities to exchange stories with survivors, had he so desired. By the time he retired he had belatedly anglicised his birth name, Moishe, the distinctly Yiddish name that was one of the last outward pointers to his past, and he was looking forward to an easier future.

But time and age wore down the defences he had spent his post-war life constructing, and history began to see into his dreams and his consciousness.

When he speaks of his former life now, which he does willingly but not happily, it is in a long and continuous flow. His gaze is slightly askew, and his expression mostly sad as he sits in his favourite chair. Then he rises slowly, rustles through a dresser drawer of CDs, selects one, and the sound of old Yiddish songs fills his small lounge room.

In a language no one around him can understand, he sings of love that can burn and never end, of a heart that can yearn and cry without tears. He sings loudly and with gusto, oblivious to the noise spilling out onto the inner-city street, and only then, as his eyes well and an enormous smile spreads across his face, does he exhibit joy.

Early Days: Michael Matz, left, and his brother Eliezer, in the 1930s.

Early Days: Michael Matz, left, and his brother Eliezer, in the 1930s.

He is a child of Wilno (now Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania), but when he was born there in 1923 it was a Polish city whose tens of thousands of Jewish inhabitants ensured that Yiddish was widely spoken. His father was a printer, his mother fairly observant, and he had two brothers and two sisters.

He was still in his teens when Germany occupied his town, and he saw the first of many roundups of Jewish families, dragged from their homes and sent to nearby Ponary, where 100,000 people would be massacred between 1941 and 1944.

Somehow his house missed that first roundup, but before long he and his family were forced into the city’s ghetto where they moved into his grandmother’s empty house; she had already been taken to Ponary and was presumed dead.

As life for Jews steadily worsened, a neighbour arranged for him to travel by truck to another town, Lida; in their last conversation, his mother told him she though he would be safer there.

A massacre in 1942 quickly changed that notion. Of the 7000 Jews thought to have been in Lida, he was among 1500 to have survived. He was rounded up again and sent to Estonia to work in coalmines, and then taken to the concentration camp Buchenwald (later liberated by US troops).

After the war, he planned to return to Wilno. But when he heard that there were no Jews there, he headed for a displaced persons’ camp near Munich, with plans to move to Israel. Instead he met a local woman. They married in 1951, and arrived in Australia in 1952 with their young daughter, Eva.

The other surviving member of his family, his brother Eliezer, died in Israel in 2015.

IN MICHAEL’S OWN WORDS

“I had a hard time after the war, very lonely. I had no family; I feel guilty even now about being the last one alive.

“I can remember a little bit about what my family looked like; I don’t have any photographs.

“My mother was a thin woman. My father was not fat.

“The older sister was like a mother. She married a teacher from school. Sometimes I see people who look like my younger sister.

“Afterwards, I didn’t think much about the things that happened. I wanted to make a new life, to make up for what I had missed when I was young. I had to catch up on girls, on food, dancing.

I” moved to Bad Tölz, in Germany, and stayed for five years. A friend of mine, a Holocaust survivor, was doing some business there, and I rented a room; it was more like back-to-normal life than being in the DP camp. We had a little Jewish community of survivors, a synagogue, I worked in a Jewish socks factory. We had a group, Jewish boys playing up a bit, having a drink and going to the dances. We had everything we wanted.

“I never thought about getting married. I just thought about having some company, having some sex. The Jewish girls were looking for a rich Jewish man — some were more successful than others on the black market. But I didn’t have much luck. And Otti didn’t worry if I was rich or not.

New home: Michael Matz, his wife Otti, and their daughter Eva in 1952, the year they arrived in Australia. Photo courtesy of Eva Richardson.

New home: Michael Matz, his wife Otti, and their daughter Eva in 1952, the year they arrived in Australia. Photo courtesy of Eva Richardson.

“I had seen her walking on the street. She lived in the same town and one night we met near my place, it was nearly midnight. I was thinking about going to Israel when she asked me to marry her.

“I said, ‘I can’t marry you. You’re German.’ Then we both started to cry. She said, ‘Why not?’ I thought how could I marry a German girl after they’d done all the things to us? But she had nothing to do with it - and I liked her, she was the real thing.

“Did her family accept me? Yes and no. Her brother didn’t trust me at first. But later it was ok. Both her parents had died and her sisters were pretty good. They never mentioned the Holocaust. We didn’t want to upset the relationship by talking about it.

“It was not an easy time for us after the war because some people were against our relationship. ‘How can you marry a German girl?’ They didn’t actually say it but I could see it in their reaction.

“It was harder for her than me after. I was tougher. We both had bad things said to us but we got over it. It was hurting but later on we said we won’t react. As long as we’re together, that’s the main thing.

“We started to build our lives here in Newcastle. They put us in a camp in Nelson Bay, gave us a job. I had to get up at 4 am to get all the way to work. We didn’t have enough money to buy a chocolate at first; we couldn’t afford to buy fruit. But I had a job, what a beauty, and wages and money. Then we started to live.

Long life: Michael Matz in 2016.

Long life: Michael Matz in 2016.

“The steel works had about 12,000 people. They all knew I was Jewish. I secretly wondered about some of the people I worked with, what they’d been up to during the war. There was a Russian; we used to knock around together. I said to him one day, ‘Another bloke told me you were really a German, and that’s why you came to Australia.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘I wasn’t working for the Germans. I was only wearing their uniform coat. It was winter time, cold.”

“I didn’t believe him. If you eat onions you smell. But what could I do? We worked together day by day. I couldn’t find out the truth. It would’ve been nice if there were more people to talk to, more survivors.

“I never regretted coming here. It’s the best country ever. My life out of 10? Now you talk like a doctor. I am quite happy. I would give it 10. I enjoy what I do. I enjoy my food. I enjoy my little jobs. I potter around in the garden, water the lawn, that’s about all.

“I think about the fact that now I can have whatever my heart wants, good things like herrings. But I still can’t eat more than my stomach will take. When we go shopping and people buy and buy I say to my daughter, ‘Look at this country you can get whatever you want.’ I had nothing and now I can have anything. I can’t get over it.

“I’ve got no hatred of anybody. All the things the bastards did to us, I don’t dwell on it, otherwise you would go crazy. But I remember the war every night. The dreams are terrible. I dream I go in the forest and I try to hide under a bush and I can’t, there’s somebody else there. I wake up, walk around and go back to sleep.

“Talking has a reaction on me. Last night, after we spoke, I couldn’t fall asleep, I had to take some medicine at 10 o’clock. I will think for a little while after I finish this interview but then I’ll try to forget. I will have to. You can’t think about it all the time. It’s no good for you. What can you do? The people are dead. They don’t feel anything.

“Nobody can understand what I have gone through. Nobody will ever understand. But I try not to think about it. You’ve got to get on with life. You can’t change it. You’ve lost everybody, and that’s it.

(Editor’s note: Michael Matz died in October, 2017, He was 94 years old.)

We Are Here: Talking with Australia’s oldest Holocaust Survivors by Fiona Harari (Scribe $29.99). Available at MacLean’s Booksellers and all good bookshops.