Riga Exodus #6

With our British-citizen Baltic States evacuees now safely in Australia, at least until the Pacific War breaks out, I can turn my attention to what life offered them in this safe haven. It is not possible for me to map the life story of everyone for whom I have a name, but here is a taste…

The first marriage of evacuees took place in March 1941, when Miss Francisca Kolesnikas (expert stenographer) wore Lithuanian national dress for her wedding to Mr. Francis Senkus (tailor) at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Brisbane. The Catholic priest, Father John Tamilus, was another evacuee, and he included in the service the Lithuanian tradition of binding the hands. And rounding out the ceremony was another Francis; Puodziunas by surname, who was best man, and his wife, Klara, the Matron of Honour. You can see photo of the wedding party here.

Doesn’t it strike you as poignant, that, when allowed only approx 30kg per person, so many chose to pack their national dress?

Francis Puodziunas, who was actually born in Manchester, enlisted in the Australian army in May 1942 and served until the end of 1946. It looks as if he was posted in Australia for the duration, in a clerical capacity, and later went on to various government positions, such as in the Auditor’s Department, and the Department of Defence, until well into the 1970s.

Mr. Leslie Arnold Marshall, the former Latvian correspondent for London’s Exchange Telegraph, died in Brisbane in 1947, aged fifty-three. The eulogy stated he had been born in Hayti, West Indies in 1894, raised in Kingston, Jamaica, studied at Cambridge England and went to Latvia aged nineteen. In Brisbane he’d been working in the Security Service as an interpreter and then in the Works and Housing Department. He left a widow.

Mr. Joseph Hearsch, the teacher of English from the Bukovina province, and who had commented on the treatment of Jews there, settled in Kangaroo Point, a suburb of Brisbane. In 1946 he was working as a clerk with the US Army. His son Eddy was a Leading Aircraftman in the Royal Australian Airforce (RAAF) and his nineteen year old daughter, Pearl, was a clerk. At that time he was sponsoring his brother-in-law, Roumanian born Major Reichman (together with wife Ana), a medical doctor with the British Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) serving in Secunderabad in India, to join them in Australia. The Reichman’s arrived on the SS Madura v81 on 30 May 1947.

Joseph and Florette Hearsch announced all their family events in the newspapers, and so we follow their Silver wedding anniversary, engagements of their daughter, Pearl (1951), and son, Eddy; and later, visits with the grandchildren. They were also extremely active in various Jewish organisations for the next thirty years or more. Joseph died in January 1967. Dr Nae (Nicky) Reichman (Florette’s brother) died in 1976.

The lung specialist, Dr H. (Humbert) Wilson, another evacuee from Bukovina, became the Medical Superintendent of Bodington Sanatorium at Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. He was one of the twenty-three who did not stay in Brisbane. In 1947, citing his ten years sanatoria experience in Europe, he put a bomb up the Australian medical profession for their sub-standard treatment of tuberculosis. They responded that this European refugee doctor was a newcomer to this country and didn’t know what he was talking about.

The next year, Dr Wilson became the Medical Director of the NSW Anti-Tuberculosis Association, a position he held until at least 1958, in which capacity he campaigned for the introduction of routine x-ray screening. In scenes reminiscent of today’s COVID-19, some articles address the contact tracing undertaken when one member of a family was found to have TB. I clearly remember mobile testing caravans coming around street to street in the mid 1960s, and wonder how much of that is owed to this doctor’s refusal to be put down by Australian “experts”. I’m reasonably sure Dr Wilson lived until 1995, attaining around ninety years of age.

Another family intending for Sydney was the Lancashire-born, Latvian spinning mill manager Mr. C. Main. He was travelling with his wife and daughters, Irene, aged 18, and Sylvia, aged 9. Both his daughters were fluent in four languages – English, German, Russian and Latvian. The elder, Irene, went to finishing school in England, returned to Latvia and was teaching English to members of the Japanese Legation there, when the Russian annexation occurred. She was offered the chance of going to Japan with a party from the Legation, but preferred to come to Australia with her parents and sister. Little Sylvia had been attending Russian and German schools in Latvia, and her father said when she would attend school in Sydney, it would be her first experience of British teachers (I’m not sure if that is how Australian teachers regarded themselves in 1941. It’s quite possible). Unless her father enrolled her in an elite private school, I fear there may have been a significant period of adjustment before little Sylvia settled into school in Australia. Nothing jumps out about their life and progress in Sydney, but textile factories were screaming out for experts at the time.

Mrs. L. Russell Green, the Estonian correspondent of the London “Observer”, arrived in Brisbane with her young son, Louis. I include a newspaper photo of them “enjoying Queensland tea”. She gave many candid interviews, and then disappeared until around 1948, when she turns up in the Queensland country town, Charters Towers, writing entertainment reviews for the newspaper The Northern Miner, and possibly teaching there. The next year she presented a talk to the Central Congregational Women’s Guild in Ipswich about her experience in Estonia. It makes great reading, and you can find it here. She says, “The Russians are the greatest nation of actors in the world, and that is why they have been able to make their stupendous propaganda so convincing.” This presentation also reveals she has a teaching position as music mistress with the Ipswich Girls’ Grammar School.

In providing the potted histories of some of the evacuees, it is not my intention to invade their privacy. All of what I have quoted is in the public domain if you know where to look. On the contrary, I think their stories are a testament to what refugees can do for their adopted countries, no matter from whence they originate.

Evelyn Knight’s story is elusive. No doubt she would have liked a similar position to that of Mrs L. Russell-Green’s, and, potentially, she may have been better qualified. What we do have is the next letter she wrote home, which will explain the quite different circumstances in which she found herself.

But that is quite enough story-telling for today. It is … to be continued in our next.

This series of posts has been inspired by fellow blogger Derrick J. Knight, who recently wrote the true-life story of his great-aunt Evelyn May Knight‘s escape from Soviet-run Estonia in 1940. You can read the original story here. This is my sixth follow-up to the tale. You can read my part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here, and part five here.


6 thoughts on “Riga Exodus #6

  1. There’s definitely something rather poignant when you see people’s whole lives condensed into a paragraph or two isn’t there? I think it is particularly striking when they are survivors from one of history’s extreme bad times.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Riga Exodus #7 | The Reluctant Retiree

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