the father of my own father
Roland Gridiger, my father, is a man who has had to live with the horrible traumas of the holocaust every day of his life. He was born to Aron and Giselle Gridiger on the 25th of January 1944, in the city of Nice, which is on the South-East border of France.
Aron Gridiger, my paternal grandfather was born in Warsaw, Poland on the 14th June 1910. He was the eldest of three children but did not survive the war.
Giselle Gridiger, my paternal grandmother, had originally lived in Stryj, in Poland. She was born on the 1st June 1910, being the youngest in a family of four children.
After World War I, the economies of almost all the European countries had been seriously damaged. After completing high school, Giselle had wanted to study dentistry, and being Jewish and living in Poland (a very anti-Semitic country) this was almost impossible. In 1930, her father decided to send her to France to study at the University of Nancy. She lived in Nancy for 5 years, where she completed her studies. She met Aron who was visiting Nancy on her first day in France. He lived in Paris. In 1936 they married and settled in France.
Of the 350 000 Jews living in France when the Nazi’s invaded, only half were actually French citizens. The other half were recent emigres from Germany, or refugees escaping Nazism.
In 1939, World War II broke out. Aron was a Polish citizen, but joined the French Foreign Legion. When the German’s invaded Paris, Giselle fled to Nice and Aron joined her there. By the end of 1940, like many other European countries, almost all of France was under German control. In Nice, Aron worked as a Cinematographic Engineer making film commercials.
Giselle and Aron tried to live as quietly as they could in Nice. Giselle had blonde hair, and did not look like a typical Jewess, so she could walk around the streets more freely than Aron could. Their son Roland was born, on 25th January 1944.
Aron and his employer had an arrangement; if his employer wanted to contact him, he would call the local bakery and leave a message. Giselle would go to the bakery each day, and pick up any messages that Aron’s employers left.
About ten weeks after the birth of Roland, on the 14th April 1944, Aron received a message from his employers, telling him he was required in the studio to repair some machinery. Giselle decided to walk to the tram station with him. As they started walking, there was a huge downpour of rain and thunder struck. Giselle recalls Aaron asking "Why would you want to walk with the baby, and push the pram in this rain? I’ll go by tram, and you go back home."
While travelling to the studio, Aron was stopped by an informer. Aron was a member of the Polish resistance. He was arrested and taken to the local prison. Giselle had gone home to escape the heavy rain. Giselle did not know that Aron had been arrested and had returned to the tram station to pick him up. She waited that day from 2:00 in the afternoon, until 7:00 in the evening for Aron to return. He never did.
German resources were stretched thin in France, and in order to carry out their anti Jewish plans, the Germans needed French co-operation. In six months, 42 500 Jews were shipped by the French police to Drancy, and following that many were sent to the Nazi death camps.
For two days, Giselle had no idea of the whereabouts of her husband. Eventually with the help of a friend she discovered that he had been arrested, and was going to be transported to Drancy. Drancy was a transit camp located not far from Paris. Like many most other camps in France, this was under the control of the French police. In 1941, the first raids against Jews was ordered by the Nazis and conducted by the French police. The victims of these raids were transferred to Drancy . There is a lot of evidence, which proves that the French guards treated the prisoners very harshly. The conditions of life were extremely difficult, due to neglect of personal, ordinary human needs, adequate food, unsanitary conditions, and over-crowding.
While Aron was at Drancy, Giselle received two letters from him telling her he was in a ‘work camp’. She believed that he would return. Giselle remained in hiding with Roland in Nice, and was only able to survive because her husband’s employers continued to pay her his wages.
In 1945, when the Germans were defeated Giselle, through the Red Cross, received a letter from her eldest sister Rose. Giselle learned that Rose had survived and was living in Poland with her husband Zvi. It was not until 1947 however, that Giselle was able to meet her again. After a very emotional reuniting, Rose told her sister of everything that had happened to their relations, and that tragically they were the only two left of what had previously been a very large, loving family.
She told Giselle that she had made plans to leave Poland as soon as she could, and move to Palestine. She asked Giselle to join her in Palestine, but Giselle was still searching for Aron – she left him in France, she wanted to go back there when he was set free. She waited in France for almost another year for Aron to return, but he never did.
At the time, many European holocaust survivors sought to establish new lives in Australia. It seemed to them a very inviting place and it was a highly favoured haven. It was geographically as far from Europe (and their European memories) as possible, and it offered its citizens freedom and democracy.
During 1945 the Australian-European Search Bureau published lists of survivors, which it shared with the Red Cross and the Australian Jewish Welfare Society. In August 1945 Australia's Minister for Immigration, instituted a ‘Close Relatives Reunion Scheme.’ This scheme allowed Holocaust survivors with family already in Australia to be eligible for immigration.
By 1948, the Red Cross in France still could not help Giselle locate her husband. She applied for a visa to come to Australia. Aron’s brother, Max, had migrated to Australia just prior to the commencement of the war, in 1939. Giselle hoped that Aron would find his way to his brother. Max applied for the ‘Close Relatives Reunion Scheme’, and sent over papers to help Giselle and Roland escape war torn Europe.
A Jewish Welfare group, named HIAS (Hebrew Immigration Aid Society), whose aim was to serve as an information and assistance office for Jews emigrating from Europe, sought to find countries of haven in various parts of the world for Jews who could not return to their homeland.
HIAS, helped finance the trip for Jews who too wanted to escape the horrors they encountered during the war in Europe. HIAS was only able to arrange one air flight from Brussels Belgium to Sydney Australia. Giselle and Roland were on that flight; all other refugees arrived by boat, which was a much riskier trip. Their flight took five days, and because they were the only group to arrive by plane, the press was at the terminal, photographing the new European arrivals. They arrived on the 31 August 1948.
Giselle and Roland moved to Bellevue Hill where Max lived. She did not have any money and Giselle was unable to practice as a dentist because Australia did not recognise and was not familiar with her degree. She got a job sewing buttons onto clothing in a factory. Most of the Jews who arrived in Australia after 1945 came with few material possessions and many found jobs in textile, garment and furniture industries. Max had changed his surname from Gridiger to Gray due to the difficulty of the pronouncing the word Gridiger in this new country. Giselle changed her and Roland’s name to ‘Gray’ for a couple of years.
After living in the apartment in Bellevue Hill for a few months, the block became very crowded and unpleasant. Giselle moved to a single room in Kings Cross. Roland, however was not to accompany her. She reluctantly decided to send her son to Blacktown, to live with a German-Jewish family, whom Max had contacted. She believed that sending her son to live with this family would give him stability in this new country, until she could learn English and find a full time job in order to earn enough money to support them both.
Whilst living with the Hertzberg family, Roland attended Blacktown public school. He recalls that other Jewish children lived with the Hertzbergs. Until this time, Roland only spoke French. When in 1950, Giselle and Roland were re-united, after a year of separation, she was very surprised to hear that Roland’s main language was now German. While living in Blacktown, he had forgotten French, because no one spoke anything but German. This upset her, because as a result of what the Germans had done to the Jews in the war, she did not want German spoken in her presence. Roland gradually forgot German as well. Even the little Polish that he new he stopped speaking. They were to communicate from then on in English.
With the help of Max and some friends Giselle secured a rent controlled flat in 3/142 Curlewis Street, Bondi. Having improved her English, Giselle was able to get a job in Farmers, working as a sales assistant. Roland attended Bondi Beach public school, which was convenient, and close to the flat. Giselle was at work and Roland had no influence to help and guide him. He drifted and mixed with undesireables and became a boodgie. School was a burden and he did not work hard.
When Roland was about fourteen years old, he became interested in magic tricks. Because the Gridigers did not have much money, Giselle could not afford to send Roland to any extra curricular activities. Unlike his classmates, there was nothing ‘special’ that he knew. He bought little tricks, and in his spare time practiced them. He enjoyed the stage and started entertaining people as a magician. While doing these tricks, he was taught hypnosis. People loved to watch him and he loved to entertain them.
After primary school, he attended South Sydney Junior Boys High School. This school moved to Maroubra and became Maroubra Bay Co Educational High School. At Maroubra High, Roland was elected Class Captain. One of the duties of Class Captain was to control the class when no teacher was present. To keep the class quiet, he hypnotised one student. While the student was under hypnosis, a teacher walked by, and Roland was warned not to do it again. But on another occasion, when a teacher was absent, instead of hypnotising one person, he decided to hypnotise the whole class. When the headmaster walked past, and saw an entire class sleeping at their desks, it was clear the Roland was responsible, and he was asked to leave the school.
He transferred to Randwick Boys High, where he remained until the end of school, in 1963. While sitting for the Geography exam for his leaving certificate (later called HSC) Roland got appendicitis, and was rushed to hospital to have his appendix taken out. He wrote his remaining papers in hospital, and ironically, the only exam he failed was French. He matriculated and enrolled into Law at Sydney University.
Giselle had tried to encourage Roland to mix with Jewish students. She encouraged him to join Betar. When Roland was fifteen he became involved in the Jewish community by forming the Teenage Amateur Performance Society (TAPS). TAPS presented concerts for the Jewish community. Here Roland performed his magic tricks. He also participated in Great Synagogue Youth (GSY) shows. His interest and curiosity in the land of Israel started to develop.
In 1963, he met the UIA Director Chaim Diamant. He became friends with Chaim and took an interest in U.I.A (United Israel Appeal). Roland organised the first U.I.A Trendsetters which aimed to encourage young members of the Jewish community to donate to the U.I.A. He did not have money himself but believed that by organising the fund raising function he made a significant contribution.
Giselle had always talked to Roland about her sister Rose, who was the only remaining relative she had, and how she lived in Israel. Roland could not remember meeting Rose, as he was only three years old when he briefly met her in Poland. He decided he wanted to go to Israel, to meet Rose and to see the country. Finances were a problem, and Roland wanted to find a cheaper means of getting to Israel.
He met a girl who had recently returned from Israel, and she told him about the ‘South African Student Academy’. It sounded interesting to him, so he got in contact with the organisers of it, and with the travel agent. The travel agent told him that if he could organise a group of seventeen students, then they could get a group discount flight. The organisers of the South African Student Academy told him that his group would be more than welcome to meet up with their group, and they would form the 4th South African and Australian Student Academy Program. He managed to organise a group of twenty-three students, and finally got the opportunity to go to Israel.
Later that year, in 1964, he became the president of the Sydney University Jewish Students Union, and because of the success of the previous trip, he organised the first Australian Student Academy. That year he took the group to meet David Ben Gurion, who was the Prime Minister of Israel at that time. The trip that year was an even bigger success, and he continued it in 1965, and again in 1966, being the head madrich of the groups each year.
Roland believes that this was his biggest achievement in life, because of the huge success it is today. From this Student Academy, it led to many other programs, and he is so proud to have given so many young Australian Jews the opportunity to explore their country. Over 5000 students have travelled on the Student Academy program since it was started in 1963.
In 1966, he met Ilana Glaser, who was on Student Academy. In 1969 they started dating. This student academy in 1966, however, was to be his last, as there was a lot of work involved, in the organisation and he fell behind in his studies. He very much wanted to be a lawyer, as he knew how hard his mother had struggled to enable him to get a good education, so he devoted his time to finishing his law degree.
Roland and Giselle still did not have much money, but they decided to leave the rent-controlled flat in Curlewis Street, and move to a Strata Unit in Forest Knoll Avenue. When Roland graduated, Giselle had accumulated a small sum of money and together they worked towards repaying the mortgage.
In May 1967, Israel and three Arab countries (Egypt, Jordan and Syria) alerted their armed forces for a possible war. On June 5th, the Israeli Army smashed through the Egyptian lines and plunged into the Sinai Peninsula. This was later to be known as the six-day war. The Jewish community in Sydney formed an Emergency Committee, and the Jewish Youth organisations also formed an Emergency Youth Committee. In this committee Roland was elected the chairman. He was very honoured with this position, and wanted to help as much as he could. The committee aided the volunteers who wanted to travel to Israel by quickly organising their passports and travel necessities. The committee also organised a solidarity campaign mostly for support for the volunteers who went, and for Israel as a whole. They organised a function at the Central Synagogue, where all youth groups from around the country could pledge their support for Israel.
In 1968, Roland was surprised to be asked by the Jewish Times (now called Jewish News) to write four pages in their paper every week - promoting the JCA (Jewish Community Appeal) which had just been formed. Although he had never studied journalism, he gladly took on this task with enthusiasm writing interesting stories. He was given a photographer, who would take photos of what ever he needed for his articles. He was soon asked to extend this responsibility and to start reviewing theatre as well as writing these four pages weekly. This was where his love for music and the arts began, and he and Ilana enjoyed many outings to the theatre.
In 1969, he was admitted to practice law, having completed Solicitor's Admission Board course. He opened his own legal practise, which he called Roland Gridiger & Co. Solicitors. He now had to focus on building up a legal business and scale down on communal work. After several years, Giselle stopped her work in the department store, and started work for her son, helping him out everyday in the office by doing registration work.
On the 17th of December 1972, Roland Gridiger and Ilana Glaser were married. Roland moved out of the flat with Giselle and he and Ilana moved into a unit in Penkivil Street, in Bondi.
Ilana & Roland wedding
On the 23rd June 1976, the first of their children was born. She was named Ariana – her name was derived Roland’s father’s name, Aron. The family moved from the unit in Penkivil Street to a house in Rose Bay, in which, after renovations, they still reside.
On the 14th June 1978, their second child Naomi was born.
On the 24th June 1985, their third daughter was born. Also a girl, she was given the name Dina, after her maternal Grandfather. His Hebrew name was Dov and he died three months before her birth.
While Roland had been studying law, a group of Giselles friends got together and organised for Roland to receive a scholarship from B’nai Brith. He used this money to purchase a textbook on Law to the value of $50. He was so touched by this gesture, as he had never received many gifts before. This encouraged him to organise many scholarships later on in his life, and still continues to do so to this day.
One of Rolands clients was the partner of Madame Marrianne Marthy Frisdane, who was a well-known singing teacher. After Madame Marthy’s partner died, she redrew her will and appointed Roland her executor. She directed in her will that a scholarship be established for singers under the age of 26.
In 1982, Roland devised a plan to award the ‘Marrianne Marthy Scholarship’ to an opera and classical singer. He then went on to develop the ‘Australian Singing Competition’ which has given out more than one million dollars worth of prizes and scholarships. This is a very prestigious singing competition for classical singers throughout Australia.
In 1984, when the late Chaim Kopilovicus wanted to make a will, he instructed Roland to act as his Co-executor and establish the ‘Chaim Kopilovicus Scholarship’ for poor and needy Jewish students. Through this scholarship, approximately $107, 253 has been used to help these students.
In 1987, Geraldine Pascal, a well known journalist employed by the Australian Newspaper died suddenly. Her family decided to honour her memory. They engaged Roland to establish the ‘Geraldine Pascal Foundation’ and award the ‘Geraldine Pascal Prize’ to the critic or reviewer of the year. 11 Pascal prizes, totalling $150, 000 have been awarded. This is a very honourable prize for critics and reviewers in Australia.
When the late Tom and Eva Rona were killed in a road accident, in 1991, the family appointed Roland to work with the trustees of the estate. He establish the ‘Rona Tranby Award’ which was a partnership between the Jewish community, using its expertise in recording the testimonies of holocaust survivors, to teach the Aboriginal community to record the oral history of their people. This was the first formal association between the Jewish community and the Aboriginal community.
In 1996, Nelly Apt left a bequest to ‘Music and Opera Singers Trust Limited’ This company was established by Roland, as a non-profit body, in 1983. Roland established the ‘Nelly Apt Scholarship’ for a conductor in association with Symphony Australia. This scholarship requires the conductor to travel to Israel and learn the art of being a conductor there. Another ‘Nelly Apt Scholarship’ is awarded to an instrumentalist to study in Israel in association with the ‘ABC’s Young Performers’. The final scholarship is awarded to a singer who is in the Australian Singing Competition. The singer attends a summer school in Israel.
All these scholarships are managed by Roland. He does not receive any income from any of them. He donates his time, service, and effort to fulfilling these people’s requests and hopes he will be able to organise more scholarships to help gifted and needy people in the future.
In 1993, Roland felt that he was ready to uncover the history that surrounded the death of his father. He had always known that Aron was killed in the holocaust, but he never knew how, or where. Although he had travelled overseas many times before, he had never wanted to go back to France. He asked Giselle if she would accompany him, and share the experiences she went through. It was hard for her to find the strength to go back there, but she agreed to do so, and returned to France for the first time since 1948.
Although Giselle was already 83 years old, she still remembered almost everything about living in France. They visited the place in which Giselle and Aron lived in before and during the war in Paris, the house where Roland was born in Nice, and the apartments they lived in when he was a young boy. Each place of call was both an emotional and fulfilling experience, for mother and son.
Upon their return to Australia, Roland met a historian, named Sophie Caplan. They had a conversation, in which, he told her that he did not know what had happened to his father during World War II. She did some research for him, and found out everything she could about Aron Gridiger.
Mrs Caplan then wrote a letter to Roland, telling of the information she had collected about his father.
When he first received the letter, on the front it was written ‘personal and private’, he knew what it was about, and he could not bring himself to open it. He doesn’t remember exactly how long it took him to actually read the letter, but it was the first written confirmation he had ever received on Aron’s death.
Mrs Caplan discovered that Aron had been on ‘Convoy 73’. This convoy was unique, because it was the only convoy, which consisted of only males, and along with one other convoy (number 79) were the only 2, out of 80, that were not taken to Auchwitz.
Convoy 73 was taken to Kaunas-Reval. There were approximately 900 males aboard, of which a mere 16 survived.
Roland was unaware, but an advertisement had been placed in the newspaper in France to sombrely mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the deportation of this convoy (15th May 1944). As a result, all the relatives of these males came together, and decided to go on a pilgrimage, to where their family members had been deported. A woman named Eve Line Blum, whose father was also on this convoy, decided that a book should be written about all the men who were on number 73 in their memory. All the relatives were asked to write as much as they knew about their lost ones.
The book was completed, and published, titled “Nous sommes 900 français” which translates to “We are 900 French men”.
Mrs Caplan came across this book. She remembered Roland, and that his father was also on this convoy. She put him in touch with Mrs Blum, the organiser of the book. It was emotional for Roland to finally be in contact with someone who vaguely went through the same things he did – not knowing what had happened to his father for all these years. Mrs Blum asked Roland if he could put together enough information about his father to add him to the second edition of the book. He knew that he could do it, but it would take some time. He still knew such little information about his Dad, and the only person that could help him write the chapter was Giselle.
Roland is presently in the process of writing his father, Aron Gridiger’s story, to be added to the second book “Nous sommes 900 français”.
When Roland was a young boy, he and Giselle did not really talk about Aron much. Every time his name was brought up, she would burst out crying. Roland wanted to know about his father, but was brought up believing it was an issue not to be discussed.
Writing this story is a very difficult task for Roland to accomplish. It is still hard for him to discuss his father with Giselle, who is now 90 years old. Although it is still difficult for her, over the past couple of years she has uncovered quite a lot about Aron that Roland never knew. Roland wants this chapter to be special. He believes his father deserves that much, to have his life honoured in a book, which will be shared by hundreds of other men who were taken just the way he was.
Throughout the past 56 years of his life, Roland Gridiger has proved himself be a very charitable and selfless man. He suffered through very difficult beginnings, and had very little money, but through the support and dedication of his loving mother, Roland has grown and prospered.
He has worked his way from a poor boy – to a very successful businessman, who has earned the respect of many people, and is loved dearly and respected by his close-knit family.
As mentioned before, he has achieved much in his life that not only he, but also his family are very proud of. He started the Student Academy program in Australia, he is currently in charge of 5 running scholarships, and he has recently developed a new business, which he manages along with his previous one. Roland believes that the Jewish community is a very important aspect in the life of any Jew. He is very proud of the involvement he had and still has with the community, and is also very pleased to see that this has been passed down to his children, and they too do as much for the community as they can.
In search for information about his father, whom he knew so little about, he has managed to find out a lot about his past, and is in the process of writing Aron’s biography.
He is also very proud of his mother, of the way she re-started her life in Australia and of her numerous selfless acts she displayed throughout her life. Her direction and motivation after the immigration was to educate her son, and give him the opportunity to live a better life than the one she had lived in Europe. Giselle never re-married after Aron. This shows not only her independence, but also her total loyalty to the one man she loved.
Roland and Ilana Gridiger will be married for 28 years in December this year. They are very proud of the family they have raised and continue to support and encourage their children. Ariana is now studying Psychology and is doing her second degree at university, and Naomi has recently finished studying Social Work, and is currently fulfilling the practical components of her degree.
All in all, I am extremely proud to call this wonderful man, Roland Gridiger, my father.