- NOVELIST AND SHORT STORY WRITER -
Here is a great story about one of the many fabulous migrants who made their home in Australia.
Helga was born during the height of the Great Depression, in a city in East Germany, not far from Berlin. Her childhood memories are punctuated by having to run almost nightly into bomb shelters, hunger and cold. Yet she managed to keep a sunny disposition, enjoying little things. Like a flower at the edge of the footpath, or a pretty piece of glass that caught the sunlight.
After high school, apprenticeship and study of engineering, she took a job in a city at the Baltic Sea in a factory that produced massive ship’s diesel engines.
It was a dream job any young person would grab with both hands. Although her knowledge of engineering was essential, her artistic leanings were also important to enable her to fulfil her many tasks. Part of her job was the production of marketing material and to accompany the big machinery to be exhibited at international fairs. Through her job, she met her future husband. Trouble was, he lived in Holland, ‘the forbidden West’.
Authorities refused to issue a permit for her to accompany him to his home land. But being young and in love and full of hope, she was afraid of nothing. On a gloomy Easter day, when it was raining ‘cats and dogs’ the couple succeeded to escape.
During her studies of the strange Dutch language, she found a job as a draftswoman. Getting ahead economically, proved to be impossible. The hope of a bright future in the Netherlands seemed for ever receding.
In the late fifties, Australia was the ‘promised land’. Its government invited skilled European migrants to help Australia catching up with other, well advanced countries. By doing so, migrants had the opportunities to build a better life for themselves. Thousands answered that call. The young couple chose to be part of them.
After a six-week’s sea voyage, in a former troop carrier, they reached their destination: Brisbane.
It was 1960 when Helga arrived in Brisbane. She felt as if she had stepped into a double helix time warp.
Living standards seemed fifty years ahead of the one she had left behind, when leaving East Germany. There, she hadn’t ever touched a refrigerator. Yet here, in Brisbane, even the humblest home could boast of one. Many people considered a washing machine an essential item and most houses had a telephone installed. Here many people owned or paid off a car, even if only a used one. In her country, she had been one of the lucky exceptions, owning a little motorbike. Cars were luxury articles few could hold of, even if they had the money to afford them.
But the social fabric seemed to her totally out of date. Though women were treated as ladies; in the male dominated society, they rated only as second class citizens. A single woman couldn’t buy a house in her own name, unless of course she had loads of money.
Liquor laws prevented women to join their husbands in pubs. The newcomer was amazed to see them in their husband’s cars in front of a pub, patiently waiting for the shandy their mates would bring to them after they had downed a few glasses of beer.
As soon as she possibly could, Helga applied for a job as a draftswoman. She was sent to a Brisbane shipyard, but could not even get to their site office. A board on the entrance proclaimed with big letters ‘Women, children and dogs not allowed on these premises’! She was sent away, albeit with apologies and a slip of paper with the head office address in the city.
There, she landed her first job. In her letter to her parents she described the place as ‘Dickensian’. Free standing swivel drawing boards with fitted drawing machines, which were standard since the thirties in Germany and Holland, where she had worked previously, seemed to be unheard of. Here, for forty eight hours a week, she and her colleagues had to bend over boards, which were placed on long tables. T- and set squares were used instead of finely tuned drawing machines. The paper was pinned with drawing pins to the board. During the heat of day the paper increased in size, at night it shrank and consequently, the pinholes became hideous wounds.
Draftsmen wore long black trousers, long sleeved white shirts, black ties and little black aprons; even at temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Fans could not be used, because they would blow away reference drawings. Droplets of sweat from face and hands would mingle with dust and graphite, creating dirty looking drawings.
When rats made their nests in chewed up drawings and blue prints, they were poisoned. As they died under the old timber floor boards, employees had to breathe in the foul air from their rotting corpses.
But Helga was a determined woman and realised that she was the lucky one. Although she would only earn eighty per cent of the wages of her male counterparts, she earned more than other women in so-called women’s jobs with similar long hours and responsibilities. She knew that Storey Bridge had been designed under similar conditions. So she could design plans for the ship building industry that was still thriving.
Of course eventually Australia caught up to the best international standards. The metric system was introduced. Dollars and cents replaced pounds shillings and pence. Computers made even the newest drawing equipment obsolete. Helga continued to work in the industry for 40 years, and saw all these changes and many more.
After the hated Berlin wall and the border between East and West Germany had collapsed, Helga took the opportunity to re-visit her home town. She was astonished how little the city and its people had changed during her long absence. Blaming the ‘Cold War’ for having lost contact with the friends of her youth, she scanned in vain the crowds for recognisable faces.
A year later, one computer savvy woman of her former group of friends, managed to track her down.
“Australia, that’s down under, at the end of the world!” cried the others. Helga will never come that far for a reunion.”
Try to keep her away! The reunion was a great joy for everyone. It was followed by several other reunions, with Helga making the ever increasingly hazardous overseas trip.
For well over half a century, Helga has been settled in the Brisbane suburb of Yeronga. She has adjusted to a new country - a new continent on the other side of the globe to her homeland - and has mastered a third language.
In retirement, the former German girl, then Dutch wife, is now a contented Australian mother and grandmother. She is using her own computer, working, as much as she can, on books, calendars and greeting cards.
In her late seventies, she set out to prove her mastery of English was adequate to enable her to become an author. She wrote a novella, and then joined Fairfield Writers to develop her skills, working hard to improve her writing and producing some excellent stories for their Anthologies.
To celebrate her eightieth birthday, she published Pixels, a collection of her own short stories.
Shortly after publishing Pixels, a chance meeting with an interesting woman led to an idea for a novel, and she set out to write a uniquely topical story about a woman who worked in an IVF clinic, and underwent a procedure to produce IVF ''twins'', over a year apart in age.
Helga recently successfully launched her novel, Angela and Her Boys, in a gala event at Fairfield Library. She is now happily marketing her novel and delighting in very positive feedback from readers.
Helga has worked hard to demonstrate her mastery of English and of the skills required to be a novelist. ANGELA and Her Boys is the proof that she succeeded admirably in that endeavour.
Clancy's comment: Go, Helga! We are glad you came to the lucky country.