Coming to Australia

By Lucie Kolmer, 1916 — 2010. Adelaide, SA.
Rest in peace.

In April 1934, my parents, my young brother, and I left Germany on the liner Koblenz and sailed for China. I celebrated my 18th birthday onboard the ship. My brother died of kidney failure in Shanghai where we initially lived. We left Shanghai in early 1939 and went to live in Tientsin (North China).

As my father had always hoped to eventually acquire British nationality for us, he started making arrangements to migrate to Australia in 1939 where one became a British subject with a British passport. (Australian passports did not come in until a few years later.)

As I had a very good secretarial position in a German company in Tientsin and found a very comfortable flat in the house of an elderly German couple, I decided to stay behind until such time that my parents were established in Australia. I had a lot of friends so I was never lonely.

Then, in the middle of 1939, war clouds began to appear on the horizon, and my mother anxiously wrote to me to think about coming to Australia before a likely outbreak or war.

So, I started making arrangements. Firstly, I went to the British consulate which represented Australia to ask for a visa to Australia. They noticed that my German passport was running out and suggested that I should have it renewed at the German consulate first. However, my German friends advised me not to take my passport to that consulate as they might confiscate it, just to spite me. That is how nasty Hitler’s Germany had become.

So, I went back to the British consulate and told them a little white lie. I told them that my mother was very sick in Australia and asked if I could just get a visitor’s visa and later on, get my German passport renewed in Australia.

Fortunately that did the trick. So I began my adventurous journey to Australia.

Lucie traveled from Shanghai to Hong Kong in 1939 on the SS Cathay, pictured above. (The Cathay was later sunk during Operation Torch in 1942 by a German air raid in the Mediterranean Sea off Bougie, Algeria.)
The Tanda, on which Lucie travelled from Hong Kong to Melbourne in 1939. (Years later, on 15 July 1944, the unescorted Tanda was hit by two torpedoes from a German submarine and sank about 52 miles northwest of Mangalore in the Arabian Sea. 18 crew members and one passenger were lost.)

I booked a berth on the PO liner Cathay from Shanghai to Hong Kong then by small Australian ship Tanda to Melbourne. To get to Shanghai I had to catch a train, which I had also booked ahead.

After leaving my friends, my lovely flat, and my job, I finally set out to the railway station only to be informed that after heavy rains the line was flooded and the train could not depart. I had to go back and find a room in a hotel where I gave strict instructions to wake me early next morning so I would not miss the train.

Arriving in Shanghai I had a few days to spare before the ship left for Hong Kong, so I visited the firm I had worked for there. My old boss was still there and pleased to see me.

The day arrived when the Cathay was to leave Shanghai. However, a typhoon raged through the city, so strong it lifted rickshaws into the air, and the ship could not leave the harbour. I started to worry that I might miss my connection with the ship in Hong Kong, but on making inquiries I was ensured that the ship would wait for our arrival. We finally made it to Hong Kong and arrived there on that fateful day, 3 September 1939, when war was declared between Germany and Britain. We did not know that at the time of our arrival. I boarded the ship and went looking for my first class cabin. A man was standing by the door and told me it was his and his mother’s cabin. He was a Russian refugee. The ship was heavily overbooked because of the looming war, but I stood my ground except having to compromise and allow the old lady to share my cabin which had two beds. Fortunately I chose the bed nearest the porthole because the old lady didn’t have a bath or a wash for three weeks. I was not even sure if she got undressed to go to bed. I spent as much time as possible on deck in the fresh air.

The first night out, the public address system came on and the captain announced solemnly that Britain was now at war with Germany. It hit me like a blow to the head that I was now an enemy alien on an Australian ship.

We had a party of Salvation Army missionaries onboard who began to sing “Nearer my God to Thee”. I felt like jumping overboard.

Time went by quite uneventfully for a while. Nobody seemed to worry about me. Then, as we approached our first port of call, Brisbane, I got worried. I asked the purser what would happen to me. He told me that everything would be okay because Brisbane was not my final destination. He said, “In Australia, we play a game called ‘passing the buck’.” Which, of course, did not mean anything to me at the time.

We arrived in Sydney a few days later where we had a stay of two or three days. I had befriended a young girl from New Zealand on a holiday to Australia. Having been to Sydney on a previous trip she knew Sydney fairly well and also knew a person in Bondi. She invite me to go ashore with her. After inquiring about the possibility of that, I was told that if Eileen agreed to be responsible for me I could go. Being stupidly naïve, I slung my camera over my shoulder as I approached the gangway, but felt very embarrassed when the young officer on duty there said, Fair go, you can’t take that with you. However, we spent some nice days in Sydney visiting the lady in Bondi and going to the pictures. I could not believe my luck.

The first night out, the public address system came on and the captain announced solemnly that Britain was now at war with Germany. It hit me like a blow to the head that I was now an enemy alien on an Australian ship.

The Southern Cross Hotel

As we were nearing Melbourne, our final port of call, I was getting very worried, wondering what was in store for me. The ship’s purser, whom I consulted, had no idea what would happen. As we tied up, all the passengers except me were leaving and I felt lonely. I stood at the rail looking down at the wharf. Suddenly a small open car arrived and two young chaps in uniform got out and came up on the deck. They introduced themselves as a lieutenant and major in the military police. They were extremely friendly and when I asked them what they were going to do with me they said, “Take you for a drive first”. We drove up the St Kilda road and they showed me the war memorial, which is quite impressive. Then, they decided that I needed a brandy as I looked rather pale. We went to the Southern Cross Hotel, where most of the ship’s crew had congregated. They nearly fell off their chairs when they saw me, and someone remarked that they thought I would be in jail by now. I kept asking these two nice young men what was going to happen next as my parents were expecting me to arrive in Adelaide the following morning by Melbourne overnight express train. So, we went to Spencer Street Station and they booked a sleeper for me for that night. I can’t remember who paid for that because I was in a state of numbness. But I expect that I footed the bill.

Lucie in Australia in 1943. She was 27.

Then these two gentlemen decided I needed some coffee so we went across the road to the Hotel Alexander and they ordered some afternoon tea, which I accepted gratefully. I asked if I could use the public phone in the foyer to ring my father to tell him I would arrive in Adelaide the next morning. I offered for one of my “guards” to listen in, as I would speak in English. They said that would not be necessary. I could have been a spy! They did, however, warn me that there would be two plain clothed police women waiting for me in Adelaide. Eventually, they escorted me to the railway station offering to buy me chocolates and magazines, which I politely refused. I just wanted to get on the train.

As we arrived in Adelaide, as expected, two young women approached me. My father wanted to know what was going on, but I told him to move off. All these ladies wanted to know was where I would be staying. I gave them my parents’ address. Apart from that, they told me I had to report to the local police station once a week.

So ended my journey. I shall be forever grateful for the way the Australian authorities treated me.

Lucie with her grandson in 1978.
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1 year ago

Refreshing to read a war story where the person was treated kindly and fairly. What a shock coming from Europe to Australia in the 40’s! Lucie’s story shows that we don’t know what’s just around the corner, whether meeting strangers or on the international scene.

1 year ago

This was a fascinating account of those early war years and so well written. I agree with Andy, that the authorities treated Lucie with kindness and fairness. A bit more of that should happen today. I suppose it does sometimes. I loved photos of the ships and of Lucie. Wasn’t she a lovely looking lady?