Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 24, 2015

With Just One Suitcase, by Cheryl Koenig

With Just One SuitcaseWild Dingo Press is a small indie publisher that punches well above its weight.  I read their The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif by Najaf Mazari not long before I started this blog, but in those days I didn’t take much notice of publishing details and didn’t realise that Wild Dingo Press is located just around the corner from my place, in my local shopping centre!

But now I know more about them.  The tag line for Wild Dingo Press is Books That Stand Their Ground’ and they have a laudable philosophy:

Wild Dingo Press … brings to light the stories of individuals quietly doing extraordinary things, be it exposure of corruption and systemic flaws or the experiences of the disenfranchised, disempowered and dispossessed. Shedding light on social issues and sharing the rich cultural output and traditions of those oft-discussed but denied a voice, Wild Dingo Press publishes memoir, narrative non-fiction and investigative journalistic non-fiction that challenge readers and enrich them personally, intellectually and emotionally.

Wild Dingo Press is committed to contributing a valuable and necessary perspective to the discussion of social, cultural and political matters by giving control over representation back to the people affected.

Well, in view of the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe, it contributes to a feeling of optimism about the situation, to be reading a memoir of refugees who overcame adversity to rebuild their lives in the country that gave them a new home.

With Just One Suitcase is the remarkable story of two boys who had a fleeting acquaintance in Romania in 1938, endured all kinds of travails under Nazi Germany and Stalinist Romania, came separately to Australia in the post-war mass immigration era, and met again when their children fell in love and married! The story begins with their parents, who despite differences of religion and social class had a customer/client relationship and respected each other.  The boys grew up in the small town of Timisoara, but the innocence and stability of their childhood was shattered by WW2 and the shifting alliance between Germany and Russia.

Frici’s (Fred) Löw’s family is Jewish, and though they survived the war by hiding out on a farm and bribing local police, they lost almost all of his mother’s family in Auschwitz.  When the Russians arrived they commandeered what was left of the family business and took over their house.  But plans to escape faltered when the people smugglers were caught and shot, and only Frici and his brother got across the border to Hungary, and eventually to freedom in Sydney.

Istvan (Steven) Koenig’s Hungarian ancestry brought him into conflict with the Russians when they joined the allies.  Anyone of German or Hungarian descent was deemed to be hostile to the new regime, and he spent years of his young life in Soviet labour camps.  Despite the appalling conditions, he was determined to survive, and made himself indispensable to the authorities by becoming an interpreter, eventually making a successful escape after many attempts.  He made his way to Sydney too, and became one of many who made a successful life in our country.

While I wasn’t always entirely comfortable with the fictionalised conversations that fill the gaps in the narrative, I did like the emphasis on the contrasting personalities of these young men.   Although the author is the daughter of Frici, she is upfront about some of his character flaws: the pugnacious risk-taking that served him well in surviving the war and its horrors predisposed him to gambling, and that caused friction in the home.  Istvan, on the other hand, is stubborn and competitive, with an obsession for soccer that took precedence over school work.  That stubborn determination ended up landing him in the most severe labour camps because he kept trying to escape.

But both of them end up transcending their life experiences and their character flaws to become citizens that Australia can be proud of – and that’s really the ‘take-home’ message of this book.  In celebrating the immigration story of her father and father-in-law, Cheryl Koenig says in her introduction that:

The strength of character portrayed by the many thousands of post-World War Two immigrants to grace our shores – their valour in the face of oppression, fearlessness in travelling half way round the globe and their determination, with a work ethic to match – are just a few of the qualities that generations since will never truly possess.  The naïve may think that these settlers were disadvantaged – arriving in a new country young, alone and without financial assistance.  But it is we, subsequent generations, who are the disadvantaged ones, as we will never know the feeling of triumph and sense of pride that comes from building a new life in a new country, with just one suitcase. (p. ix)

You can buy the book direct from Wild Dingo Press or from Fishpond: With Just One Suitcase

Author: Cheryl Koenig
Title: With Just One Suitcase
Publisher: Wild Dingo Press, 2015
ISBN: 9780987178589
Review copy courtesy of Wild Dingo Press


Responses

  1. Timely book and I love the publishers name that is such a catchy name

    Like

    • Hi Stu, thanks for dropping by:)
      Yes, it’s a beaut Aussie name, for a publisher committed to spruiking distinctive Aussie voices!

      Like


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