When Cheryl Koenig (OAM) and her future husband decided to introduce their parents to each other over Christmas drinks in 1975, they could not have anticipated what would happen. Her father Fred and her fiancé’s father, Itsvan led two very different lives growing up in the same small town in Romania. But these boys, one Catholic, the other Jewish, had met on the football field as teenagers during World War II.
Cheryl Koenig tells Paul Brennan on Afternoons, “…these boys were torn apart in this terrible landscape of war and communism”.
They didn't know they both were able to flee and resettle in Australia until their children brought them together.
“I always wanted to tell their story” says Koenig. “Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.” And their story is told in her new book, With Just One Suitcase.
Itsvan’s parents had a small farm and his mother ran a stall selling chickens and geese at the local market. Her father came from a very affluent Jewish family.
“My father grew up with a silver spoon. He didn’t have the same background or experience as Itsvan… In the late 1930s the anti-Semitism started and he was picked on every time he left school. My father learned at the age of 12 or 13 to use his fits and his wits to get out of things.”
The first time they met, the so called Brownshirts, Nazi supporters, were picking on Fred after school. Koenig says Itsvan didn’t like what he saw.
“He decided that he wanted to break up a fight on his way home from school. He hopped off the tram and said ‘leave this guy alone, you’ve got two of us now’”.
Both mad keen soccer players, they would meet again for a match at a local part.
“They kind of said let’s do this again. But soon after Itsvan got sent off to a Russian Gulag and they never played again.”
Fred’s family would have to go into hiding, but they survived the war. The family paid people smugglers to get them into Hungary. The two brothers went first.
“But the people smugglers got caught and shot and it would be six years before my grandparents could get out. My dad and his brother ended up coming to Australia with just one suitcase.”
Itsvan was able to escape the Russian Gulag and immigrate to Australia too.
Then Cheryl and her fiancé Robert brought the families together for Christmas drinks.
“They stood there dumbfounded. My father has a very sharp memory. It was as if he had seen a ghost. He said, I know you, I know you”, Koenig remembers. She says it was as if it was meant to be.
Listen to the full interview with Cheryl Koenig.