Dora’s Legacy

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On my eleventh birthday he gave me a magnificently detailed die-cast model of a pre-war Mercedes-Benz 770 Cabriolet to add to my collection. I recognized the model as similar to the one pictured in a Life magazine article on the Third Reich, and showed it to him. In all innocence I asked him if he had been “in the war.” No, he replied, “I was too young. I was born in Germany, but we were good Germans, not Nazis. At the age of seventeen, I was a music student conscripted by the SS and forced to work in an underground rocket factory. It was hard work. The overseers were very cruel. We were all glad when the war came to an end.” My father listened intently, and after Mr. Steg left, he reminded us that as a Lancaster bomber pilot in the Royal Air Force, he had bombed German cities; that Mr. Steg had not willingly served Hitler’s Reich; and that now the war was over, it was time to relegate the conflict to the history books. He had always resisted telling us war stories of his own, to my great disappointment.

Of my three sisters, Eileen was Mr. Steg’s favourite student. They became close friends for thirty-seven years. It was mostly from her that I came to learn a great deal more about him and was able to connect all of the early impressions I had of him from personal acquaintance with family anecdotes into a coherent narrative. He had been born in Leipzig, the birthplace of Richard Wagner and the final resting-place of J.S. Bach himself. In November 1944, victorious U.S. troops entered the city and took possession of it. Mr. Steg, by then reunited with his mother after the rocket factory had been put out of commission, remembered a neighbour making pancakes before ducking into the basement to hide from the Americans, only to emerge later to discover that the soldiers had paused in their duties to devour her pancakes.

The Yalta peace treaty later signed by the Allied occupying powers transferred Leipzig and its environs from American to Soviet jurisdiction into what became known as East Germany, a puppet state of the Soviet bloc. An ‘iron curtain’ descended over eastern Europe, and the Cold War began in earnest. The Soviets abolished private enterprise, set up a Stalinist secret police to monitor suspected disaffection among their subject citizenry, and began to grind Communist ideology into their minds, if not hearts. Life was grim, anxiety high, and living standards abysmally low. Mr. Steg worked as a technician for three years repairing and installing projectors for the Russians to show duplicitous propaganda films about Soviet life until, with his mother’s encouragement, he left Leipzig with a travel permit for Uder on the border between the two Germanys, ostensibly to repair a projector there, but in reality to seek a new life on his own in the West, never to return. He was then just out of his teens. He waited behind a hayrick in a field until nightfall, and then crossed the then-unguarded border into the British Zone of Occupation, and made his way unopposed to a reception centre for refugees and displaced persons where he was accepted as another civilian casualty of the chaos and disruption that war brings in its wake. It was here that he discovered that the Australian Government was seeking three hundred unattached able-bodied males too young to have served in the war to work as unskilled labourers wherever and in whatever capacity the authorities wished to place them, probably on the roads or railways. The economy was booming, an adequate labour force was lacking, and even German youth were eligible to apply. Mr. Steg was chosen and was shipped to Melbourne unable to speak a word of English. He worked for two years for the railways of the State of Victoria, living in boarding-houses at night, practising English during the day and even offering music lessons to his Polish landlady in the evening. On the advice of this landlady, he became a trainee X-ray technician. Once qualified, he worked in this capacity in Melbourne and in sun-baked Darwin before receiving the heart-breaking news of his mother’s death in Leipzig. She had been a concert pianist before the war, and had had to endure wartime privation, and then hunger and confinement under the Soviets. Unable to earn a living as a musician, her spirit, Mr. Steg had said mournfully, “wilted and shrivelled” and she had died alone in penury without her son by her side, his guilt at his abandonment of her a burden he was never able to forget. Unable to return to East Germany, he left Australia for Honolulu, where a distant cousin was able to find him a temporary job teaching at a private school. When this ended, he crossed the United States by Greyhound bus in a vain search for permanent employment until he was offered a job as an X-ray technician in a Montreal hospital. This he eventually left for his first love, teaching music, even though this meant financial sacrifice and the end of foreign travel. It was then that we met him.

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Peter was born in England, spent his childhood there and in South America, and taught English for 33 years in Ottawa, Canada. Now retired, he reads and writes voraciously, and travels occasionally with his wife Louise.
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