Anna Reich 1920- 2015
By Sylvia Eisman
Article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald
“It’s with equal parts pride and sorrow that I share this tribute to my beloved Nana Anna, who passed away a few years ago. She was an extraordinary woman who lived an equally extraordinary life. One filled with great tragedy and even greater triumph. My mother was asked by The Sydney Morning Herald to share her story, and now I share it with you…” - Kathryn Eisman.
Anna Reich was a survivor of the Holocaust, but was never defined by it. The story of her new, post-Holocaust life really begins with her words “What a wonderful country is Australia.” She was deeply grateful for the freedom to live in a peaceful country, and could hardly believe her eyes when, in 1952, she witnessed Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies arriving at the Ryde Town Hall without bodyguards to make a relaxed speech. Australia offered her opportunity and reward for hard work, and with determined optimism, that is just what she did.
Anna and her husband Edmund (originally Mendel, and affectionately “Mundek”) formed a great team, and began to build a life of optimistic endeavor through long hours, hard work and creative flair.
In 1952 the Anna Reich for Fashion and Quality boutique opened its doors in Eastwood. The upmarket and imported garments which included some by Norman Hartnell, a designer for Queen Elizabeth, were all sold out within 48 hours. This small beginning grew into a chain of successful stores in the Eastwood, Ryde and Hornsby areas and enjoyed the patronage of many high-profile clients.
Anna’s unique fashion sense and style was greatly admired and she brought a modern trend into Australia. Her personal elegance inspired confidence, and certainly contributed to her success in the fashion world.
“She could elevate a simple scarf into a piece of art when she wore it,” granddaughter Kathryn said.
Australia had gained a new citizen who wanted to give back to this country.
Anna’s entrepreneurial spirit changed the Eastwood shopping area when, in 1962, she and Edmund built the Eastwood Arcade and a bridge linking it to the council car park. During all these years of building a business Anna was a devoted caring mother, who made sure that every educational opportunity was available for her children Sylvia and Gregory. Her high standards were the template for her family life as well as her business. She retired from the fashion business in 1976.
Anna’s happy life in Australia might not have turned out this way, save for what she described as a miracle – the remarkable good fortune to come under the care and protection of Oskar Schindler. This was a time when humanity hid its face; where bystanders were the rule, and rescuers the exception.
Her remarkable story of survival, while retaining her humanity and enduring spirit, begins in Krakow, Poland. The younger daughter of Lola and Wolf Lipshutz, she was born on September 14, 1920. Despite Krakow being a center of Jewish spiritual life, Anna enjoyed a secular lifestyle and education. Her aspiration to become a doctor was thwarted by quotas restricting certain groups, including Jews. Dux of her primary school, she went on to high school, studying economics and commerce. In her late teens she persistently door-knocked, and succeeded in obtaining a position as an administrator for a large paper company. Years later she recalled how proud she was to give her first pay packet to her mother, as the family was struggling.
In September 1939 Poland was invaded, and the job was lost. The Krakow-Podgurze ghetto was established by the Nazis, and Anna married Mendel Reich, her childhood sweetheart, in the ghetto in 1940. Anna recalled that on the way to her wedding she was stopped and forced to mend socks for the Nazis, making her late. A couple of years later both were forcibly removed to Krakow’s new concentration camp, Plaszow, a forced labor camp where she worked in the locksmith barrack.
Meanwhile Anna’s mother and sister were sent on a transport to the Treblinka extermination camp, and her grandmother shot in her hospital bed. Anna was only 20, and spent almost 70 years trying to suppress and forget what she called the “inhumanity of the time”.
As the Russian front slowly approached, Plaszow was evacuated of slave labourers in late 1942, and Anna transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There she experienced one of the “miracles” that saved her – while in the gas chamber a window was broken, and her group was withdrawn. Another was a friend giving her four tiny potato balls, which she said gave her the will to live when she had all but given in.
The greatest miracle was being transported to Brunnlitz to work in the munitions factory as one of the fortunate few on Schindler’s list. Anna is not sure how this came about, but he saved her and the generations to follow. Knowing that not one grenade she produced would be effective was satisfying. Edmund was also on the list, coming from the Gross-Rosen concentration camp. They remained in Schindler’s factory until it was liberated by the Russians in April 1945.
Anna and Edmund went to Berlin where there was a large Red Cross agency to search for survivors. Only two aunts had survived. All others from her large extended family had perished, as had Edmund’s family save one brother in Russia, whose survivor’s guilt haunted him all his life.
The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration facilitating refugees to emigrate was also in Berlin. Anna and Edmund stayed in the city until 1950, where their daughter Sylvia was born. That year, with 480 other refugees, they boarded the Castel Bianco, a crowded converted freighter, eventually arriving at Melbourne, then the migrant hostel at Bonegilla, near Albury-Wodonga.
With her husband and daughter unwell, Anna decided that this was not the place to stay and travelled to Sydney, where she found accommodation in Ryde. So began her new life with her small family.
Later in life her generosity of spirit and tireless energy contributed to supporting many charities with fashion parades. One was the Royal Deaf and Blind Children’s Society which honored her with life membership. She was persuaded to compere some of these parades herself, having been told her charming accent would only add to the appeal. She was reluctant, as English was not her first language, but it was a triumph.
Anna enjoyed recognition for her contribution to fashion at the 2012-2013 exhibition Dressing Sydney at the Sydney Jewish Museum. Following this she received so many letters from past clients relating how much they enjoyed and still enjoy wearing the garments she selected so astutely for them. This gave her much joy and satisfaction.
The years following were devoted to family and charities, as now there was time to enjoy her grandchildren. Edmund died in 1992, but Anna continued to embrace life, playing bridge, driving until she was 93 and giving love and wise counsel to her children and grandchildren who were her raison d’etre.
Anna moved into the Montefiore Home in Randwick just before her 92nd birthday, but never one to hand over the reins she continued to manage her business until relatively recently. She had a keen sense of humor and could tell a risqué joke with style. She enjoyed her mobile and iPad, Skyping her grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the US until a day before her passing.
Anna was a dedicated supporter of Jewish causes and Israel throughout her life, but never constrained by racial or religious boundaries. She embraced humanity, always telling her children that people are essentially good.
Anna’s love for her children and grandchildren was her inspiration to thrive, and her belief that life was to be lived to the full are the things that define her. Her love for Australia and its blessings continued all her life.