Eva Sommer

“Girl Reporter”: Tracking intergenerational trauma through the story of Eva Sommer, the  inaugural winner of Australia’s first national journalism prize

In 1956, Eva Sommer, 22, won the first-ever Walkley Award, Australia’s equivalent of the Pulitzers, for her article about a stowaway with amnesia and no identification papers. Sommer discovered he was 26-year-old Jacob Bresler, a Jewish immigrant and Australian citizen, accomplishing in days what the authorities had failed to do in months. But when she died in 2019 there was no mention of her in the media. I wanted to know why and that led me to where I am now, writing a biography­­ on a courageous, principled woman who struggled with mental illness and the restrictions of a patriarchal, conservative Australian society. 

1956 was an exciting time in Australia. It was the year that television was introduced, and Melbourne hosted the Olympics. And on July 4, Eva Sommer went down to the Sydney docks and learnt that locked behind bars on the Italian Liner, The Surriento, was a man who refused to speak. And because he had no identification papers, he was not allowed to disembark. He’d boarded the ship at Melbourne and already sailed to Italy and back again and now he was “doomed to sail the seas forever.” Eva’s front page story caused a sensation and she returned to the docks to interview the man who said his name was “Jan Wader.” In a dramatic last-minute effort, Eva returned to the docks with three men who claimed to know the stowaway, and she persuaded the captain to delay the ship’s departure. The men said the stowaway’s name was Jacob Bresler, who had been imprisoned by the Nazis in the Buchenwald Concentration Camp when he was 14 years old. Sommer’s reporting meant the authorities could issue him new papers and he could land, and the Sydney Jewish Welfare Association stepped in to help him set up a new life. 

This is where the news story ends. Sommer won her prize. But who was the woman behind the by-line? Eva Marie Sommer was born in Vienna on March 24, 1934. In January 1939, she emigrated with her parents, Frederick and Anna Sommer, to Sydney following the Austrian Anschluss. The family settled in the inner west suburb of Dulwich Hill and Eva spent time in an orphanage. A bright girl, she was accepted to the selective entry girl’s state school: Fort Street High. Eva excelled, especially in English and languages. Then, on New Year’s Day, 1951, when Eva was 16, she found her father hanged in their back shed. The tragedy did not stop her from getting top marks and winning a scholarship to the University of Sydney, an offer she couldn’t take up because she had to earn money to support her family. She eventually got a cadetship at The Sun newspaper, completing it in 16 months instead of the usual four years. When I thought of the places that Eva had come from, it became less of a mystery why she would have had such compassion for a traumatized Holocaust survivor. 

In order to tell Eva’s story, I had to find out more about her family.

Fritz (or Frederick as he would be known in Australia) Sommer was born in the small Austrian town of Reichraming, on May 27, 1902, later moving to Vienna, where he married Anna Tagleicht in 1932. Two years later Eva was born. Fritz was a Professor in Economics and worked as an accountant. On March 13, 1938, Hitler annexed Austria and, in the aftermath of the Kristallnacht pogrom on November 10, Fritz Sommer was imprisoned in Dachau for 21 days along with 6,000 other Austrian Jews. 

Established in 1933, Dachau was one of the first and the longest running concentration camps. Archivist Alex Pearlman explained there were 32,000 documented deaths but thousands more went unrecorded. It was one thing to read Frederick’s immigration file held in Australia’s National Archives that states he suffered “actual persecution” at Dachau. Or to sit in the Dachau archive and be handed a document that tells me he was prisoner number #28844 and was in barrack 28, bed 3. It was quite another to stand in the spot where that barracks once stood. Or to put my hand on the trunk of the tree that grew outside of his barracks. Or to walk across the compound where he was forced to stand for roll call each morning,

Fritz Sommer was released just before Christmas 1938, on the condition that he leave Germany and one month later the Sommers were on a ship to Australia. He was free, but starting a new life in Sydney was not easy and he worked as a potter and labourer before getting work as a book-keeper for a mechanic. His sister, Martha, was murdered at Riga concentration camp in 1942, and his brother, Josef, was also murdered by the Nazis. Of Fritz’s relatives, I confirmed that at least six, including his siblings, four cousins, and an aunt died in the Holocaust. Before I left Melbourne for the IALJS conference in Poland in May last year Frederick Sommer was a shadowy figure whose suicide when she was 16-years-old had robbed his daughter of the university degree and writing career she had dreamt of. Now his role in my story was so much more after just a brief glimpse into the horror that 21 days in Dachau wrought on his life. And then, after the IALJS conference ended, I went to London to interview Martha’s grandson, the only surviving relative I could find of Eva’s, who didn’t know, until I contacted him, of her existence. He provided me with the first photo I had seen of Eva’s father as well as documents that led me to an Austrian scholar who’d written a PhD on the brass factory that Eva’s grandfather had owned, which in turn led me to more of Eva’s relatives in Austria who had a 20-page diary written by Eva’s great-uncle, Anton Sommer. 

But what of Jacob Bresler, the man that Eva wrote about? First of all, Jacob was never in Buchenwald. Discovering this simple fact took months of hard research, which finally led to the town of Piotrykow Kujawski, a town of 4,500 people located 138 kilometres south-west of Warsaw, the place where, on April 10, 1935, Jacob Bresler was born. I visited the town’s library and spoke, through a translator, to 79-year-old Zbigniew Krysiak who told me the Jewish cemetery had been razed and that underneath the town square lay the burnt ruins of Jewish homes. When I asked how the local community reconciled their past he told me they were “indifferent.” Some were sad as their grandfathers were neighbours with the Jews, but for many it was just “the past.” 

Jacob was the son of Abram Bresler, a cantor and a kosher butcher, and Miriam Wendrownik, who was in a mental hospital. He had two brothers and two sisters. According to a statement given by a friend who grew up with him in Piotrykow Kujawksi, Jacob’s family was well respected and they had a domestic servant. But local mayor, Jaroslaw Koltuniak doubted that story.  Koltuniak, an historian who has written a history of the village,  said Abram Bresler did not pay taxes, which meant he was not among the town’s wealthy Jewish residents. Jacob told authorities his father ran a “sock factory” that employed 12 people, including his mother and siblings, but I haven’t been able to verify this. He was, according to those who knew him, “a brilliant young man with a bright future ahead of him.” 

All of this ended when the Nazis invaded the town on 12 September, 1939. By mid-October the Germans had moved all the Jews to a ghetto separated from the rest of the town by barbed wire. In 1939, Jacob escaped to his uncle in Czestochowa, 270 kilometers to the south. But in the Spring of 1940, he was caught in a second round-up by the German Army and taken to the forced labour camp of Klobuck and then, in 1941, to the forced labour camp, Niederkirchen. He worked on roads and on railways until finally, in 1945, a Nazi officer hit him in the knee on a death march to Western Germany. That injury meant he was left behind in Zittau, which was liberated in February 1945. When Jacob returned to his village after the War, he was one of 14 survivors. The remaining Jews, including Jacob’s family, were all rounded up in the Town Square and put on lorries and deported to Chelmno, where they were gassed. 

Jacob left for Munich and, after an operation and a stay in a mental hospital, he emigrated to Melbourne in 1951. There he underwent electric shock treatment. He found work for a time in a factory before stowing away on the Surriento. After Eva’s articles were published, he settled in Sydney but continued to struggle. He never married, nor had children. When he died in 1985 at age 60 of heart failure, his headstone declared he was from an important family from Piotrykow Kujawski, an honour that those from his hometown did not have. Back in his village, the town’s waste transfer centre stands on the site of the old Jewish cemetery. There are no Jews left in the town. The last was a man named Davidski, who survived Auschwitz and died in either 2015 or 2016. I also visited Vienna and the site of Eva’s first home in the Third District. The original building was bombed during the War, but my guide said its central location meant the Sommers were not poor. 

Following my research trip, I was even more convinced that place was a crucial ingredient in telling Eva’s story. I was also galvanized to continue excavating the truth behind her story. My hope is that through my narrative journalism, the reader will glean a sense of the lives of ordinary people, which I believe has the ability to reveal just as much about the human condition than the narratives of the powerful, the survivors. 

Jennifer Martin

Jennifer Martin is a Senior lecturer in Communication, journalism. Deakin University and the author of Emotions and Virtues in Feature Writing: The Alchemy of Creating Prize-Winning Stories (Palgrave, 2021). 

Jennifer Martin

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