It was the snow that helped Feliks Ash make his miraculous escape that night, the wispy, white snowflakes that drifted down over the barbed wire fences and brown brick buildings of the Janowska concentration camp in the southern part of Poland (now part of Ukraine). Just before 7pm, Feliks and another Jewish prisoner were in the woods – the barrel of a machine gun trained on them – collecting firewood for the German soldiers huddling inside their barracks in their heavy overcoats. Feliks had performed this task many times before, slowly gaining the trust of the guards.
But time was running out for Feliks and the other prisoners at Janowska: the camp was to be “liquidated” (“Still too many Jews,” they’d heard the SS officers complain), and escape – however remote its likelihood of success – was their only hope. And on this evening, November 19, 1943, the guard was lazy, turning slightly away against the frigid breeze to light his cigarette.
Feliks had been preparing for this moment for weeks. He and his accomplice jumped the guard, killing him with their axe, seizing his rifle and hand grenades. Taking cover near the German barracks, the duo hurled two grenades towards the patrol guards, blowing them to pieces, and when the soldiers raced out, Feliks mowed them down with the semi-automatic rifle he’d taken. In less than three minutes, 59 German soldiers were lying dead in the snow by that single gun.
Their own weapon.
As the camp siren rang out, 150 Jewish prisoners who were in on the plan fled from their barracks and tents, 16 shot before they escaped. The yelling German soldiers, some with growling dogs straining at their leashes, fanned out into the forested darkness. Some time later planes were buzzing overhead, and there was a whoosh of parachutes swooping down. Feliks collapsed in the rubble of a bombed-out house, piling snow over his body until it swallowed him.
For the next eight days and nights, Feliks lay in this frigid tomb, the snow his sole source of sustenance, and a shield from the scent of the tracker dogs. He may have looked like death, but what he called his “smiley” dark brown eyes still shone with life, even though they’d led to beatings by the guards who thought he was laughing at them. These SS thugs, drunk on their own sadism, were forever finding new ways to torture and execute, even organising a prisoners’ orchestra to play while they carried out their atrocities. They called one tune The Death Tango.
Feliks had spent years like this, surviving day by desperate day. The day in 1941 when the Nazis herded his family, among thousands of others, into a ghetto in his then Polish home town of Lviv and set them to work as slave labourers. The day they shot his father in the courtyard of their block of flats. The day they came to take away his mother and younger sister, and when his sister resisted, grabbed her two-year-old by the legs and flung the child against a brick wall. The day he and his young wife each tucked a small vial of cyanide into a seam in their clothing, making a pact to take it when the really “bad day” arrived. The day she ingested the poison within minutes of their arrival at the Janowska camp, dying on the spot. The day his youngest brother was shot after a month in the camp. The day he uncovered his brother’s partly decomposed body after being dragooned into the “Death Brigade” to dig up corpses and burn them in huge piles, as the Nazis set about destroying evidence of their atrocities.
After he finally pulled himself out of his bunker in the snow, Feliks slowly made his way to a Greek Orthodox church about eight kilometres away, where a Polish gardener took him and a couple of other survivors into hiding, covering a lean-to at the back of the church grounds with coal, leaving a small hole in the side for ventilation. After dark the gardener brought them food and medicine. Here, Feliks remained for more than six months, coming out of hiding in mid-1944 when the Russians seized control of nearby Lviv. A free man at last.
After bearing the weight of so much profound loss, moments of lightness followed. That October Feliks walked into a Russian supplies office in Lviv to ask for a job and met the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, called Martha. The couple were married a month later, two Jewish survivors with spines of steel, alone in the world with no family left, finding hope in second marriages. The newlyweds moved to Krakow, where their first child, Helen, was born in 1945, and later to Belgium, where they lived for two years before migrating to Australia in March 1949, wanting to get as far away from Europe as possible.
Martha, who also grew up in Poland, in the picture-postcard town of Zolochiv (now part of Ukraine), had also been a victim of barbaric hate. She’d lost her mother and her young husband in the same week in 1941, her husband shot right in front of her in a police courtyard by the Nazis; her mother herded into the grounds of a local castle, where she was shot along with hundreds of others, surviving for some hours with a bullet in her leg, sitting there in shock among a pile of bodies, sifting the dirt through her fingers (so Martha heard from a witness).
Ultimately, Martha’s blonde hair and blue eyes saved her; because she didn’t look Jewish, she was able to obtain forged papers through some non-Jewish friends and live in hiding until the war ended. The couple built a happy and prosperous new life in Australia: Feliks running a successful clothing and swimwear company in inner-city Melbourne, which attracted glowing stories in Melbourne’s press, while Martha became a respected local artist. Their second daughter, Eve, was born in 1951, and the two girls enjoyed a happy, stable childhood.
Feliks remained an unsung hero of Janowska, in large part because he didn’t want to re-enter the darkness by telling his tale. He turned down a request to testify at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946, and also later at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a principal architect of the so-called “Final Solution” (exterminating the Jewish race) in Israel in 1961. One of Feliks’s fellow inmates at Janowska, Leon Wells, who was 16 when he was trucked in to the concentration camp, gave harrowing testimony at Eichmann’s trial, and went on to write The Janowska Road, widely considered one of the most significant accounts of the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust. Feliks calculated that of the 134 people who made it out of the Janowska camp that bleak November night, only 13 survived until liberation (out of a complex containing at least several thousand prisoners at any one time).
Forced labour in Janowska concentration camp.
Feliks didn’t talk much about the Holocaust to his daughters while they were growing up, certainly not about his role in one of the very rare escapes by Jews from a concentration camp. But in 1980, when Helen was 35 and Eve 29, he finally recounted his story in a TV documentary called Proud to Live, televised on SBS, which contained interviews with Holocaust survivors living in Australia.
Feliks only made it through the first half of his interview before calling it quits, overcome with emotion. Reflecting on his legacy, he declared:
“What’s the good of me being the survivor and coming to my children and saying that I am a hero? Of what? Of circumstances? What’s the good of them saying that my father was that and that …?”
Feliks had his first heart attack only a year or so later, and died in 1985, aged 73. The much adored father and husband was gone, but younger daughter Eve was left with a couple of big questions about her Jewish heritage, questions that had been nagging her since her teens. The psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas called this “the unthought known”– what we feel deep inside but can’t fully process. While Eve’s older sister Helen wholeheartedly embraced her Judaism, and relished her European heritage, Eve was an atheist and felt as Aussie as Vegemite.
The two sisters also looked nothing alike, leading Eve to long suspect they may be the product of different fathers. But in the late 1980s, after her father’s death, when Eve flatly asked her mother whether she’d had any affairs during her marriage, Martha skirted the question. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she scoffed.
It took more than a decade after her mother’s death in 1996 for Eve to learn the truth.
The Ashs at home in Melbourne’s Murrumbeena in the 1950s (Eve at bottom right).Credit:Courtesy of Eve Ash
Eve Ash is sitting at a small table in the stately lower bar of the City Tattersalls Club in Sydney. It’s quiet and civilised here, amid the interior’s maple columns, Chesterfields and clinking crockery, and Eve, with her bright scarlet framed glasses and tousled brown hair, looks totally at ease. It’s a universe away from the horrors of the Holocaust. “Dad’s family, Mum’s family – they were all wiped out. About 80 people,” recalls Eve, alternating between sips of a black coffee and sparkling mineral water. “Growing up, we had no aunties or uncles, no grandparents, to visit.”
Despite all Feliks and Martha had been through, the enormity of their loss, neither displayed the mood swings or bouts of depression typical of trauma survivors, she says. If they were battling demons, neither exposed their emotional wounds to their two children. “My father was a very gentle man, and extremely encouraging to us kids,” recalls Eve. “He avoided discussing the past, but he did suffer these incredible headaches, where he would get up, say he needed some air, and go for a walk around the block.”
In his television interview of 1980, Feliks was clearly suffering from some degree of survivor guilt. “There were no Ashs left [after World War II] … Now there are a few Ashs …” he says with a glint in his eye, referring to his children.
Indeed, Eve and her older sister Helen enjoyed a happy, privileged upbringing. Their mother threw birthday parties for the girls and their friends, fancy dress parties for the adults, and Martha faithfully recorded the family’s local and overseas holidays on her Super 8 camera, an interest in documenting lives – and visual storytelling – that Eve inherited. In the fullness of time, it was a single scene from one of Martha’s home movies that would yield up a family truth Eve had long suspected.
Eve, who is 68, has spent the past 40 years working as a psychologist and multi-award-winning documentary filmmaker, telling other people’s stories – most recently, the 2019 TV miniseries Undercurrent, about the case of Sue Neill-Fraser, convicted of the murder of her husband, radiation physicist Bob Chappell, on a yacht off Hobart’s Sandy Bay in 2009, in a trial that divided Tasmania and seized the country’s imagination. (Neill-Fraser lodged an appeal against her sentence this August.) But Eve’s most recent documentary is one she began working on part-time 11 years ago, after she received an email from a stranger claiming to be her half-sister.
Ronald "Dixie" Lee in his mid-20s in the late 1940s.
Lest you think Man on the Bus might be unremittingly serious in dealing with subjects like the Holocaust and the family fall-out from latter-day DNA testing, there is a strong thread of humour running throughout; you sense Eve had a damn fine time stitching together the threads of this narrative, which has a soundtrack composed by award-winning Polish-born Australian Cezary Skubiszewski (Red Dog, The Sapphires, Beneath Hill 60) and compelling archival footage.
The protagonist in Man on the Bus is really Eve’s mother, Martha, the more outspoken, glamorous and unapologetically flirtatious of Eve’s parents. While Feliks seemed content to play the hard-working, doting husband, Martha, bored with her suburban life, sought fulfilment in motherhood, her art and batting her eyelids at the occasional handsome man. “Mum and Dad were soul mates, bound by all they had been through, and I don’t think my mother would have ever left my father for another man,” observes Eve.
Dixie and Eve in Tasmania in 2013, researching his family roots. Eve believes her mum would be proud the two of them have bonded “as he was part of her life, too”.Credit:Cesar Salmeron
When she set off more than a decade ago to contact her birth father, whom she learnt was still alive, Eve knew she had to record it all on film, supported by interviews with family members and friends. But it was when she was combing through her mum’s old home movies that she came across a scene that stopped her in her tracks: family friend Ronald “Dixie” Lee, whom she remembered visiting the house when she was young, playing with his toddler son in their front garden. As the camera lingered on Dixie’s face, Eve realised with a thunderbolt that the woman holding the camera – her mother – was in love with this man.
At 83, Dixie was still working full-time as a surveyor when Eve met him in 2008. Captured on camera, their encounter in the food court of a shopping mall in Melbourne’s Werribee is a study in awkwardness and dramatic mutual recognition. She learns her mother and Dixie started chatting on the North Road bus between Clayton and Brighton one sunny afternoon in 1949, and they went on to have an affair that lasted 15 years (the scene of the pair meeting on the bus, and kissing behind a folded-out newspaper, was later recreated for the film).
Eve Ash's film, Man on the Bus, includes a re-enactment of the meeting between Martha Ash and Ronald "Dixie" Lee.
Eve also discovered their trysts included secluded places in public, like behind the brightly coloured bathing sheds at Brighton. She also learnt Dixie, as a surveyor, had named streets – “Martha” and “Eve” – after them.
Does Eve think her father Feliks ever suspected, especially given that Dixie and his then wife and young son were occasional visitors to the Ash house in Murrumbeena as friends? “I really don’t think so,” she answers after a pause. “My mother was very good at keeping secrets and hiding her tracks.”
Has the discovery affected her perception of Feliks as her father? “No, not at all. He’s no less of a hero to me. And he’s my real father, the father who raised me, who loved me. As children you imagine you own your parents, and when you find out much later that one isn’t your biological parent, it’s a reminder they’re just human. You realise this even more when you have children of your own.” (Eve has two adult children.)
Ronald "Dixie" Lee shows Eve Ash the spot behind the bathing sheds at Brighton where Eve Ash was conceived.Credit:Courtesy of Eve Ash
The revelation has strengthened her relationship with her sister (now half-sister) Helen. “We are 200 per cent sisters,” grins Eve. “We have a whole history together.”
And she’s become good friends with Micheline, the half-sister who first contacted her in January 2008 with her suspicions.
It turns out Dixie had 10 children (including two stepchildren) with six different women, so there are family members Eve still hasn’t caught up with. (He was married with two children while having the affair with Eve’s mother.) Over the past decade, Eve has struck up a close friendship with Dixie, who at 95 is now Australia’s oldest full-time land surveyor: they speak at least twice a week on the phone. “We both feel strongly about human rights and fighting injustice,” notes Eve. “Dixie was a great supporter when I and so many others were campaigning for an appeal in the Sue Neill-Fraser case.”
Half-sisters Eve Ash and Micheline first met in January 2008.
Eve doesn’t blame her mother for not telling her the truth, even towards the end of her life. “Mum had two very strong reasons to keep the story hidden. First, her reputation, and second, she wanted me to see Feliks as my dad, even as a memory. What she didn’t count on was contemporary science. But I do think she probably would have been touched by the fact Dixie and I have bonded, as he was a part of her life, too. Mum always said every woman needs a lover, a businessman and a handyman. We are still wondering who the handyman was!”
My mother was very good at keeping secrets and hiding her tracks.
A Melbourne bus formed part of Eve Ash's story.
The historical backdrop and moral lesson of Man on the Bus is ultimately the Holocaust, as told through Feliks Ash’s story. As the distance from the tragic event gets longer, so, too, does it become more pressing to tell stories like her father’s, says Eve. “My dad’s story is very powerful, which is why I felt such a need to document it, but also my mum’s, because she suffered so greatly during the war, too.”
It’s a view echoed by Eddie Tamir, artistic director of the Jewish International Film Festival: “There are just so many stories from that horrific era that continue to be unearthed. But the really encouraging thing is that there is renewed interest among the young. Attendances at the festival have quadrupled in the past eight years, and our core audience used to be a lot older.”
It has taken nearly 75 years for the global Jewish population to recover to near pre-Holocaust levels. In 2015, the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem estimated the global Jewish population at 14.2 million – before World War II, it was 16.5 million. At least six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, near three million in Poland alone. Before his death in 2016, Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, estimated the number of “core” Holocaust survivors had dwindled to around 100,000. The youngest, just babies and toddlers at the time, are now in their mid 70s.
“We’ve had more stories of child survivors coming forward,” notes Sandy Hollis, an education officer at the Sydney Jewish Museum. “We have 35 survivors who come to the Museum and share their stories with visitors. Our oldest is 99.”
But the museum is also preparing – and bracing itself – for the day when there will be no survivors left, by recording all their testimonies in depth, on film and audio. “Our oldest survivors show an enormous strength,” adds Hollis, who has been working in Holocaust education for 30 years. “They’re opening up about things they’ve never spoken about before. Very sadly, I think they’re re-traumatised every time they tell their story, but they’re telling them now out of a real sense of urgency. We provide counselling and support, but it’s very difficult."
As for Eve Ash, she now feels closure for all the doubts and questions she harboured for years. “I feel so proud of both my parents. The were both such real survivors, against incredible odds. They taught me to move forward in life and make every day count, because you don’t know what tomorrow will bring.”
Man on the Bus premieres nationally at the Jewish International Film Festival, which runs from October 23 to November 21.
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