Monday, August 11, 2008

Cousin Bert The Spirited Self-Sufficient Survivor

One of my wife`s favourite cousins was Bert  Rostkier - a bright handsome guy with a direct dazzling smile and pleasing personality - a little older than her.....he had immigrated from Poland, arriving here about 1936. H e was special to her because the 2 families shared the same house in two separate apartments. and they grew up like sister and brother until Marge`s family arrived her in 1934. In Australia he lived with Marge`s family in Brighton while becoming acclimatised and learning the language etc. before going to the country working with Uncle Sam, Marge`s family who had a clothing and drapery store at Nhill at that time.
A part of his work then consisted of hawking - initially walking ther country roads, getting lifts from farmers where possible to whom he would sell direct and take orders, carrying his tightly-packed suitcases full of sheets, pillow-cases, mens` and womens`clothing and then in time, travelling and delivering stock by car.
World War 2 broke out and Bert was accepted as a volunteer for the Australian Army after successfully cheating them about his age, but  on the way to Europe where he thought he was going the ship was diverted to Singapore where he soon became a prisoner of the Japanese in early 1942 - just a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbour..then spending three and a half years in the hell-hole known as Changi Gaol and partly on the incredibly infamous Burma Railway including months digging the horrible Hell-Fire Pass.
During these harrowing shocking times, not only did he work on the railway but he also attended the numerous needs of  mates worse off than him as they became  extremely under-nourished and ill with malaria, typhoid fever, and terrible tropical diseases - volunteering every spare moment to nurse them thus placing his own health at risk......
Talking of tropical diseases, I`ll never ever forget when, on the first night of his return to Melbourne, sitting around our family dinner table, I asked Bert what illnesses he had suffered and he replied "Ulcers, malaria etc and VD. When he said "VD" the rest of us all looked at him first - then at each other, and those on either side of him moving slightly away........and he continued
" Everyone in the gaol had it!.........." When I enquired "How did you get VD in gaol - there were no women prisoners were there ?" He flashed a big grin saying "Vitamin Deficiency!" Like most returned soldiers he had a real reluctance to share his horror stories - in those days soldiers were not fortunate to receive debriefing and counselling assistance as thry do today...
If fact his extremely distressing experiences had a strong significant impact on his later life - both the years in Malaya and the malicious murder of his mother, sister and other families by the Nazis made him a very strict uncompromising person, but underneath the tough severe exterior there hid the manifestation of a marshmallow - much appreciated by his children and grand children,( his great gandchildren were too young).
When I think of Bert, I`m reminded of Seneca ( 4BC - AD 65) and his statement - "The most inspiring state in the world is to see a man struggling against advertisity"          Cousin Bert certainly did......
                        `till next time, in about 7 - 10 days

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