When 13 year-old Rob Davids migrated to Australia from Holland almost 60 years ago, he didn’t realise his most treasured possession – a pair of 1930s wooden ice skates – would come to symbolise his expectations and misconceptions about the new country he would call home.
These skates are on display in the museum’s New Acquisitions Case and help tell a fascinating story of persecution, exile, dislocation, lost hopes and new beginnings.
Rob migrated to Australia with his mother and brothers onboard the liner Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, which arrived at No 7 Wharf Pyrmont in September 1952. They were joining Rob’s father David, who was already living in Australia. The Davids family planned a new life in Australia after many years of dislocation.
During the German occupation of Holland (now The Netherlands) David, who was Jewish, divorced his wife Maria van Rijn in 1942 to protect her from Nazi persecution. David was smuggled across the English Channel in a small fishing boat where he worked for the Dutch government in exile throughout the war. David was a so-called ‘Engeland vaarder’ and received the Bronze Cross in the Order of Oranje-Nassau from Her Majesty Queen Wilhelmina.
Rob and his brothers stayed with their mother in Holland during the German occupation. During this period Maria was forced to fend for herself and moved several times after the Germans requisitioned her home. In 1942 the family lived in Sant Poort near Harlaam, where Rob later discovered his mother was hiding Jews in her garage. As a child Rob recalls tailing German troops as they marched through the streets; and listening to a British news station on a secret radio concealed in a cupboard at home.
After liberation, David returned to Holland and remarried Maria. The family then lived on a farm in north Holland, before migrating to East Surrey in the UK. In 1949, seeking a better life, they migrated to Jakarta, Indonesia where David tried to establish a small business machines company. When the business failed to take off and political turmoil escalated in the lead up to Indonesian independence, David migrated to Sydney. Maria and her three children returned to Holland, packed up the house, and followed David in 1952. Rob packed his cherished violin and ice skates for the voyage. Rob did not want to go and still has vivid memories of farewelling his grandparents from the wharf in Amsterdam.
In Sydney, David established NSW Business Machines with an office on the third floor of the Strand Arcade. He sold copying machines by OCE and Retoce. Rob remembers spending a few Christmas holidays helping with the business. Later, David started RUF Accounting Systems, which sold double entry accounting systems using carbon paper.
— Story contributed by Kim Tao, curator