In 1977, Melbourne nursing sister and mother of four, Sue Course, discovered a box of airmail letters in the dark recesses of a cupboard, written in German.
Her German was rusty, but she could see that most were from her parents and grandparents and were written from the time of the Nazi invasion of Vienna in 1938. The letters revealed a gripping tale of their war and that of their extended family, the stories of those who escaped and eventually resettled across the globe, and their experiences in that process.
The story was fleshed out through the later discovery of diaries and far-flung family members’ war memoirs. Lost Letters from Vienna provides a unique social history and insights into the lives of Sue’s wealthy Viennese Jewish family who, despite the centuries of persecution, managed to develop global businesses and achieve privileged lifestyles, enriched by the magnificent cultural and intellectual life that Vienna had become famous for. For Sue’s family, their entitlement to be remain a part of Viennese society and a citizen of the Austrian nation itself was lost when the Nazis annexed her country.
Sue was just four when she arrived in Australia with her family, too young to appreciate the penurious circumstances of their life at a time where German-speaking foreigners were viewed as ‘enemy aliens’, and where there was little immediate opportunity for non-English-speaking professionals to find respect or employment in their professions. Antipodean life was a far cry from the genteel experience of being raised in Vienna, and this story documents superbly the displacement, dislocation and immense struggle for those who have had to flee their countries, with its destructive consequences: loss of identity, culture, career, family and social networks, or any acknowledgement of value to the host society.
Growing up in suburban Melbourne, Sue became a nurse and activist, leading the 37-year reclamation process of the Darebin Parklands. Sue’s life has had its challenges, but it’s also been long and fulfilled. As one of the last remaining members of the Jewish families born in pre-war Vienna, she’s taken on the mantle of telling her family’s unique story.
Praise for Sue Course and Lost Letters from Vienna:
Lost Letters from Vienna evokes several different epochs: the grand life of wealthy Jewish families in Vienna before the First World War; the coming of the Nazis and the desperate efforts to find a way out; and life as refugee immigrants in Melbourne. Sue Course’s story parallels, in many ways, that of my own family; but by weaving it into candid accounts of her personal life and those of her relatives, she has written a lively and engaging book.
– Peter Singer AC, Professor of Bioethics, Princeton University and University of Melbourne
Sue Course’s book is a unique insight into the discrimination and suffering of generations of Jewish families in Europe in the first half of the 20th century. It is drawn from 86 years of letters between members of her family who fled the Nazis and sought refuge in four continents. As one of the last remaining members of the migrant Jewish families born in pre-war Vienna, Sue tells a refugee family’s story of love, heartbreak, death, amazing escapes, hard work, success, love and ultimately happiness and fulfilment.
– Michael Smith, former editor, The Age
A poignant portrait of vanished places and times, as well as a heart-wrenching testimony to some of the cruelest parts of western history, Lost Letters from Vienna is a book to savour and treasure, also for its author’s clear-eyed candour in telling her family’s tale of persecution and survival. Coarse recreates the past with immediacy and vividness, and tenderness, yet with not even a hint of sentimentality. This is a work of integrity and compassion.
– Lee Kofman, author
Sue Course’s memoir takes us inside the lives of a large wealthy Jewish Austrian family fractured by war and scattered across the globe. Her intimate, moving stories of persecution, poverty, death and survival trace the legacies of war across generations and continents. We are reminded again of the horrors so many millions endured in WWII, as well as the richness of culture and history they brought as refugees to their host countries.
– Professor Katie Holmes, La Trobe University