An interview by Judy Vizzari in September 2019.
Life is a journey. It challenges, rewards, disappoints and exults, it offers each of us hardship and success. Today I spoke to a lady who has travelled life's long and adventurous path for these past 83+ years. I was fascinated to hear her story and impressed by her determination to overcome adversity and to savour life. Sometimes we feel bound to share our stories, I'm glad she chose to share hers, through me, with our Nillumbik community U3A.
I'm in Giselle Buller's family room. Through the window, sunlight bounces off green leaves, filters into our space, plays with numerous family photos and blends with Barbara Streisand's keen refrain. We're in a sunny space.
For a moment, Giselle takes me back to my youth – she reminds me of my grandmother who was equally small and had the same quickness of movement and sharpness of gaze. We settle at the kitchen table, me with a mug of weak black tea and her with her story. She has a slight accent which I suspect may be German and I realise that that's it, the link – my nana's father was German too!
"I was born in Berlin in 1936 at the start of spring"
1936 was the year when Germany hosted the Olympic Games in Berlin. It was a time of growth and national pride but also a time of impending war. For Giselle, it was a happy time. Her memories are of her loving mother and father, of family holidays at the seaside and in the forested mountains, of a time when the ripples of war hadn't reached them.
"You don't think about it when you're young"
Giselle was six years old in 1942. Life was changing and initially the changes were exciting. She remembers the fun visits to the basement during air raids, times to be spent with friends. But apartment living in Berlin was becoming increasingly dangerous so her father made the decision to send her and her mother to the country, to near the Prussian border where they could stay safely with relatives in a farmhouse, while he remained in Berlin to manage his furniture business. She recalls the huge crates that he built, "coffin sized" to contain their possessions of clothes, crockery and linen – crates that would accompany them wherever they went.
"I always remember the smell of cooking, bacon cooking, it smelled nice – it's funny what you remember in life"
Eventually the Russian army forged across the shared border and they were once again on the move, on a train, this time in a cattle train. Giselle distinctly remembers absorbing the sights and sounds as she sat with her mother and their crates in the corner of a livestock carriage with large sliding doors. It was, she says, a memorable journey made even more so by the crowds of people – refugees, locals and travellers who flocked to each station and filled every space.
She and her mother disembarked about 100 kilometres out of Berlin. There, Giselle and her mother shared a room with their relatives in a two-storey building while her dad remained working in Berlin – he sometimes visited and continued to provide for them from afar.
"We never discussed the war"
Despite the turmoil in her life, Giselle felt that she was safe, that her family was close and that her life was "fun. We all fitted in, it was lovely." She remembers feeling unsafe only once, when there was "a lot of noise outside and I went to the window. There were people in strange clothes with dogs below. Mum pulled me away and told me not to talk about it. Later I found out that they were prisoners who had been rounded up." That memory has remained clearly impressed in her mind and perhaps evidences the unacknowledged fears of a young child.
War's end in sight
The time came when Giselle, her mother and the boxes were once again ready to move on, this time to board a train bound for West Germany. But, while they stood at the station waiting to board, she clearly remembers her mother saying "no, we're going to catch the train to Berlin". Giselle never understood why, but in early 1945 they had returned to their roots in Berlin.
Initially they stayed at an aunt's suburban summer-house but soon, as the Russians approached, the local women and children were all moved to one big house. Once again, Giselle fitted in, enjoyed the company and "never saw the big picture". She was nine years old and had spent most of her life in transit in a country at war.
On 26th July, 1945 the war ended and Berlin was divided into four sectors – the west administered by the French, British and Americans and the east, by the Russians. Giselle and her mother were living in the Russian sector. Those were, she says, difficult times – she was a teenager in a restrictive regime, but her life was punctuated by occasional day trips to West Berlin and she was able to enjoy good times with relatives there.
Eventually she enrolled into a three year course to become a pharmaceutical clerk, a job which included the study of chemicals and particularly plants which were used in medicine – she found her studies interesting. Giselle's training has, she says, served her well throughout her life.
"I always loved travelling"
Perhaps it was the early family holidays which instilled in Giselle a need to explore, or the journeys that she made with her mother, or even the frequent visits to West Berlin. Or maybe, as she says, she inherited her father's "love of travel and outspoken nature". Whatever the reason, travel is in Giselle's blood and, in 1955, when a pen friend offered her an opportunity to come to distant and unknown Australia, she jumped at the opportunity. She was 19 years old.
With her parents' blessing, she undertook an adventurous five week sea journey on the passenger vessel, Anna Salen, where she was accommodated in a dormitory with many other women and children (although she slept some nights on deck to escape the below-deck atmosphere). Part way down the Suez Canal, she disembarked and travelled by camel and bus to Port Said, where she embarked again.
She says of that dramatic era, "I wasn't mistreated, didn't see any of the atrocities – I was extremely lucky".
A new adventure, a new country
Giselle travelled on board the Anna Salen from Germany to Australia in 1955. Her destination was Melbourne and she was meeting up with a German penfriend who had invited her to visit him at his home in Geelong. Whether she was searching out excitement or escaping from her past life in post-war Germany is unclear, but perhaps travelling to a foreign and distant place presented her with more than adventure, it offered a new beginning.
This was a time of economic growth and national pride in Australia. Victoria was enjoying an influx of migrants to service its industries and the Melbourne Olympic Games were on our calendar. Businesses such as Ford, Pilkington's Glass and Shell were being established in Geelong and opportunities abounded. But, still, it must have seemed so different to Giselle's homeland, both visually and culturally, so far from Berlin.
Added to the culture shock, Giselle was almost immediately faced with a difficult decision. She had understood from her friend that she would be able to work in Australia for a year or two before returning to Europe, but soon she discovered that the law here required her to either marry or return to Europe within a month. Without money she couldn't return home so within weeks she was forced to accept the second option, to marry. A new arrival in a foreign land, no English language, no money, no options – for her these were difficult times.
"But then, I had some wonderful people around me"
Giselle managed to find work as a machinist in a slipper factory but, she says, "it was quite hard, the machines were fast. It was a production line and the thread and needles would break so the work would start to pile up! But people would help me." People, she says, "always helped". She found friends, worked and learnt to speak English.
Of that period, Giselle says, she survived – her tools included determination, enterprise and support, the support of "wonderful" people.
A turning point in the journey
Eventually, Giselle decided to start anew. She left, alone, on a train to Melbourne. Perhaps it was her spirit which enabled her to continue this Australian adventure and to find work in the city as a nurse's aide. She says of that time, "I made my own choices – it's always up to you".
Now in her mid-20s, Giselle worked and discovered a new life. Her training as a pharmaceutical clerk was useful and she was independent. She "wanted to learn all about Australia" and savoured her freedom in Australia's sunny 1950s culture.
Travelling again, "the best time in my life"
By chance, she was offered an opportunity to travel to New Zealand to share a six month working holiday with two young women. It was, she says, the "best time in my young life". Theirs was an adventure – they worked as waitresses and as fruit & tobacco pickers who enjoyed exploring new places, savouring fleeting relationships and learning about life. She could have stayed there, considered it, but eventually decided to return to Australia and to a man who was waiting for her.
It would be easy now to assume that she married, had a family and lived a safe and happy life in Melbourne – but that wasn't the case.
A woman of spirit, of strong convictions and determination
Back in Melbourne she married the man she met at a party in Dandenong before her New Zealand adventure and, in the ensuing years, they had three children. Initially they moved to Sydney, later back to Melbourne in the 1980s, then eventually to Eltham.
When I arrived at Giselle's house I commented on the music she was listening to. It was clear to me that she was emotionally attached to it, an attachment which I learnt stemmed from her experiences and particularly her life with her husband, Kevin, a Production Manager who worked in the plastics industry, but a man with broad interests and an inventive outlook. He was, she says, "a clever man". But he was also a man who encountered disappointments in his work and financial hardship and who suffered a period of depression. He died "too young".
U3A and Mahjong
Mahjong is a Chinese board game developed in the Qing Dynasty. It is a game of tactics for four players. Giselle learnt to play it on holiday in Queensland and was so intrigued that she looked for others to play with. But it seemed there was a serious lack of Mahjong enthusiasts here so, not to be beaten, she talked with Stuart Winstanley and Bill Naim and six years ago they convinced her to organise a U3A group. Although she says she's "no expert", Giselle has been coordinating the group for most of the time since then.
The U3A group now has three tables and 24 members who play at the Courthouse each week plus a 12 member beginners' group on Tuesday mornings.
So many interests
Giselle loves music and especially opera – she's quite excited about joining the Friends of the Opera Society recently. She also includes classical, jazz, big band and "some modern ones" in her list of musical likes. She's a member of our U3A Jazz Appreciation Group too. Music, she says, has provided her with "much pleasure and interest".
Her other interests include gardening, photography, scrapbooking, quilting, swimming, travelling and practising yoga and she is a member of several local clubs. She says, "I love spending time with my family, watching my grandchildren grow and making lives of their own".
A life well lived
Giselle's children have now married and moved away, she's suffered critical illnesses and enjoyed personal victories and it is through her strength, her love of life and her will to make the most of each day that she has endured a range of challenges. Hers is a story perhaps not commonly encountered in Eltham, one starting in pre-war Germany and ending in 21st Century Australia, but it echoes the hardships and accomplishments of so many people of our age and embroiders the fabric of our community.