It was the photos that started it – wonderfully detailed photos of a far away and past world that was yet part of my history. The photos were of family and community life in Palestine and often taken in the town of Tiberias, by the shores of the Sea of Galilee. This is where a large hotel of black stone still stands – the former Hotel Tiberias. In 1904 my great-aunt Frieda Ruff (1884-1972) married the man who built this hotel in 1894, after getting the job of housekeeper there in 1902. After Richard Grossmann’s death in 1916, Frieda took on the management of the now large hotel and ran it with her son until mid-1940. Her brother, my grandfather Alfred Ruff, also moved to the hotel in 1905 and helped to run it. So it was in Tiberias that my father spent his childhood.
The family photos brought the stories and people of my family alive through their outstanding quality and details when I scanned them and was able to see them enlarged on the computer screen. Many changes from the late 1880’s to the end of World War 2 and then to the end of the country of Palestine itself were evident, and personalities came alive in expressions and gestures.
Frieda and Alfred were among the first generation to be born to a group of German settlers in Palestine. Their father had migrated with his family from southwest Germany to Haifa in Palestine in 1873, when he was 18. The family were members of a small German Christian group, the Templers, who had decided to move to the Holy Land and build communities in the original spirit of Christianity. They also aimed to improve life and bring economic prosperity to the Holy Land. Emigration was carefully planned and individuals with the essential skills and trades needed for the success of a pioneering community were the first to be sent. The Templers achieved much over their 75 years in Palestine. The Temple Society Australia is now the largest branch of this Christian group.
Although much of the history of the Templers in Palestine is now being valued and researched in Israel, the emphasis there is on the surviving buildings and their restoration. The lives of individual people, especially relatively “insignificant” ones, such as that of a woman concerned with the daily chores of running a hotel and family, are not as likely to be recognised. This is only natural, as we, the descendants of the Templers, are not living in Israel. During her full life Frieda suffered more great sorrows than many have to bear, but her achievements stood out: a great female role model of stoicism and caring in the face of tragedies. I wanted to honour this woman’s life and write her story down to share with others.
Photographs were one of the precious few things the German families from the Templer settlements in Palestine were allowed to bring with them when most were forcibly transported to Australia by the British Mandate Government in 1941. They were then interned in prison camps in north Victoria until after the end of World War 2. My grandfather and his family were amongst them, but his sister Frieda stayed in Palestine until 1948, when the state of Israel was founded and later ended up in Germany. I often heard Frieda Grossmann spoken about, and she was always very fondly referred to as “Mutterle” (“dear mother”), so I was curious to know more about her.
The discovery of a diary written by Frieda and covering 3 years from March 1939 provided my second impetus to write down this story. A great-grandson of Frieda’s miraculously tracked it down in Israel in 2003 and later kindly sent me a photocopy. The diary starts a few months before the German Templer communities in Palestine were encircled by barbed wire and guarded by the British Mandate authorities, to New Year’s Eve 1942.
I gathered information about Frieda and life in Palestine from interviews with family members and a few others who encountered Frieda as children. Further information came from books and written documents such as Frieda’s daughter’s memoirs, some letters, and from my memories of stories told by my family and by Frieda’s children. Most people spoke to me in German and most documents were in German, so my knowledge of the language allowed me full and immediate access to these resources.
Having spent so many of my hours and days travelling with Frieda in my mind, I did not want to let go and am now working on transcribing all of the surviving diary pages by typing it into the computer and translating the other chapters of my book into German. Family members and others in Germany are keen to read it, and the diary itself is a valuable historical document. It’s been a great journey.