“For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair”.
It seems fitting to recite parts of the Australian national anthem when speaking about University of Queensland graduate, Dr Bert Klug.
Dr Klug’s birthday falls on 26 January – Australia Day. In a few weeks he will be turning 98 years old, which is more than good reason to sing.
However, life has not always been fair for Dr Klug.
Born in the small town of Sered in Slovakia (formerly part of Czechoslovakia) in 1922, Dr Klug has summoned up more courage than one can imagine to survive truly devastating events before crossing the seas to our shores.
His childhood was happy, living at home with his younger sister and parents.
“Appearance-wise, I’m more like my mother, but temperamentally, I think I’m more like my father,” Dr Klug laughs.
“In 1934, at the age of 12, my parents arranged for me to receive my secondary education in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, where I boarded with an elderly lady while attending high school.
“Life was good until 1939 when Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, split the republic and annexed the western part of the country, while allowing the eastern part, Slovakia, to form a separate state. The newly formed state of Slovakia adopted Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitic policies and passed a set of grossly discriminatory laws which deprived the Jewish citizens of the country of all civil rights.
“This was a major problem for me and my family because we were of Jewish origin,” Dr Klug explains.
“One of the new laws excluded Jewish students from all educational facilities, from kindergarten to university. As a result, I was unable to complete my final year of high school.
“Between the onset of World War II in September 1939 and the end of the war in 1945, I suffered multiple harrowing experiences.
"Soon after being excluded from school, I was separated from my parents and placed in a forced labour camp, Hiadel, where I did heavy physical work.
“Subsequently the government adopted a policy of deporting Jewish citizens of Slovakia to extermination camps in Poland and set up a number of concentration camps in various parts of the country, including one camp in my home town, Sered,” Dr Klug recalls.
Dr Klug spent two years in that camp. He was released in 1941 and became a partisan in a failed uprising to overturn the Slovak government.
During this time, Dr Klug’s parents were deported to German concentration camps, where they died.
After the failed uprising, Dr Klug faced potential death on a daily basis as he walked through a forest lonely, homeless and looking for shelter.
Looking at Dr Klug today, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could survive such events and still go on to achieve a successful marriage, career, family and life after starting anew in a different country.
Australia has certainly been the lucky country for Dr Klug.
Throughout Dr Klug’s life random people have regularly appeared and afforded him generous opportunities that would lead him to his better life.
One such person was an English woman who was living in Bratislava when Dr Klug was in high school.
Dr Klug wanted to learn English and convinced his parents to let him take lessons.
“I took to English like a fish to water. I don’t know why I wanted to learn it, I just thought it was a good idea,” Dr Klug recalls.
“I can still remember the first English book I read. It was a thriller called ‘Face in the Night’ by Edgar Wallace.
Learning English fluently before his arrival Down Under would certainly make it easier for Dr Klug to navigate his future island home.
Dr Klug’s liberation from war came in 1945.
“I immediately went to my home in Sered, which had been occupied by strangers, but when they saw me they got out,” Dr Klug recounts.
A few months later Dr Klug was reunited with his future wife Eva, whom he had met in a forced labour camp.
Now that he was back home and with the love of this life, Dr Klug was determined to complete his high school education.
“I was highly motivated to complete my studies, so I did at my former school in Bratislava. I then went to university and completed one year of medical school,” Dr Klug says.
“I had always wanted to do medicine, for some reason that I don’t really understand. I think my mother’s poor health might have been a factor. My mother suffered from a duodenal ulcer and was always in pain.”
In March 1947, Dr Klug and Eva married in Bratislava. Soon after, they decided to leave Slovakia.
“We felt very uncomfortable living in that country because we felt surrounded by people who had witnessed all these horrible events, and so many had been willing helpers of the Nazis in destroying our background,” Dr Klug explains.
Enter another fortuitous event: Dr Klug’s uncle, who had immigrated to Australia before WWII broke out, invited him and Eva to join him in Brisbane.
“When we began the moving process, Eva and I were not married, but by the time the landing permit (now known as a visa) was granted, we were,” Dr Klug explains.
“Eva had to travel to Australia on her maiden name, and we decided that when we arrived we would tell the authorities our story.
“I said to the official, if necessary, we are happy to get married again under Australian law.
“This guy looked at me and said, “Mate, isn’t once enough for everybody?,” Dr Klug laughs.
Dr Klug was keen to continue his medical studies upon arriving in Brisbane. The only problem being he didn’t have any money.
Then another lucky random event: an accountant, who handled the books for his uncle’s business, had a nephew who was a young doctor. This gentleman arranged an interview for Dr Klug with the Dean of The University of Queensland’s Medical School - Professor Errol Solomon Myers.
Within three months of landing in Australia, Dr Klug was enrolled in UQ's medical program.
Dr Klug completed his degree, worked as an intern at the Brisbane General Hospital (now Royal Brisbane), opened a suburban practice in Rainworth, and went to Melbourne to specialise in psychiatry before returning to Brisbane.
Since then, Dr Klug’s middle son, Dr Peter Klug, has completed his medical degree at UQ and is now practicing psychiatry in Sydney, and one of his grandsons is a psychiatric registrar currently mid-way through his psychiatric training program.
“Looking back I can see a whole chain of random events, which have resulted in me being here now,” Dr Klug explains.
“I feel that I have had a good life, except for the Holocaust period and the loss of my family. My life has been good since the end of WWII, particularly my 70-years of marriage to Eva who was a wonderful wife, mother and grandmother.
“I think I have been very lucky to end up in this country.
“I have been able to achieve everything that I wanted in the 71 years that I have lived here. I have met wonderful people.”
On Australia Day, let us all celebrate how lucky we are to live in this country, and send a very happy birthday wish to one mighty inspirational man – Dr Bert Klug.