Fiji Time: 3:23 PM on Sunday 18 February

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Susan and Karl

Matilda Simmons
Sunday, October 22, 2017

IT'S FUNNY how life can play out sometimes. While it may come full circle for some, for others it's as if fate had something in store for them. Susana Fleischman (nee Savu) counts herself in the latter. The octogenarian has travelled the world, enjoyed a fulfilling life before returning to Fiji in 2014; many years after she migrated with her Jewish husband Karl Fleischman and their two sons to Hawaii in 1987.

It has been a life journey of all sorts but one that has been a blessing to her. We visited the 81-year-old after she sent us an email about a story we wrote on the Draiba Cemetery in Levuka a few Sundays back. The Heritage feature had touched on three distinct Jewish graves on the island. Mrs Fleischman had filled us in on the upkeep of the graves. She revealed the Jewish graves and many others around the country were identified and repaired by her late husband back in the 1980s.

"First of all the Israelis didn't build the railings around the graves in Levuka, this was done by my late husband, Karl Fleischman in association with the Commonwealth Jewish Society of London, England," said Susana. "Lord G Janner, a member of Parliament in London, was the president, of the Commonwealth World Jewish Society of which my late husband was Fiji vice president of the small Jewish community in Fiji during the 1970s and 1980s before we migrated to the

US. "The restoration of all the Jewish graves was done first (headstones were restored to their former glory) and last of all the construction of the railings with the Star of David on top at the entrance to the Jewish section."

What was even more intriguing was the fact that Karl Fleischman was one of the many Jews who escaped the holocaust during World War II in Europe!

It's amazing how one story could uncover so many things. Susana, who hails from Daliconi, in Vanuabalavu in Lau had met Karl when he came to work for the colonial government in 1955. Susana was working as a stenographer for the Fiji government, a position only a few Fijians could attain at the time. The two met and fell in love. After Karl completed his three-year contract in Fiji, he decided to settle down in the islands.

"Apart from his knack of starting up manufacturing companies in the country, Karl was a quiet man who let his work do the talking," said Susana. "He was fond of meticulously recording details about the Jewish families living in Fiji, Tonga and Tuvalu. This documented history is kept at the Jewish Historical Society in Sydney. It also included the stories of i Taukei women who married Jewish men and their descendants."

Susana added her family joined seven Jewish families who were working in Fiji at the time to celebrate Purim on March 6, 1985 in Suva. It was the first such celebration to be held in Fiji. The Purim event commemorates the salvation of the Jewish people in ancient Persia from Haman's plot "to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews, young and old, infants and women, in a single day", as recorded in the book of Esther in the Bible. "My two sons, Karl Jr and Arnold follow the faith, they also know their Fijian heritage and I make sure to remind my five grandchildren as well," said Susana with a smile.

Karl Fleischman

The late Karl Fleischman was born and raised in Hamburg, Germany. According to Susana, he would tell them about how they escaped the tyranny of Hitler back in the 1930s when he was about 13 years old.

"He said it was all thanks to his mother, Helen who kept telling his father they had to leave Germany," said the grandmother of five. "The year was 1937, and as rumours of war escalated, including the hateful speeches Hitler was carrying out, she knew it was now or never. She managed to convince her husband and the family migrated to Australia in 1937, two years before WWII broke out."

During these two years, Karl and his parents raced against time to get visas and papers ready for their other family members who were still stuck in Germany. They would drive two hours to Canberra to get the visas done then get their family members across. The last of their relatives arrived in Australia just two months before World War II started in September 1939. The borders of Germany were closed and no Jews were allowed to leave.

"Karl said they only realised the magnitude of their escape after they read about the massacre of their people back in Germany. About six million Jews perished through torture and the gas chambers. It was horrific," she said quietly.

Interesting meet

It wasn't until the 1980s when Karl met someone from his past. As fate would have it. Between 1983 and 1987 after Israel established its embassy in Canberra, Australia, a diplomat called Yissakhar Ben-Yaacov was tasked with meeting Pacific leaders in the region. When he arrived in Suva to present his Letter of Credentials to the Governor General of Fiji, Ratu Penaia Ganilau, he found out about Karl Fleischman who was known as "the most important Jew in Fiji".

"When the two met they found out they were both the same age, both from Hamburg in Germany and they attended the same Jewish Orthodox School, the Talmud Torah and had the same teacher," Susana said with a laugh.

"This resulted in the ambassador and his wife Priva having dinner at the Fleischman home. That night my husband showed the ambassador a 1933 class photo of Mr Goldstein (their teacher) - they were both in the same class! Yissakhar Ben-Yaacov and his family migrated to Israel in 1933 while Karl moved to Australia in 1937 and both met in Fiji in between 1970-1980. It's just incredible, to think they both escaped the holocaust."

It was also during this period; Jim Ah Koy (a member of Fiji parliament) was made Fiji Honorary Israel Consul on the recommendation of Karl to the Israel Ambassador to Australia. There was no embassy in Fiji and the Israel Ambassador to Australia based in Canberra, also looked after Fiji and other small Pacific Islands.

Susana and her husband started many businesses during their stay in Fiji. Some of these companies are still in operation today but under different ownership. These include Wormald Security, a gas company now known as Oceania Gas Ltd and others.

"Karl was about to go into a joint venture with a Hong Kong company to start a flour mill factory in 1987 but unfortunately the coup struck. He said he didn't want the two boys to be exposed to the events that occurred during the coup like he was in Germany. So we packed up, sold our business and moved to Honolulu, Hawaii," Susana said. "My two boys finished their high school and tertiary education. Karl Jr is a lawyer and Arnold is a doctor. They're both working and have families in the US. I moved back to Fiji in 2014 after the Fiji Government enabled us to obtain a dual citizenship. I'm happy that my two sons still practice the Jewish faith.

"I'm enjoying my life in Fiji. I've had a good life and it has been good. You have to keep active, retirement is nothing," she said with finality.

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