Alice Nathan: an extraordinary life

/ / General

This is the story of one of Sydney’s best photographers and entrepreneurs. She arrived with nothing but her talent at the age of 25, one of the many who escaped the Nazis’ death camps. Today she is as unknown as she was the day she stepped onto the quay in the place that she, her husband and daughter would come to call home. Her name was Alice Nathan. (She called herself Ali)

Sydney in 1938 was not exactly the cosmopolitan place it believed itself to be. The city was celebrating its 150th birthday and felt its place in the world – or at least the fading British Empire – had been cemented with that year’s Empire Games. Australia had triumphed and the NSW Government funded a documentary to proudly show off Sydney’s credentials as a modern metropolis; its eight-year-old Harbour Bridge, the many buildings under construction, the trams and the people, the hustle and bustle of a million citizens. Sydney, the film confidently declared, was the ‘Empire’s second-greatest white city’ after London.

But for the growing number of Jewish refugees arriving from Europe, it was a provincial backwater – and a long, long way from home. Ali Nathan, her daughter and her husband Hans left Germany in 1938, leaving behind parents and siblings who would never escape the murderous anti-Semitism that had already stripped them of their property, status and nationality. Ali was an accomplished photographer and Hans had a degree in economics, both were also accomplished musicians – so typical of sophisticated Europeans of the era.

The end and the new beginning had come quite suddenly. Ali’s brother Heinz had fled to South Africa with his wife and mother-in-law in 1934, the year Hitler revoked the German citizenship of all Jews. Things had got far worse since then and the Gestapo were beginning to ransack Jewish businesses and homes and corral men into labour camps. Hans tried arranging migration to America first, but the land of the free was refusing to take European Jews at that time.

Then one day, on a casual visit to his father in Paderborn, Hans and all the other Jewish men there were rounded up by the Gestapo and taken 400 kilometres east to Himmler’s new concentration camp in Sachenhausen, just north of Berlin. Sachenhausen would become one of the country’s worst death camps; thousands would die there and thousands more after the Soviets took control of the camp in 1945. Hans had only one opportunity to escape: if he could prove he had a wife and child, he would be given 24 hours to leave the country.

Australia was eagerly taking migrants – and especially white Europeans – all you needed was a deposit. But there were two problems with the plan: Jews had been stripped of valuables, money and work, so they couldn’t pay the £1 deposit and Ali Gartner and Hans Nathan weren’t married. Ali’s six year old daughter, Ursula, was the daughter of another man – Ali’s swimming instructor, with whom she had fallen in love at 17. The Gartners had rejected the union – Mr Lindner was a gentile – and the relationship had ended by the time Ursula was about four. By that time, Lindner had also joined the Nazi party.

When her husband and son were taken by the Gestapo, Hans’ mother called Ali in Berlin. Ali immediately got in touch with her brother Heinz in South Africa, and he paid the deposit and arranged the landing permit for Sydney. As soon as she could Ali travelled to Sachenhausen with papers that declared she would marry Hans and leave. They left Berlin the next day with everything they could carry.

Under the eyes of Himmler’s SS, they took the train 300 kilometres back to Ali’s family home in the port city of Hamburg. There, she failed to convince her mother and sister Lily to leave with them. Waiting on the long wharf at Hamburg for the boat across the English Channel to Southampton, they watched helpless as the SS rummaged through their luggage, the large cases full of everything they had left in the world, and took every last item of use or value – even Ursula’s spectacles.

They got out just in time. November would see the infamous ‘Kristallnacht’ in which Jewish businesses, schools, synagogues and homes across Germany would be systematically smashed, looted and burnt. From that night on, Jews were taken en masse to concentration camps, and within months the country would go to war and Herr Himmler would implement the ‘final solution’ to what the Reich saw as the ‘Jewish problem’. When the camps were liberated at the end of the war, Ali would learn that her mother and sister were two of the six million to perish in the holocaust.

After six weeks in Southampton, in which time Ali managed to get a new pair of glasses for Ursula sent from Hamburg, the Nathans sailed for Australia. When they arrived, the local Jewish community had arranged a shoe-box of a flat for the family in King’s Cross, a tiny place barely big enough for one, let alone three. But it was a place to live, and it was safe. On the Monday morning, Ali walked the half hour down the hill to the George Street offices of Kodak – that year celebrating its golden jubilee – and in passable English talked herself into a job. Every day she would come home, ears ringing and driven half-crazy by her co-workers, who seemed to think she would understand them better if they screamed louder.

As soon as she could afford the equipment and a down payment on the rent, she set up on her own as a portrait photographer. Her first studio was in the basement of the Strand Arcade, and she called it Renee Studios. She quickly expanded to a second in Martin Place and called that one Clarice Boyce – a name that would become known as a photographer to the stars. She did family portraits, weddings and, when the war started, pictures of servicemen in uniform, mementoes for families and sweethearts. She lent the Australian Government her very high-quality and expensive Pentax for war service – nobody is quite sure if she got it back.

Ursula – known as Uschi – started school at William Street Girls where she stood out – not so much because she was the only Jewish girl and had to sit in the corridor during scripture lessons, but more because a huge print of her formal portrait, taken by her mother and hand-coloured, was pinned to the noticeboards on the corners of the streets, advertising Clarice Boyce. Ali’s talent saw her business expand quickly, and by the end of the war she was operating from three city studios with a team of technical staff and colourists. She photographed the visiting stars of stage and screen – Vivien Leigh and her lover, Lawrence Olivier, Dame Nellie Melba – and Clarice Boyce photographs adorned the foyer of the Australia Hotel on Castlereagh Street, the place that anyone who was anyone stayed while in Sydney.

In September, 1942, Hans was required to enlist in the Australian Army Reserve as all Australian refugees were required to do. He was in the Reserve Army in Singleton. The family was living in a mansion on Kambala Road in Bellevue Hill. Life was good. “I had a store credit card for David Jones,” Uschi recalls, “I could spend money!” Hans and Ali played canasta and threw cocktail parties; there was a tennis court, two beautiful Red Setters and an English housekeeper. “She was a terrible cook,” Uschi remembers. “She and mum had arguments all the time.” She doesn’t remember the boys from the house behind, but her mother told her that Frank Packer’s boys, Kerry and Clyde, would sit on the brick wall separating the properties and chat to her in the garden.
The Nathan household was cosmopolitan and lively. They played music together, Hans on violin and Ali on piano. Chopin, Tchaikovsky – strictly classical. Hans was horrified when Uschi learned to play jazz. She remembers Ali bringing home a piano-accordion and learning to play that too. When she left school, Uschi and her mother enrolled together at the Sydney Conservatorium to study piano. “We were friends,” she says. “We grew up together, really.”

But there was a price to pay. When Hans returned from the army – service that included building roads in rural NSW – he seemed to be at a loose and bitter end. His German economics degree wasn’t as transferable as Ali’s photography skills, and Uschi remembers him as a terribly jealous man – jealous of his wife’s success, of her talent and especially of her relationship with Uschi. It wasn’t until after Ali died that Uschi found out that Hans had never adopted her – she had always called him ‘dad’, but he had never formalised the relationship. Ali left her husband three times over the course of the 1940s, Hans always persuading her to return. The last time she swore she would not go back, and she and Uschi moved into a flat in Edgecliff. But she relented, and Hans moved in with them.

Who knows what awful fallout there was between Ali and Hans, forced into a sudden marriage in their mid-twenties effectively on pain of death, torn from their culture and country, their families murdered. Ali’s grandchildren remember her for her work ethic, her insistence on hard graft and careful saving. She worked hard to rebuild her life – and Hans owed her his. He was a man raised with orthodox values, and it seems that a decade after their arrival in Australia, Ali agreed to let Hans take on what he perhaps believed was his rightful role as a husband and father.

In the late 1940s the Ali and Uschi visited Ali’s brother Heinz in South Africa and there 16 year old Uschi met Arthur. Arthur was five years older, and swept her off her feet. Hans seemed very keen to encourage them. Uschi recalls that her parents’ marriage was in a terrible state, and when Arthur proposed Hans immediately gave his consent – she would, of course, have to move to South Africa and he would finally have Ali to himself. “They gave me a huge party in Kings Cross”, Uschi recalls, “even though Arthur was still in Cape Town! Mum hated every minute of it and the next day I left. She came to see me off on the ship and she collapsed on the pier.”

Ali and Hans didn’t go to the wedding. Ali visited when her grandson Gerald was born in 1951 and following this visit, Ali gave birth to a second daughter, 21 years after the first.
Ali stopped working to become a stay-at-home mum to Wendy, in a new house the couple built in St Ives. Wendy knew nothing of the separations, very little about her mother’s photography businesses and never saw her mother play a note of music. She didn’t even know she had an older half-sister in South Africa until she was seven years old. Hans perhaps forbade it, or Ali couldn’t bear to mention her; perhaps a bit of both. She found out only when it became impossible not to tell her – in 1959, when Uschi returned and lived with them for three months while she looked for a place to live in Sydney.

In pursuit of his own entrepreneurial career, Hans had decided to go into business: Furnishings, Bridal and Manchester and brought on a partner who had the experience and knowledge. They didn’t get along very well. Ali sold Clarice Boyce to fund Hans’ venture, and divided the Strand Arcade premises into two, one part Renee Fabrics, the other the photographic studio. When Wendy was 13, Ali joined Hans in the fabrics business part time, working in one of the suburban branches. Her photography business was no more. The heyday of black and white photography had passed; colour had arrived, home cameras were affordable and people were taking their own snaps. She continued photographing as a hobby; Wendy remembers helping her develop photos in the bathroom – her makeshift darkroom.

Wendy recalls that the marriage didn’t seem to improve. Hans and Ali would refuse to speak to each other for weeks on end and Ali would fly off the handle at the slightest thing. She could be blunt and opinionated. Hans was social and generous, but still jealous – even of Ali’s painting, which she took up later in life, painting her grandchildren and European scenes from photographs taken on their trips back to Europe. Trips Ali hated, but Hans enjoyed.

Over the 1960s and 70s Renee Fabrics became a thriving chain of Fabric, Bridal and Manchester stores that would eventually branch out to the suburbs and have shops across Sydney and in Newcastle. In 1978, when he was 65, Hans’s long standing heart problems became life-threatening and he became one of the first people in Australia to have open heart surgery under Doctor Bauer. They froze his body and gave him a triple bypass and twelve more years of life. But Han’s insistence on having things his way began to tell on Renee Fabrics and by the time the 1980s dawned they were struggling. “One of the reasons was that dad wouldn’t listen to people,” recalls Wendy. He particularly wouldn’t listen to Ali.
In the 1980s Hans was offered a million dollars for the business and Ali told him to take the offer – they were in their 70s, and it was time to retire. But Ali’s hard business sense was against Han’s need to be a successful businessman, and he refused. “It was all he had,” Wendy says. “It was such a big thing for him to sell up. To him it would’ve meant he was a failure. Selling for him would’ve been the worst thing in the world, so he hung on.” The business deteriorated further. In a series of well-meaning but fatal decisions, Wendy and her husband at the time tried to take the business forward, but in the end it simply had to be closed down.

And that was that for the empire that Ali began from nothing, over 40 years before. The Australia Hotel had been demolished in 1971 to make way for its owners’ new headquarters – the MLC building – and it’s not known what became of Ali’s celebrity portraits that adorned the foyer. Hans died in 1990, aged 77; Ali outlived him by two decades. In her latter years she was a shrewd bridge player, and after she moved to a retirement village she would have fun on the pokies at the local RSL – usually coming out even or ahead. In the last two years of her life, perhaps the cruellest blow for a talented photographer and artist, she gradually became blind.

Ali Nathan died in 2011 aged 98. Her daughters’ experiences of her as a mother are poles apart, the result of relationships coloured on the one hand by a shared migration and life with a man indifferent to the child that was not his own and on the other by what seems to have been an emotionally costly choice to start a new, more traditional family. Both agree that, either way, she was a resilient, remarkable woman.

At her funeral, her granddaughter quoted Chuck Palahniuk “We all die. The goal is not to live forever; the goal is to create something that will.” Like so many others of her time and circumstance, Ali Nathan rebuilt her life, and that of her family, from nothing, and laid a future for her descendants. More than that, she was an influential businesswoman and celebrity photographer, and one who deserves to be remembered as one of Sydney’s outstanding entrepreneurs – a woman well ahead of her time.