In 1933, German leader Adolf Hitler began excluding Jewish citizens from German society and curtailing their work and freedoms. Not far away in Vienna, Austria, lived sculptor Karl Duldig and his artist/designer wife Slawa, who had met at art school a few years earlier. As Jews, they feared Hitler’s intentions and in 1938 they decided that Karl, who was a top-ranked tennis player, would attend a tournament in Zurich and then send for Slawa and their baby girl, Eva to join him.
As Hitler annexed Austria and began deporting Jews, they secured passage from Switzerland to Singapore. But barely six months in, they were rounded up as ‘German citizens’ and deported to Australia, where they spent two years as ‘enemy aliens’ in an internment camp in rural Victoria as Australian troops fought with the Allies against Hitler.
Eventually released, they settled in St Kilda, Melbourne where they built new lives – Karl as one of Australia’s foremost modern sculptors and Slawa as an artist and teacher. However, happiness was hard-won for the Duldigs, forcibly separated from their former lives and their few remaining family members (most of their family were murdered by German soldiers or died in concentration camps).
A musical about the lives of the Duldigs – Driftwood – was first performed in Melbourne in 2022 and has now come to Sydney before it plans to head to New York. Based largely on the letters and papers of the Duldig family and the reminiscences and experiences of their daughter Eva (now aged 85) it portrays the story of three people displaced from their home, family and friends and forced to flee halfway around the world. An only child whose only few relatives remained in Europe, Eva grew up with a feeling of loneliness that is portrayed in the musical, a visceral sense of the loss of all those relatives she’d never meet, and always a feeling that there should be ‘more’.
Portraying Slawa in Driftwood is her real-life granddaughter, Tania de Jong, a talented soprano who has performed with the Victoria State Opera. The accomplished cast also features Karl (played by Anton Berezin, many of whose own family perished during WWII); Eva (Bridget Costello); Karl’s brother Ignaz (Nelson Gardner) and Slawa’s beloved sister, Rella (Michaela Berger) – both of whom they must leave behind when they flee Europe. A three-piece orchestra (violin, cello and piano) at the side of the stage does a beautiful job performing the moving original score by Anthony Barnhill.
Throughout the play, a backdrop portrays black and white photographs of the real-life people and news footage from that time, along with artistic works by both Slawa and Karl, an excellent device for reminding the audience that the events we are watching are grounded in history, with catastrophic outcomes for so many.
The show effectively conveys the enormous private sorrows and losses suffered not only by the Duldigs but by the millions who were ‘lucky’ enough to escape Hitler’s Europe with their lives. The ‘driftwood’ of the title refers to the Duldig family, who compared themselves to flotsam and jetsam being washed about with no agency over where they ended up.
The set of the Duldig’s cultured, cluttered pre-war apartment complete with books, paintings and sculptures evokes the cultured life they lived, and it gradually transforms into their Australian home when furniture designed by Slawa, along with their own original artworks faithfully hidden by Rella throughout the war, are eventually shipped to them. Indeed, the theme of artistic pursuit and its importance in life is the beating heart of the play. As Eva says at the musical’s conclusion: “Art moves and inspires us, it gives us hope, it gives us meaning.”
Driftwood The Musical
Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, 31 May to 4 June
Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst, 7 to 18 June