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Surviving Hitler's Berlin

Written by Margot Taylor
on April 26, 2023

In her 93-years Nellie Melba Retirement Village resident Ellen Ubelaker has been many things.

A beloved wife, a successful business owner, a friend to many and a prolific traveler.

But ultimately, she is a survivor.


Ellen was a 9-year-old resident of Berlin when World War Two was declared in 1939.

However, life for Ellen, whose father was Jewish, and mother was Christian (not practising), had already changed drastically a year prior when Hitler’s campaign of terror escalated.

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Ellen's parents Arthur and Lydia Ubelaker.                        


“It was Thursday 10th November, 1938 that I became aware my world would never be the same again,” she said.

On her way to school that day Ellen passed shops with broken windows, Nazi Brownshirts erecting anti-Jewish slogans and a man who had been beaten. By the end of that week 91 Jews had been killed and 30,000 sent to concentration camps.

The events on November 9-10, 1938, would later become known as ‘Kristallnacht’ (The Night of Broken Glass).

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A vandalised shop, Berlin, November 10, 1938.


Until that year, Ellen’s family had avoided ‘Hitler’s Repatriation List’, which transported Jews to concentration camps, due to her mother’s Christianity.

“But my mother was actually approached by the Nazi administration to divorce my father,” Ellen said.

“This she refused to do because it would result in her husband and children being sent to a concentration camp.”

Hours northeast of Berlin, a building next door to the emporium and tannery owned by Ellen’s Jewish grandparents displayed the sign ‘Clothes Shop Next Door is a Jewish Business’.

Her grandmother was imprisoned and released for a large ransom and the promise to emigrate immediately. Upon her release, Ellen’s grandparents sailed to South Africa. They would never return to Germany.

Her father lost his job.

As the Jewish parents of children at her school disappeared, Ellen felt the weight of her family’s secret.

“It was a dictatorship, it was a real dictatorship,” she said.

In late 1938, the family’s plan to emigrate to Cuba was shattered when Hitler closed the borders a week before their voyage.

Trapped in Germany, Ellen and her family moved to Hermsdorf, a semi-rural area, about 15km from Berlin’s city centre.

But, the realities of life under Hitler’s brutal regime were ever-present.

Now forced to wear the Star of David, Ellen’s father, Arthur, did not get a ration card, and the family survived on produce from a small garden.

A textile merchant by trade, Arthur was forced to make ammunition for the Germans.

He would later lose four fingers when a Nazi foreman ignored his warnings that a machine was malfunctioning.

In February 1943, Ellen’s uncle, aunt, and 4 and 8-year-old cousins disappeared. She later learnt they were murdered at Auschwitz.

339829538_1344374879452635_1738774828857764091_n (1) (1) Ellen (far left), with cousins, Dan (right), Ruth, and brother, Manfred.


“They were picked up and taken away,” Ellen said.

“Little did we know what actually happened, because the secret of the concentration camps didn’t come out until long after.”

Arthur was also arrested and taken to Gestapo headquarters. For an unknown reason he was released after a day.

By mid-1943 bombing of Berlin was constant.

While Ellen saw much destruction, a particular event is seared in her memory.

“My maternal grandparents lived in a multi-story building in a densely populated area in south Berlin,” she said.

“During one air raid, when I was staying with them, a 5-storey building opposite them was reduced to rubble.

“About 90 people were in the cellar under that mountain of bricks and mortar, and there was neither the machinery nor manpower available to get them out.

“For about a week, there were sounds from beneath the rubble, then all went quiet.

“This was a truly horrible experience for me.”


Ellen as a teenager.


During 1943 and 1944 a quarter of Berlin’s population were evacuated to rural areas, however Ellen’s family was not protected due to their Jewish heritage.

The relentless bombing of Berlin forced all schools to close, but Ellen completed state school education in a small township on the outskirts of Berlin.

“I would have loved to go to high school but was not allowed to because of my part-Jewish heritage,” she said.

While Allied forces were now gaining the upper hand, life for Ellen became increasingly dire in 1945 when she developed double pneumonia and inflammation of the lungs.

“As there were no ambulances available, my dad carried me on his back to the hospital (20 minutes walk),” Ellen said.

Upon arrival, doctors gave a then unconscious Ellen a 10 per cent chance of survival.

When Ellen was discharged, she weighed just 38kg.

While the main war was nearing an end, Ellen’s recuperation was spent sheltering in her family’s cellar as Soviet Katyusha rockets flew overhead at a rate of 45 per minute for three consecutive days and nights.

When the relentless sound of artillery and rockets finally ended, Russian tanks rolled across the broken remains of Berlin.

On May 1, 1945, Hitler and his wife Eva Braun committed suicide, and six days later Germany surrendered to Britain, USA and Russia.


A Russian flag is raised over Berlin on May 8, 1945.


Ellen and her family lived just a few kilometers east of the Brandenburg Gate, directly in the area that was central to the Russian takeover.

“The only time we had to move was when the Russians came in and they quickly took over our house to use as their local headquarters,” she said.


Russian troops march through the Brandenburg Gate.


Forced to temporarily live with neighbours, Ellen and her family watched on in horror as their house was pillaged and accounts of attacks and rapes by Soviet soldiers spread.

While Hitler’s Reich had fallen, the family endured four years of hardship under Soviet rule.

Tiny food rations and the brutalities of Stalin’s communism further crippled eastern Berlin.

“It was amazing to see how inventive people became in order to survive,” Ellen said.

“For instance, my father went every few weeks to the country, in order to barter with farmers (food for household items).”

But despite rations becoming ever meagre, Ellen and her family set about rebuilding their lives.

In late 1945 Ellen’s mother sold her fur coat so the family could open a small shop selling toiletries acquired on the black market.

The following year Ellen recommenced her education.

“I was sixteen and carefree, and I started enjoying life,” she said.

In 1950 the family emigrated to Australia under the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) scheme.

“We had to sign a two-year contract to work wherever the Australian Government put us,” Ellen said.

“We were also required to sign an official document giving up our German citizenship…”

While things were “very, very hard” for Ellen during her early years in Melbourne, it was during a foray in nursing that she met the person who would change her life forever.

“At the beginning of 1952, one of the nurses talked me into going to a dance hall with her and her Czechoslovakian boyfriend…” she said.

Ellen was ready to leave the dance when the boyfriend spotted his friend, a fellow Czech, named Vojtech (Albert).

“Albert was a linguist in several languages,” Ellen said.

“We couldn’t stand each other when we first met.

“He thought I was arrogant, and I thought he was arrogant.”

But when the pair met again, a love in which they could discuss the traumas of their childhoods, visit every continent in the world, start a business and build a home and rich community of friends in Ferny Creek, bloomed.

337176235_6465850770147437_7944346464114941336_n Albert and Ellen in 1955.


Ellen did not return to Germany until 1991.

After forty years she still knew her way around, and in some ways, it was like a homecoming.

“Whether that was a good thing or not, I don’t know,” she said.

“I still had a memory of the Germans from when I lived there, and I had to resign myself to the fact they were a different generation.”

During the 1990s German artist Gunter Demnig placed Stolpersteine (brass plates) at the home in which Ellen lived, and from which her relatives were taken to Auschwitz.


Stolpersteine commemorating Ellen's family and other household members.


More than 75,000 Stolpersteine have been laid at the last freely chosen residences of victims of the Holocaust.

“That really meant a lot to me,” Ellen said.

In 2009, following 55 years of marriage, Ellen lost the man who helped to close the chapter on the horrors of her youth.

Her family’s survival against all odds and her rich and happy life in Australia culminated in the 2014 publication of the book ‘The Unbelonger’.

Over the course of six months Ellen and her long-time friend Brian Wynn, a former technical and scientific writer and editor, recorded her story.

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Ellen with Shirley and Brian Wynn.


While her experiences in Germany felt like a lifetime ago, she still thought of them often.

“It’s unbelievable when you think about it," she said.

"My grandfather was a cavalry officer in the German Army and it ended up with a dictatorship that wanted to put him in a concentration camp.

“But because of Albert, my parents, travel, friends, my business, I’ve had a good life.”

She believed it was more important than ever to talk about the atrocities of dictatorships.

“We cannot forget, and we must not forget,” she said.

“Because it happened, and it is still happening.”


With sincere thanks to Ellen Ubelaker and Brian Wynn, whose book ‘The Unbelonger’, provided much of the background for this article.

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