Her Life

My Mother

Our mother, Rachel, was a vivacious and tenacious woman, who made friends easily and had complete love for her family.

She was a devoted and loving wife to my father, Martin, for over 62 years, till his death just over four years ago.

She was also a devoted and loving mother to Peter, Chelly and me, mother-in-law to Peter’s wife, Margaret who died in 2011, and my wife Becca, and she also warmly welcomed Rick into Chelly’s life.

She had 4 grandchildren, being Oma to: Chrystal & Jocelyn, and Matt & Emily.  And of course, she was especially proud and loving of Breanna, her first and only great-grandchild.

I’d like you to get to know Rachel a bit better and to see what a remarkable woman she was.

Rachel was born on 10th March 1933 in Rotterdam, the second child of the marriage between Salomon Doof  (1897-1945) and Maria Christina Janzee (1902-1970), following the birth of their son, Willie, in 1931.  They would go on to have more children: twin boys in 1935, Gerrit, who died shortly after birth and Nathan, who passed away in 2016.  And her sister Marianne (known as Jannie) was born in 1938 and passed away in 2014.

However, in what seems to be a terribly modern relationship these days and what you would now call a blended family, both her parents entered the marriage with pre-existing children.  In her father’s case, he already had 4 children: Barend, Sara, Gre & Hartog, while her mother already had a son, Leo, who died in 2008.

To further blend the family, the Doof family were Jews and the Janzee family were Catholics.  As Orthodox Judaism is matrilineal, ie passed on through the mother’s line, our mother was not considered to be Jewish.  Nevertheless, she loved her father and siblings dearly and identified strongly with her Jewish heritage.

Essentially, the family had been formed in 1930 and the years leading up to World War 2.  The Netherlands was then soon occupied by the invading Nazi forces and became unsafe for Jews.  Sadly, her father and three of his original children were arrested, sent to a prison camp and sentenced to die in a gas chamber in the final year of the war, 1945.  Our mother, who was only 6 when the war began, and her sister Jannie were sent to lodge with a sympathetic farming family in Denekamp, which is still only a small village, fairly close to the German border, in the final years of the war.  Her mother, a tiny woman with a walking problem, managed to cycle to see her daughters there from time to time.  You can imagine what the paths were like and the bicycle that she rode.

Formal education was never really an option for Rachel during the war years or the years just after. So she had very little formal schooling.  But those years did sharpen her street smarts, her tenacity and her survival skills, all of which she put to good use throughout her life.

She went to work in a Gift shop when she was still a young teenager.  She loved all the lovely things that were sold there, and this was also an inspiration for her own way of living as well as her own Gift shop in Australia later on, but you’ll hear more about that from Chelly.

By the time she was 15 or 16, she went to work in the Galak milk factory in Gorinchem, where she was to meet Martin, her husband-to-be, older than her by 6 and a half years.  Whereas she was outgoing he was fairly shy and introverted. Whereas she loved dancing, he had two left feet and moved as gracefully as a plank.  However, something obviously clicked between them.  They became engaged and then married in 1952 – twice!  It’s a Dutch thing.  They needed to have a civil ceremony at the local Town Hall as well as a Church wedding later to follow up.  By the way, Mum was able to make a decent dancer out of Dad over the years.

A little over a year later, children started appearing, first with Peter in 1953 and then me, just 11 months later. Mum was still only 21 years old and had to stay at home to look after the kids.  Many people will be aware that Rotterdam was pretty much flattened during the war and had to be rebuilt.  The four of us occupied the upper floor of a 2 storey terrace house, with a common entrance downstairs.  It was difficult enough to get the kids up and down the stairs, let alone play things and shopping. Our parents didn’t believe that this was a good way to raise a family.

During the 1950s, there was encouragement for the Dutch to migrate to Australia, and the bug bit mum’s side of the family.  Eventually Gre, Leo and Jannie and their families, as well as ourselves came to Australia.  It was all very speculative  and there were no guarantees.  We came without sponsorship or a job for Dad, but he had a letter of introduction and recommendation.  They wanted a better life. 

We left Holland by plane during their summer in 1958 and arrived in Sydney in early August - our winter - and went to the Scheyville Migrant Camp, about 45km north-west of Sydney, where we had a room in an old Nissen Hut.  Shortly after, Dad came to Victoria by train and went to Warrnambool – Dennington actually – and presented his letter of introduction and recommendation at the Nestle’s factory, where in spite of speaking only a few words of English he was given a job as a lab technician, much the same as he had been in Holland.

Mum brought the kids down by train to take up our first accommodation in a musty, dirty, insect-infested beach hut on the Warrnambool foreshore in the middle of a cold, wet miserable winter.  I should mention here that mum was about 5 months pregnant when we left Holland and was not feeling well for most of the journey that took about 4 days with 4 stops.  Not long after, we moved to rented accommodation in town as a severe heatwave moved over Victoria in the summer of 58-59.  Our place didn’t have air-conditioning, not even a ceiling fan. Mum didn’t want us inside the house as the heat was getting to her in her late pregnancy; so she made us go and play in the streets with the kids in the neighbourhood, who were generally a couple of years older than us.  They thought our little sailor suits were a bit odd at first, but they befriended us soon enough and were a great help in our learning English so quickly.

In early 1959, Chelly was born, which was lovely.  I’m not sure if this made things better or worse for mum. Dad wasn’t around that much because he was doing shift-work at Nestle’s for the extra money.  Even when he was home, he was often trying to get some sleep during the day. So far, Mum wasn’t seeing much benefit in having come to Australia for a better life and was feeling homesick and somewhat lonesome.  Still, Mum was tenacious and a fighter and determined to do better.  Within a year or so, we had moved into a flat, mum had started work first as a cleaner/carer with a family, then working in the kitchen at a Golden Fleece service station café, got a driver’s licence and an old Morris Minor, the kind that still had a cold start hand crank and side indicators that flew outwards like wings from the struts between the front and back doors.

Rachel was adamant that we should learn English well if we were going to get on in the new country.  She was actually good at picking up the language, which she did quite quickly.  Of course, she learnt by ear because book-learning was just not her thing.

Not long after that, she got a job as a machinist at the Fletcher Jones factory, where she worked for several years.  With her great appearance, she also did some modelling work for them from time to time.  With her strong work ethic and friendly outgoing nature, she then gained a much sought-after position at the Fletcher Jones shop in town, where she was able to use her retail selling skills from Holland to good effect.  By the early-60s, things were starting to improve and we moved to a new Housing Commission house in West Warrnambool with 3 bedrooms – absolute luxury!

Mum’s love for us was unconditional and there was nothing she would not do to protect us.  While her long work hours meant that we only really had Sundays together – she worked 5½ days at the shop and Saturday afternoons were for shopping and cleaning – when we needed her, she came running. Once, when I had stepped on some broken glass at school on bare feet and had a deep cut that needed stitches, she appeared there almost before I knew it.  She would drop everything and run to her children’s aid. 

Money was generally tight, but we never went hungry and she always encouraged us to take part in activities, even if they cost money.  In my case, it was cricket, football and boy scouts.  Still later, she would borrow money to help me go to university.  While not having much schooling herself, she valued education and wanted a better life for us.

There was nothing that Mum would not do for us if it was within her power, and I thank her for that.  It wasn’t always plain sailing, particularly when she thought I was I getting a little too big for my boots, but that would not last very long.  I owe her a massive debt of gratitude and love her deeply.

Her final 4 or 5 years were quite difficult with the onset and worsening of dementia.  We can only imagine what anxiety, confusion and frustration she was living with as the grip of dementia became tighter.  Short term memory was the first to go and eventually long term memory and the ability to think and speak went too.  But I am sure that, right up to her last days, she knew who we, her children, were.  Such was her fierce love for us.

For her final three years, Mum lived at Victoria By The Park in Elsternwick.  We could hardly be happier with the love and care with which she was treated there by the staff and other residents.  We would like to congratulate and thank them for what they did for Rachel throughout her stay, from her arrival with still mild dementia to her last days when she was unable to recover from her broken hip.

Rachel lived her life the best way she knew how.  She was a fighter and a lover. She leaves a legacy via her family and the way she has touched each of us here today.  Quite simply, she had no regrets!

May you rest in eternal peace!