The man who wasn’t there

Hearst, Susan


Searching for Gerhard

Susan Hearst was a baby when her father, Gerhard, suddenly abandoned his wife, Maria, and their daughter. All her life Susan wondered: ‘Who did you love and why wasn’t it me?’ As an adult Susan met her father on two occasions. Although they spoke briefly, Gerhard was nervous and emotionally distant. He never made contact with his daughter, and a few years after their last meeting he died.

Despite her devastating experiences with Gerhard – or maybe because of them – Susan longed to know more about his life and family. Thus began a journey of discovery that yielded untold surprises and unexpected joys. She thrilled at the discovery of cousins from many countries and at the opportunity to bring together family members torn apart by the Holocaust. As a result of making contact with her unknown cousins, she and her husband, Gary, made several memorable trips to countries in Europe where the family lived and to sites where so many of them had perished. Particularly meaningful was the ceremony of laying Stolpersteine (memorial stones) at the apartment building in Berlin where two of the ancestral families had lived before the war.

This is a multifaceted memoir that includes valuable details of how she researched the family, unpublished extracts from the diary of a relative who survived the Holocaust in Germany, memorial testimonies, accounts of her own emotional journey over the years and insightful reflections on her own family, especially the love and respect she had for her mother. It is a book to be treasured not only by family members but by readers everywhere.

Susan’s husband, Gary, was the first to find Gerhard in Sydney and together they met him at an airport, where he handed his daughter the only photos he had of her. Then silence for more years until she ran into him on a Sydney ferry while with his grandson. ‘He trembled and went as white as a sheet,’ but they spoke briefly. A few years later Gerhard died. Even that minimal contact was over.

The first scraps of information about her father inspired a meticulous search for information about her ancestors. Gary is there for support all the way, from the Bikiernicki Forest in Riga, where Gerhard’s parents were murdered, to Warsaw, capital of the country from which her mother’s family fled in 1939 never to return.