Sylvia Cherny was born into a family of paper manufacturers, Brűder Mahler, in Austria. She and her brother lived with their father and a series of nannies, until his tragic death in 1938. Her mother migrated to Australia and remarried.
The children were sheltered from the Nazis by a nanny, then sent to France on a Kindertransport. They spent three years in Rothschild-supported homes, before relatives in the United States were able to arrange passage for them. In 1941 they came to Australia to join their mother and step-father.