In September 1939, 20 young Austrian choristers, along with their adult guardians, found themselves suddenly stranded in Perth at the outbreak of war.
The Vienna Mozart Boys’ Choir—established and conducted by Dr Georg Gruber, a former conductor of the famous Vienna Boys’ Choir—had been on the homeward leg of a successful nine-month tour of the USA, New Zealand and Australia, where they had sung to packed houses in large cities and small towns around the country.
Perth was to be their last stop before sailing home to their families. But when the Nazis invaded Poland and war broke out, all commercial voyages to Europe were suddenly cancelled, and the stranded Austrian boys (aged 9–14) became, in effect, enemy aliens, putting them at risk of internment.
Finding himself in a pinch, Dr Gruber recalled a conversation he’d had in Melbourne a few weeks previously. Over cake and lemonade, and with the situation in Europe deteriorating rapidly, Archbishop Daniel Mannix had said to the choir, ‘If you ever find yourself stuck, I would be happy to have you’—a half-joking, almost throw-away invitation, but a moment of grace that would reverberate in the lives of the boys and their guardians, not to mention the music of St Patrick’s Cathedral, for years to come.
Dr Gruber telegrammed the Archbishop, asking if the offer still stood, and received a prompt, positive reply. ‘Come immediately,’ the return telegram read. Mannix was keen to establish a world-class choir at St Patrick’s Cathedral, but for various reasons, previous attempts had all failed. So a cathedral parish in need of a choir came to the rescue of a choir in need of a home.
On their return to Melbourne, the boys were billeted with Catholic families in the cathedral parish. The boys attended Catholic schools and, along with 12 boys from Parade College and St Patrick’s Jesuit College, became the founding members of the St Patrick’s Cathedral Choir, which has continued, in one form or another, to this day, enriching the liturgy of the cathedral immeasurably.
Of course, the trauma of being stuck on the other side of the world, away from home and family at such a young age, had a huge impact on the boys, and their sense of isolation was only exacerbated when Dr Gruber was later interred as a Nazi for the duration of the war. (He was eventually exonerated by a post-war denazification court in Europe.)
Some of the boys adjusted to their new situation better than others, but most retained a strong bond with each other over the years, forged through their shared ordeal. All but two of the boys remained in Australia for the rest of their lives, many of them settling and thriving, but a few struggling to find their place in the world or to shake the distress and heartbreak of this early, formative experience.
Meanwhile, back in Austria, three other boys who were originally supposed to join the choir on tour, but whose plans were scuppered when their voices broke, eventually found themselves fighting for the German Army. All three died on the Russian front.
It goes without saying that the refugee experience is driven by necessity and is never ideal—a fact brought home to us nightly on our television screens as we contemplate the fates of those fleeing war and upheaval in places as far flung as Afghanistan, Ukraine and South Sudan. But the trauma that inevitably accompanies such dislocation might be eased, even momentarily, when—like Archbishop Mannix—we give way to the hospitable impulse, the prompting of the Spirit towards a more generous and welcoming response to the wayfarers among us. We might even find that we are more richly blessed by them than they are by us.
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli26 June 2022
Melbourne Catholic24 June 2022