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U3A Writing: Adolf Over-the-Road

"When I was nearly fifteen, my grandmother convinced me that the man who lived opposite her in Commercial St Merbein was Adolf Hitler...''

So begins John Leary's tale.

When I was nearly fifteen, my grandmother convinced me that the man who lived opposite her in Commercial St Merbein was Adolf Hitler. It was a theory she had held for months. “Everyone thinks Hitler died in 1945” she would say. ”They like to believe he committed suicide in Berlin just before the Russians captured his underground H.Q. Him and his wife, Eva. But really he had a submarine ready with a loyal crew, and they escaped and made their way to Australia. And he’s not finished yet. He’s busy organising a new Nazi party and one day he’ll start World War three. Sometime soon, if someone doesn’t stop him.”

Usually when I heard this theory I was in the company of my father and he would quickly shut her up.

“Don’t be ridiculous mum,” he would say. “Adolf over the road is harmless. He just misses Germany where he was born so he’s done a few things at his place to remind him of his home country. Lots of migrants do that. But that’s all it is, a sort of homesickness I suppose. You mustn’t make anything else of it. Leave the poor old bugger alone.”

Grandma would smile and say no more. And usually as soon as we were alone dad would take the opportunity to remind me “Don’t encourage her, son. She’s going a bit silly in her old age; a few years ago she had people convinced Robert Menzies was coming to Merbein to marry her. We have to let her go on a bit, because these silly fantasies sort of keep her alive, but all the same we mustn’t encourage her too much with this Hitler thing because If we aren’t careful she’ll do something stupid.''

But this time dad wasn’t there, and I took the bait. I think at age fifteen I was receptive to a conspiracy theory anyway. I was the youngest in a family of high achievers – Dad was President of the Shire, Mum was head sister at the local hospital, my big sister was away at university and doing well. I was a mere schoolboy with no accomplishments to my name. To help prevent WW3 would be an interesting achievement.

So I asked “Can you prove this?”

“Not yet. I just watch carefully like a spy. He doesn’t know I’m onto him so don’t you give me away.”

According to Grandma, Adolf Over-the-Road had come to Merbein soon after World War two. He arrived for the harvest and he lived in Bert Schultz’ pickers’ hut. After the picking he stayed on, working for Bert and other blockies. But after a couple of years he moved into town, rented a house with a large shed and established himself as a house painter.

“That’s what Hitler was before he became Fuhrer — a house painter. He worked hard, I must give him that — Germans always do. And his work was good, probably because he learnt it in Austria. But all the same, he got rich quick, far too quick for a house painter. I expect he had money he stole from the Jews, and somehow he got that out here, that’s how he got so rich.

“Just look at him, the way he struts along the footpath, the way he looks right through you, with his tailored clothes and never a hair out of place. His painting business is just a sham. He’s rich, and he’s evil.

“Just look at that block of land over there, and the monstrosity of a house he built on it. Far too big for a man on his own. He shifted in about fifteen years ago, about the time you were born. Who knows what he’s up to in there, him and his secret visitors? With that enormous fence right round the place and the gates always locked.”

These parts of her story I could agree with. The house was different, a steep roofed wooden place with shutters on tall narrow windows and a two-storey tower with a view down to the river. It was like no other in town, and it had a strange name — Das Kehlsteinhaus. In the back yard there was a tall aerial which Adolf said he used to pick up radio programs “from home” but which Grandma insisted was “used for sending messages to Nazis all over the world”. The fence that surrounded the place was indeed forbidding and the gates were always locked. Adolf seemed a private man, almost a recluse as far as our townsfolk were concerned. His frequent visitors were all from out of town; usually they would arrive after dark, they would park their cars inside the yard and were hardly ever seen at the Club or anywhere else in town. To enforce his privacy he had two fierce, well-trained German shepherds.

“Even so, Grandma, it’s rather hard to believe. Why would Hitler choose Merbein? It’s such a tiny town, so far from anywhere. There’s hardly any Germans living here ...”

“That’s exactly why. Everyone thinks those Nazis who escaped went to South America, to places like Argentina or Uruguay. I reckon that’s why he came here. No one thinks of looking here!”

There was more to grandma’s case than this. She referred to Adolf’s cars — all German made. The main one was a shiny black Mercedes limousine (Diesel powered) which he drove to church in Mildura (the Lutheran church, of course, Adolf was rumoured to be one of its principal benefactors). He drove at high speed, right down the centre of the bitumen, as if he owned the whole road. Each year he would replace this car with a newer, more powerful one. He also had a little Volkswagen he drove around town. His work vehicles were Volkswagens too.

Grandma referred too to his music: “You hear it at night if you walk past the place. He doesn’t seem ever to sleep, so the music goes all night if he’s there on his own. He has a really loud gramophone and he plays German music, Wagner mostly or sometimes Strauss, or sometimes other German composers.

“And he doesn’t like Jews” grandma told me. “He won’t go to Doctor Popp out here in town, and he doesn’t get his medicine at Isaac Lowenstein’s chemist either. Said he was too busy when Isaac wanted the shop painted. It’s the only job he ever knocked back.”

I was impressed, and convinced. Grandma’s case was thorough.

I readily became Grandma’s conspirator, spying on Adolf Over-the-Road as eagerly as she did. I began cultivate reasons to spend time at her house. As she was becoming frail, my parents were pleased to have me visit her. From behind her lace curtains I watched and kept records. With her help I listed his visitors, their descriptions, their cars (make, colour, and registration number), date of arrival and departure etc. We noted when he was absent from the place. The pattern of his absences and the fact that his Mercedes was always filthy when he returned helped us discover that he owned a station property west of Lake Victoria which he visited regularly, usually for periods of five weekdays. “I told you he was too rich for a house-painter” said Grandma. Schoolmates whose father had worked for Adolf told me the place was used as a school camp. Boys from Lutheran schools in Victoria and South Australia went there each year.

This information made Grandma ecstatic. “We’re really on to something now,” she declared. “It’s the Hitler Youth! They’re training those little Lutheran boys to be new Nazis! I’ll bet they spend their time out there training to fight, and Heil Hitlering and things like that. Probably dressed in Nazi uniforms too.”

I began to have visions of grandeur. The world didn’t know it, but it was facing a third world war, and only me and my lovely grandmother could save it! I went about my spying with renewed vigour.

In reference books at the library I discovered that Adolf’s dogs’ names (Maxi and Blondi) were the names Hitler had used for his dogs in Germany. I discovered that “Das Kehlsteinhaus” was German for The Eagle’s Nest, and this had been the name of Hitler’s holiday chalet in Germany. The pictures of Hitler in those books were not exactly like Adolf Over-the-Road, but to my schoolboy’s imagination they were not dissimilar either. I read about Hitler’s death, but all I found was confusion. One story was that Hitler committed suicide in the underground Bunker and his body (along with the body of Eva Braun, whom he had married) was burnt and buried in the garden above the bunker. But there was a contradictory theory, which suggested that the bodies were not those of Hitler and his wife - they were look-alikes used to give Hitler time to escape. The truth was no-one really knew what happened.

I began to be really convinced and my excitement grew daily.

One morning at breakfast the phone rang. After Dad took the call he told my mother and me “That was Roy Hobbs, the copper. He’s about to lock Mum up. She’s been up to something stupid. He wouldn’t say more, but I’ve got to go to her place right away.”

Even though it was a school-day, he asked me to accompany him.

We found a crowd outside Adolf’s house, and Grandma sitting in the front seat of the police vehicle. Someone (obviously Grandma) had painted two swastikas and the words “Hitler go home” on Adolf’s gates. Looking official, Hobbs told dad “The owner’s away. Your mother apparently baited the dogs and broke in last night. When we got here she was searching through the study. Says she’s looking for Nazi material.”

Dad looked quizzically at me, but I said nothing.

“Jack, I know she’s just a silly old lady, but I’ll have to lock her up. Vandalism and attempted burglary, it’s pretty serious stuff. You’d better get a lawyer.”

It took all of Dad’s influence to keep Grandma out of jail. His lawyer argued that she had had a nervous breakdown and required medical help rather than jail. The bail magistrate agreed reluctantly: he committed her to the psychiatric ward at the Mildura Base Hospital. She didn’t go quietly though. She called Dad many many names, accused him of betraying her by sending her to Auschwitz. In the hospital she refused to eat her “poisoned” food. She refused to take her medicine, claiming she didn’t want Doctor Mengele experimenting on her.

My parents would not allow me to visit her; they said I was “a disturbing influence”. I missed her badly. I still do. She pined away in hospital and died in her sleep after only a few weeks there. Dad arranged a quiet funeral for her at the local Catholic Church. He allowed me to attend, obviously he had concluded I could no longer disturb her. Adolf Over-the-Road was not among the mourners...

Less than six months later, Adolf himself died. He rolled his (new) Mercedes at a grid on the Old Renmark Road on his way to the Lake Victoria property.

I wagged school and went to the funeral. The service (in the Lutheran Church in Mildura) was quite militaristic. The mourners were nearly all men; among them I noticed several who had visited Adolf in my spying days. There was one old lady I had never seen before, obviously alone, and very upset. Most of the mourners ignored her.

I asked her name.

“Thank you for asking.” she said in a thick German accent. “My name is Eva. I used to be his wife, a long time ago. He was a great man, a truly great man.”


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