Not Giving Up
Abdullah Sankari from Sir Joseph Banks High interviews Ilona Abou Zalouf
First Aired on FBi’s – All The Best on January 25th, 2017
A rebel from a young age, Ilona escaped from East Germany after marrying her husband in West Berlin. Branded a traitor, Ilona fought against the brainwashing of the communist regime, and was often called out for questioning authority.
Now living in Bankstown with her husband, Ilona appreciates the freedom we experience in Australia, and the beauty of working hard towards goals and ambitions that you set for yourself.
What is your name?
My name is Ilona Abou-Zolof.
Where were you born, on what date and in what year?
I was born in Germany – the city was called Breslau, 1956.
Describe the place you spent your childhood.
I lived in a little village; there were only single houses. It was after the second World War; there were a lot of Germans that lived in the area – [they] were Polish and they were settling in that little village. We lived there with my grandparents and my parents; we lived in a little house.
Describe a sensory memory from your childhood, for example your favourite meal, or your favourite smell.
My favourite meal… well, I always liked vegetables. I liked potatoes and gravy.
My favourite smell… when I was a child and it was Christmas time. It’s freezing cold outside and you can hear the crackling in the ovens with the chestnuts and cakes and gingerbread. You can’t really fathom it, but it’s still there, today. Christmas time, in the Christmas markets – it’s still there.
Where do you live now?
I live in Bankstown; I’ve been living here for 30 years now.
Does it feel like home?
Yes – it was home, here, the first day I came to Australia. The only thing I miss is Christmas and winter.
What dreams do you have for your future, or what dreams did you have for your future when you were younger?
We had a good life in Germany; we were happy there. But we came here because my husband’s family was here. Germany was divided into two parts – East and West Germany. There was a lot of heartache. I escaped East Germany because my husband was in West Berlin; my family was still living in East Berlin. It was very hard to visit them. So, we came here to have my husband’s family around us.
How did you meet your husband?
He came over from West Berlin to have some ‘fun’. We met at a discotheque.
Do you remember the song that was playing?
I can’t remember, it was in the 70’s – a long time ago! Yeah, but it was good music.
What does strength mean to you?
Strength means not giving up. We all have problems; we all face big problems sometimes and despair. But you don’t give up. You look forward to the future. If you don’t give up, you can work anything out.
What is one of the most difficult things you’ve had to overcome in your life?
After my brother committed suicide – to live. I couldn’t understand why. At that time, I was applying to go from East Germany to West Germany. That was probably the hardest part of my life.
How did that affect you?
It made me very nervous, because I was scared. Living in East Germany, you had no control. I was pregnant with my son and if the police were to come and take my son away from me when I gave birth, I wouldn’t have had any power to fight it. So, the fear of that was really the worst thing that I experienced in my whole life.
How did you turn that into a personal strength?
I didn’t give up. I didn’t give in; even with that fear, I was still fighting when I came home to live with my husband in West Berlin. And I think, because of that, I appreciate everything that I have now. I look back and I think “I don’t regret a day of my life.”
I am content with my life. And even though I had hardship going through it, it was all worth it.
So, you said that you grew up in East Germany and you didn’t have a lot of freedom. What does freedom actually mean to you?
In East Germany, when I was a child and lived in that little village, I didn’t feel [freedom] that much; I didn’t feel like I had freedom. It was when I got older and I started using my own brain – that I started asking questions in school.
The school education was good, but in high school it started getting political and you started training. It was really brain washing. I didn’t believe a lot of the things they said, and a lot of the things that they taught us. And I questioned them. That’s when it started; when I got in trouble. I was a little rebel.
When I lived in East Berlin, you could see people come over from West Berlin – they had the West German money in their hand – and they could go into shops and buy things that we couldn’t buy. It didn’t match up with the things that they taught us – that we are all equal, and things like that. We were locked up. We couldn’t decide if we wanted to go on a trip to West Berlin or not. The government decided that, even when I applied to marry my husband, we were not allowed [to]. So it wasn’t my parents or my husband or me – it was the government who decided that we were not allowed to marry.
So, do you think that things in Germany are equal now?
We have freedom now, but it doesn’t mean that everything is better. It is a hard life, now, in Germany as well – because of the unemployment rate. The borders are all open – which is a good thing. And I think it just takes a certain time for everything to settle – I don’t want it to go back to when we had the borders. I think, in Australia, we have more opportunities to work towards what you want. In Germany, you can work very hard and not get anywhere because everything is very, very expensive. When we came here, both of us started working, my husband and I. We had family to support us [by] looking after our children, and so we built up our own little world. We purchased our first house, we saved up very fast, [and] bought this house. So, it’s more visible to achieve something when you work hard. You have to work hard – you don’t get anything free, anywhere in the world. But [achievement is] more visible here.
Do you see any similarities between here and Germany?
Yes – the lifestyle is very much the same. But, then again, in Australia everybody can create their own lifestyle. There’s so much freedom here in Australia – I hope people know that. Australia is one of the most open-minded countries in the world, even though we have some problems – but that’s everywhere. If you want to go to a church, you can go to a church. If you want to go to a mosque, you can go to a mosque. It’s not like that in every country; its very nice. And that’s what I like about Australia; the diversity of cultures, the diversity of religions, and that everybody can live together.
Growing up in East Germany, you said that people were targeted in a way?
When I was little, I was a happy child. I had a good school education, and the doctors were there, so we were looked after. But the thing was, in East Germany, you were looked after from the day you were born till the day you died. If you were a little outside [their methods] then you got into trouble. People were told, from when they were little, to spy on each other. So, you sat in a restaurant and talked to your friends about something, and you don’t even know if your friends would dob you in. You wouldn’t know if your stepfather would dob you in. Or your neighbours. If they heard something, they might dob you in. Not so much because they’re bad people, but just to get ahead in life – they wanted to become engineers or they wanted to study.
When I left East Germany, my sister and my brother were asked to sign a piece of paper saying they would not have contact with me again. They didn’t sign any papers, so they weren’t allowed to study. They couldn’t go to university.
So why couldn’t they speak to you?
Because I was an enemy – I was living in the West. My brother was even asked if he would shoot me if there was a war between the West and East. He said “no, she’s my sister.”
How did you react to this?
I knew what was going on. And I said to my sister and to my brother, “look, just sign the piece of paper, if you want to study. I don’t want to be the reason you can’t. Then study, and we’ll see what happens.” In 1988, the wall came down, anyway.
So now, where are your brothers and sisters?
My sister came to Australia six years after me. She lives in Wollongong now – she’s very happy. And my brother lives in Lubeck, in the western part of Germany because in the eastern part it’s very hard to find jobs. My Mum’s still in Germany, too.
And how about your Dad?
My father passed away.
From the war, or…?
No, no, he passed away. He drank too much. He had an accident.
Can you please repeat what you just said to me?
In East Germany people would spy on you, and I’m sure that people were spying on me. Because I didn’t make a secret out [the fact] that I wasn’t happy where I was, how they were treating me, and that I wanted to go to West Berlin to live with my husband. So, one morning, when I was about six or seven months pregnant, I came out of my house to go to work and there were gentlemen waiting there, introducing themselves the Stasi – the State Security Police in East Germany. They were, more or less, like the Gestapo in the Nazi time; Hitler’s time. They took me in their car to a place that I didn’t know – it was somewhere in Berlin. They interviewed me all day; they knew everything about me. Absolutely everything. They knew I was a good student when I went to school, that I was awarded many awards because I was the best student in the state, and that my brother committed suicide. They blamed this so-called betrayal on me, and asked me if I cared about how it ‘affected’ my mother. “Well, my mum will be happier if she knows I live with the man who’s the father of my child, instead of being here, on my own, and being scared.” It went on all day, and I didn’t know if I’d come out of there, or if they would lock me up. So, after, I think at five o’clock [pm], they let me go. They called me a cab and let me go home and, yeah, I’ve never heard from them again.
So, does all that make you paranoid about your life here in Australia?
It doesn’t make me paranoid; I think it made me very stubborn. When people came to me, when we were just new in Australia, and rang my doorbell and asked me if I wanted to vote for the communist party, I said “you’re at the wrong door. I know communism doesn’t work because I come from there and it all broke down in the end.” Also, when I get told that I have to join the union or [I] won’t have the job, I’d rather not have the job instead of doing something that I have to do; I won’t be a slave. Even if I do a job for someone and they pay me, I’m still my own person. If I don’t agree with someone, I will not agree only because you pay. I’m not paranoid, I just don’t like certain things. I don’t like, for example, now how people on the radio say “if you see something suspicious, please call this and this.” It’s the same as it was in East Germany; you spy on each other and plant fear of certain things into people. It’s not right. You know, things happen, but we shouldn’t be scared and we shouldn’t be fearful and suspicious of other people all the time. 99% percent of people are still good people – that’s what I believe and I will never change.
Edits by Naveen Krishnasamy
Photo by Christopher Woes