A few years ago, Bolton Clarke at home support client Ralph Howard typed two A4 pages of memories from when he was Rolf Hochstim.
Born on 22 April 1918, at the approach of World War II the 19-year-old Jewish Berliner of Polish and Czech extraction joined the tide of refugees seeking sanctuary.
His written memories detail his escape from Nazi-occupied Czechoslavakia, where he’d been living in fear, to Poland, from which Winston Churchill had offered passage to Great Britain.
His spur-of-the-moment first attempt was thwarted by a rabid Gestapo dog Rolf only narrowly managed to escape. His second, hastened by Hitler’s apparent designs on Poland, was similarly fraught: nights in a farmhouse hideaway; lax border guards who, mistaking him for a child, ignored his papers, and vigilant officers who held him in custody, only to kindly provide a police escort to Krakow when Rolf’s story checked out.
“Of all the refugees there, many sick and elderly, only two lots made the selections, most of us young, healthy and with a trade,” he wrote. “We were sad for the others, but so happy to escape. I arrived in London with 10 pounds and little clothing, but somehow felt rich and on top of the world to have the whole life still in front of me.”
He stayed first in a refugee camp, where he honed “schoolboy level” English, and later, after serving in India and occupied Japan, in London, where he his mother and late father’s footsteps into optometry.
“I changed my name to Ralph and surname to Howard,” he explains. “It was easier to spell. But what is a name? You could have a nice one and be rotten.”
He married Mary McGrath and their daughter Susan was born in 1951. The family spent many happy years in London’s Wembley region, where Ralph juggled his successful practice “in a highly competitive field” with his sporting passion.
“I love rowing,” he says, “being out on the open river where it’s not political, it’s only the boat, the water and the waves, which is nice. The moment you leave there’s religion and people who don’t like this one or that one. But that doesn’t matter in sport!”
Ralph joined Banks Rowing Club in 1985, soon after moving to Melbourne with Mary when it became clear that Susan, who’d emigrated years before, wasn’t returning.
They settled in Doncaster beside Eastern Golf Club, where he still lives with support from Susan and regular visits from his Bolton Clarke at home support team.
He remains a Banks stalwart, his contribution to rowing – and the club’s fabric – marked with regular invitations and a commemorative oar for his 100th birthday.
‘I was quite popular in my life,” he says. “To make friends is important. You can’t get by in life just by yourself. Like rowing, you need a team.”
Bolton Clarke’s Centenarian Club celebrates the lives and experiences of centenarian at home support clients, retirement living and residential aged care residents across the organization.