“Uncle Borer”: The Accidental Heroes

They saved the lives of complete strangers half a world away.

In July 1938, guests at a dinner party in South Yarra, Australia became the unlikely saviors of a family of complete strangers 9000 miles away. The story began when guest Fred Ashworth pulled out a letter he’d received but couldn’t understand because it was written in German. Fred knew that the evening’s hosts, sisters Beatrice and Clara Dacomb, spoke German, so he asked them to translate the mysterious missive.

The letter was from an Austrian doctor named Johan Glaser who was the only Jewish member of the Vienna Fishing Club. When Austria was annexed by Germany in March 1938, the country’s Jews became a target. Johan was threatened by a fellow member of his club, who told him, “You will be on the first train to Dachau. I guess you’ve got about three to four weeks.”

Johan knew he needed to get his wife and son Walter out of Austria as soon as possible. His hopes rested on a distant uncle who’d moved to Australia years before. All Johan knew about his uncle was his last name – Borer. Johan went to the British Embassy in Vienna and looked up Borer in Australian phone books. Johan found six Borers and wrote to each of them, asking if the recipient was his uncle, and if so, could Uncle Borer please sponsor the family’s move to Australia. He made it clear it was a matter of life and death.

One of the six letters was addressed to “Mr. Borer” at the “Borer and White Ant Extermination Company.” If this was Johan’s Uncle Borer, he apparently owned an ant control company with somebody named White.

Except that Johan misunderstood. Borer and White Ant were Australian insects the pest control company specialized in exterminating. There was nobody named Borer at the company. The letter reached the desk of owner Fred Ashworth, who brought it to the dinner party.

As the Dacomb sisters translated Johan’s letter, the table grew silent. Deeply moved by the Viennese Jew’s desperate plea for help, the group of friends decided to save the Glaser family.

One of the guests, Harold Holt, was a politician on the backbench of Parliament (he would later become Prime Minister of Australia.) Harold called John McEwen, minister for the interior, asking for a permit for Johan and his family. Australia’s immigration policy was very strict, and there were over 20,000 pending applications.

For the Glasers to receive an immigration permit, each member of the family would require a guarantor who would pledge to support the family financially if necessary. John Ashworth, owner of the Borer and White Ant Extermination Company, volunteered to be guarantor for Dr. Glaser, while the German-speaking Dacomb sisters were guarantor for Mrs. Glaser and young Walter.

On August 19, 1938, “Uncle Borer” wrote to his “nephew” in Vienna: “I fully expect your permit to go through any time now. It will probably arrive at the same time as this.” The Glaser family received their permit and traveled to Marseille, where they boarded a ship for Melbourne. The Germans allowed them to take only 50 pounds with them so they had very little money with which to start their new life.

The Glaser family arrived in Melbourne on November 7, 1938 – still believing they were being saved by Johan’s long-lost uncle. The group of dinner party guests stood on the pier with a banner reading, “Welcome Dr. Glaser and family!”

Johan and his family introduced themselves and asked which one was Uncle Borer. The group replied, “We all are!”

Young Walter Glaser is now 89 years old, and he vividly remembers his arrival in Australia. “If we had stayed in Austria there is no question that we would have been wiped out. We would have been killed.”

Johan was overwhelmed with gratitude, and determined not to take money from the benefactors who had already done so much. He started a clothing business, and worked day and night to make it a success. Sadly, Johan Glaser died in 1946 at age 49 from rheumatic fever. Young Walter took over the business. A precocious student who took classes at night, Walter was offered admission to the MBA program at Harvard but turned it down to help his mother.

Walter went on to have a successful career in advertising before returning to university in his 40’s and becoming a psychotherapist. He never forgot the accidental heroes who saved his life, and seized an opportunity to pay it forward while traveling with his wife Cherie in Istanbul in the 1980’s. The Glasers met a young Romanian store clerk who’d been persecuted in his communist homeland for being a devout Catholic. He was working in Turkey while waiting for a visa to a country where he could practice his religion freely.

When Walter and Cherie Glaser returned to Australia, they immediately started the process of sponsoring him as a new immigrant to Australia. For many months they sent him money, until he was able to leave Turkey. Ultimately, the Romanian man settled in Canada, and the Glasers helped him financially until he was self-supporting. When the communist dictator of Romania was executed, they sent their friend $2000 to return to his homeland and pick up the rest of his family. Walter said, “I feel that this is just part and parcel of repeating the cycle of helping. When you have been so incredibly fortunate as my family was, you are beholden to help others to do the same thing.”

For putting themselves on the line to save a family of complete strangers half a world away, we honor “Uncle Borer” as this week’s Thursday Hero. Uncle Borer was: Fred Ashworth, Beatrice and Clara Dacomb, and Harold Holt (among others whose names aren’t known.)

Meet other inspiring heroes!

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Image: Harold Holt and young Walter Glaser

With thanks to Joe Lederman

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